Interview with Naoko Yamano and Michie Nakatani
by Jason Gross (May 1997)
Since seeing them live, I've been fascinated with Shonen Knife. Way before the whole Riot Grrrl thing happened, here were three women making a joyful noise as a rock band. Even though some people may have gotten over on them just because they were Japanese, they're definitely not a novelty. The band started out in the early '80s and they're now doing their most extensive touring ever now, running across the globe.
Sad to say, I didn't meet under ideal circumstances- this was no fault of theirs. Their hotel cancelled their room at the last minute. Also, they had to find a new hotel for the night so drummer Atsuko Yamano had to leave to pack the bags before the interview started. We sat in the back of a deli, trying to talk over a radio that was blasting in the background. Nevertheless, they were very pleasant and agreeable even as I was standing in the way of some quality time they wanted to spend shopping.
Many thanks to IRVING PLAZA and Laura Nordon.
PSF: How has your hometown of Osaka effected you and your music?
NAOKO: Osaka is the second largest city in Japan so we easily get imported record(s) from overseas. I'm very influenced by Amercian and British rock music. Also, I don't listen to much Japanese music. For me, living in Osaka has no influence on my music. There is one big music mainstream scene in Toyko. There is no such mainstream music scene in Osaka. There is only (an) underground music scene in Osaka. Shonen Knife is more like underground or alternative music than mainstream music in Japan.
PSF: What is the mainstream music in Japan like?
NAOKO: It's very different from western rock music. (It's) more sung in Japanese. Many producer(s) make (the) music and (a) cute, beautiful idol singer will sing. It's really plastic- a more controlled music.
PSF: It isn't traditional Japanese music then?
NAOKO: No. It's the traditional Japanese pop scene. Traditional Japanese music is very, very different. It's like folk music or something.
PSF: Before Shonen Knife started, what music were you listening to that made you want to start a band?
NAOKO: The Beatles, The Buzzcocks. My friends told me about the Beatles and I went to buy their music. After I listened to their music, I don't know why but I liked their music so much. After the Beatles, I started to listen to Kiss. Some songs of the Beatles are very rock and some are very pop. But for me, Kiss is very rock. I was influenced by Kiss also. Since then, I started to listen to British new wave bands like the Jam. Some bands have very nice melodies and I've been really influenced by them.
PSF: In Japanese society, women are seen as second-class citizens. You're international rock stars though so do you see yourselves as role models in this regard.
MICHIE: I think it's a very stereotyped idea that women are second-class in Japan. Maybe it's not as good as here (the United States). When I look at my friends and my family, it's no so. But I agree that there are many women who are satisfied to be a house wife, not having a career job. But looking around my friends, they've very independent women. Even for my mother- my father never treats her like that. She's the boss in my house! (laughes)
NAOKO: And there's many chances for women to get good jobs and a career in Japan. So maybe women were second class twenty years ago.
PSF: When Shonen Knife started then, were there other women bands around?
MICHIE: Yes, there were many other female bands around us. Now though, when I look at American bands, there are more and more male bands. The percentage is the same I guess. It hasn't changed so much. Since we're a female band, other male bands try to help and support us and we take advantage of it. (laughes)
PSF: Speaking of that, what did you think of the Shonen Knife tribute album (EVERY BAND HAS A SHONEN KNIFE THAT LOVES THEM)?
MICHIE: It's a WONDERFUL project and we love it! A member of Red Kross and his friends made a project to do a cover album for Shonen Knife. It's just so wonderful that so many other bands, the bands that we love, have songs they did from Shonen Knife. We got fans through that album. We are very honored.
PSF: The first time that you did shows here in the United States was around 1989. How did that come about and what did you think of the experience?
NAOKO: We released our independent album in Japan. One guy came to Japan and bought the album and he began to like Shonen Knife. He asked to released our album in America. (Then) we got an American record deal. People who listened to the album wanted us to come to America for a live show. We went to Los Angeles and had one live show. The experience was very wonderful. I thought we would play at a tiny, 50 people capacity venue. Actually, the people who made the plans for our live show prepared a 500-600 (capacity) place. So many people came to our show, including members of Sonic Youth and Red Kross. During the show, many (people in the) audience singed many of the songs. It was a very good experience.
PSF: Shonen Knife has really toured extensively, especially in the last few years.
MICHIE: We've done many shows in Europe. Recently, we played in Singapore and Hong Kong. We also joined a tour called Big Day Out in New Zealand and Australia. It was also a chance to meet with musicians and other famous people. So it's fun and I wouldn't experience this if I was not playing music. I'm lucky.
PSF: How has Shonen Knife's music changed from when you started out? For instance, when you started, you were singing in Japanese.
NAOKO: I wanted American people to understand our lyrics. But I think my pronounciation is not so good. (ED NOTE: Actually, they speak English better than many Americans I know) My feeling is always the same (about the music). It's always rock, pop. The inside of our mind is very punk.
PSF: A lot of your lyrics talk about food and consumer products. Is that a special interest/obsession?
NAOKO: I made many songs about food more than six or seven years ago. But now, the lyrics have really changed. On BRAND NEW KNIFE, there are songs about my opinion or feeling. I think we are grown up.
PSF: What kind of things would you like to see happen with the band?
NAOKO: That's a tough question! (laughs) I want to find many new things. I want to express our feelings into our music. Something new is very fresh for me. All the time, I've been looking for something new. I can't imagine our future but we want to continue to play nice music and we want to make people happy.
PSF: A lot of performers like to show that they're serious about everything. Your band just seems like you have fun.
NAOKO: I don't like serious bands. Some bands want to sing about politics. They should become a politician. I don't want to listen (to) boring music. I don't need any politics in music. Sometimes the Beatles were singing about some political things but covered with their nice, cynical feelings. Some bands are singing about politics directly or some bands are just singing about love. To me, food is more important than love for living, living life, suspending it, because we are creatures.
MICHIE: (laughs) Love is important to me. But I agree with Naoko's idea regarding politics. There is a way to say something so strongly and directly, but I would rather write something different. I like to have double meanings in our lyrics.
NAOKO: If you are listening to nice music, people will be very happy. And if everyone will be happy, this world will be changed for the better. If people are listening to nice music and being happy, it will be more use than singing about politics.
PSF: What do you think of the Boredoms?
NAOKO: The Boredoms are from our circle. They are friends. They are very good- a nice band.
PSF: You don't think it's a little noiser than Shonen Knife?
NAOKO: Their music isn't just noise- they have a bunch of songs and they are practicing, rehearsing very much for one song. I don't like noise because it is just (bangs a salt shaker on the table) making noise. If people want to make noise, the people don't need to rehearse or practice. (laughs) Anybody can do it. Some musicians say THIS IS ART! (banging her hand on the table). I think they're snobs! But Boredoms is a very good band. I like them.
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