Shortly before their soundcheck at the Doug Fir Lounge, singer/songwriter/guitarist Naoko Yamano, newly minted bassist Ritsuko Taneda (toured with the band in 2007, becoming a bonfire member in 2008), and drummer Etsuko Nakanishi (began touring with the band in 2003, eventually becoming the permanent timekeeper) sat down with QRO during the Portland stop of their Super Group (QRO review) tour. The band talked about the new album, Naoko’s love for The Doobie Brothers and Chicago, their disdain for waka, how easy it can be to read way too much into a Shonen Knife song, and more…
QRO: Are all of you actually from Osaka or some surrounding town?
Naoko Yamano: Yes, I am from Osaka. Ritsuko is also from Osaka, Etsuko is from a town just outside of Osaka.
QRO: And what kind of city is Osaka? Is it a fishing town? A metropolis?
NY: It’s a big city. There is concrete everywhere, lots of big buildings. There is no… green anywhere.
QRO: You mean parks, things like that?
NY: Yes, parks. There are no parks, no places like that to play.
QRO: What kinds of things did you do for fun as a kid?
NY: I did a lot of shopping. We didn’t have big shopping malls like you have here. We had all of these little ones everywhere…
QRO: Like the strip malls we have here?
NY: Yes, they were like strip malls. We would go there and go shopping, get ice creams…
QRO: Ice creams!
QRO: And what were your parents like? What did they do for a living?
NY: My father worked an office job. My mom was a bank manager. Pretty ordinary jobs.
QRO: How did your parents feel about you doing the music thing? What did they see you doing?
NY: My mom and I fought about it some. She did not want me to be a musician. She wanted me to get a bank job. I didn’t want to do it.
QRO: The reason I’m asking all of these questions about your childhood is, was there anything about your childhood you can identify that led you here, doing Shonen Knife for almost 30 years now? When did you know you wanted to do this, and what made you keep doing it?
I wanted to continue that.
QRO: Did you take any lessons? What did you learn how to play in band?
NY: No, I didn’t take guitar lessons. My friend taught me two positions of power chords. And if I remember just one position [motioning hands in the form of a bar chord] and move my left hand up and down and across the frets, I can make any notes, and make any chords. I did take piano lessons for a few years when I was a child.
QRO: You did?
QRO: Can you still play?
NY: No no no. My ability of piano is very bad. But I did learn how to pick up songs by ear from that experience. So I started to write songs.
QRO: What was the first song you learned on guitar?
NY: First song… As Shonen Knife?
QRO: No, what was the first song you, Naoko learned on guitar, before Shonen Knife?
NY: Ummm…. When I was a child, I made a song about the second floor, upstairs of my house. I liked the room upstairs in my house, so I made a song about it. Like… Um… [sings] "Upstairs, ni-kee-aay oh-eee-na", or something like that.
QRO: That’s great!
NY: [continues to sing] "Ni-kee-aaay oh-eee-na!" Ni-kee-aaay is "upstairs", oh-eee-na is "it’s good", so, [sings again] "Upstairs is very good! Upstairs is very good!"
QRO: Did you ever record that?
NY: [laughs] Oh, no no no,
QRO: You guys should!
NY: No, I was just eight or nine years old. It was just something I wrote when I was young.
QRO: So, you were talking about liking the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, and those were bands that were part of the brighter, happier, sometimes funnier splinter of punk rock. But there were also bands with a more serious, like The Clash, I guess The Sex Pistols to a degree, Crass some time later… What made you want to go the path of… happy? Happy and doing pop-ier material, and have you ever given any thought to writing any music with a message?
NY: For me, bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols were more punk attitude. I liked The Ramones because they had good melodies, good melody lines. And for me, listening music should be happy things. I don’t want to listen to political things, or something like that through music.
QRO: On the new record, it seems as though with songs like "Slug" and "Na Na Na", which you’re talking quite a bit about being tired, like maybe you can’t keep doing this. You know, in "Slug", you seem to be talking about feeling like a slug…
NY: No no no. "Slug" is just about an actual experience. My friend has a tiny farm, and she gave me [undecipherable]. And I found a slug. [laughs]
QRO: Ahhhh… okay. Well I read too much into it, then.
NY: It’s very simple. But if people want to expand with their own translations, that’s fine.
QRO: Okay. So you do love what you’re doing. You feel like you’re just going to keep doing it until you fall over? Until you die?
QRO: You have how many albums now?
NY: I think Super Group is the thirtieth album. Plus, we have many singles and compilation albums.
QRO: I noticed that on the cover of Super Group, the outfits you guys are wearing reminded me of the outfits worn by The Brady Bunch in the talent show episode, where they became a band and competed in a talent show.
NY: No, that’s not where it came from. I don’t know much about the Brady Bunch, but a friend of mine made me a copy some episodes. I have seen it; it’s so cute and very fun. I like that kind of music and drama.
QRO: Ritsuko, a friend of mine who plays bass always used to say he liked playing bass because it only has four strings, you only have to play one note at a time, and the frets are far apart, all of which makes it easy to play drunk. What drew you to bass? I’m guessing you started out playing guitar?
[Naoko translates the question to Japanese for Ritsuko. Laughter ensues.]
Ritsuko Taneda [translated through Naoko]: No. I had my own band that I played guitar in. I am a big fan of Shonen Knife. I sent them a demo of my band. At the time, they needed a support bassist. Naoko asked me to be their support bassist. I played bass with the band for a year, went back to my band, then quit my band to play in Shonen Knife full time.
QRO: Etsuko, how did you end up behind a drum kit? You’re so petite!
[Naoko translates again, this time for Etsuko. Etsuko laughs]
Etsuko Nakanishi [translated through Naoko]: I started playing when I was nine. I took drum lessons. My mother let me take piano lessons, but I don’t like to play piano. I like playing drums.
QRO: Akira Kurosawa once said some words to the effect that "there are basically seven different stories, and in the history of film, everyone just makes variations of the same seven stories over and over." If Shonen Knife were a Kurosawa movie, which one would it be?
[Puzzled looks and awkward silence... Then laughter]
NY: I don’t have enough knowledge of movies to answer that question.
QRO: Do any of you guys have a favorite waka (classical Japanese poetry)?
NY: Oh God I don’t even know…
[Naoko drifts into Japanese, talking to Etsuko and Ritsuko]
NY: If someone requested me to make a waka, I can do it, but it’s not actually waka very difficult to make. There are strict rules. You have to pick up seasonal words, and each seasonal words have response words.
QRO: Do you have a favorite waka?
NY: Mmmmm…. No, not really. We had to learn those in school and we hated it.
QRO: Is there any place you like to go or things you like to do when you’re in Portland?
NY: I like the houses around here. They are cute and beautiful. Ritsuko likes to go for bicycle rides here, if we have spare time. I always like to go shopping, so I’ll probably go shopping downtown. I’ve been to the record store… Music Millennium? I like to go there and get CDs if I have time. But tonight, we can’t, because we have to leave here tonight to drive to go to our next show in San Francisco.
QRO: What do you like to listen to when you’re on the tour bus?
NY: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of ‘70s rock like The Doobie Brothers, Chicago…
NY: Yes. I love good vocal harmonies, and they have great harmonies in their songs. We also listen to a lot of ‘70s heavy metal, like Judas Priest (QRO album review), Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath.
Walking into an event with no real expectations of how things might round out, or having one set of expectations how things might round out and to have those expectations either obliterated or decimated can have a pretty binary result. The ensuing surprises that occur can be alternately wonderful, or repelling.
You know who Shone Knife is. Everyone knows who Shone Knife is. Shone Knife has been Shonen Knife much, much longer than someone with a cursory awareness of the band might think. They’ve been doing this since 1982. Nineteen hundred and eighty-two A.D., kids. Reagan was still in office and Black Flag was still a band when they formed. Johnny Thunders once sang, "When I was born I had to spit out a song." Singer/Guitarist Naoko Yamano and her newly minted Knifians, drummer Etsuko Nakanishi (joined in 2005) and bassist Ritsuko Taneda (officially joined last year), did just that. But Yamano didn’t spit it out. She sang it with a smile about food and riding on rockets.
Doing the math, that works out to about 27 years. 27 years, 15 albums, a slew of singles, compilation and soundtrack appearances. One could take the sum total of all criticism written about them in that time and bind it up into something the size of ten Old Testaments. What can be said about a band like Shonen Knife that hasn’t already been said? Yes, they sound like The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, Redd Kross, The Simpletones – if they were female and Japanese and sang with heavy Japanese accents. Yes, they wear lots of day-glo colors and look like the house band in a nightclub scene from insert-your-favorite-Godzilla-movie here, the crazy sidekicks helping the kid that controlled Giant Robot to save the world. Yes, if the framers of the Cartoon Network show Powerpuff Girls had any ground zero for their inspiration, it would have to be Shonen Knife. Yes, as it turns out, if you keep your band together that long, work diligently at your craft to keep things fresh and avoid corporate party and reunion tour purgatory, your band can still be pretty tight and sound pretty darn good. So there’s all that, all of those things you’ve read about them a million times before.
But there were some observations of the unexpected variety that you may not have heard or read. Little things, like if you had to crane your neck over the monitors at the front of the stage to attempt to figure out what kind of set to expect from a band that has the body of work Shonen Knife has, you would find yourself with something of a quandary. They write their set lists out in Japanese. Unless you know Japanese, you’ll not be anticipating the next song. Little things like the smiling. They always smile. Not the kind of spontaneous smile you might see opening acts Explode Into Colors or Panther might flash here and there. This is ear-to-ear grin from the opening chord to "Thank you, goodnight" territory. The kind of smiles you see Chuck Berry smile during a lip-synched performance in one of those old Alan Freed movies from the ‘50s or The Ronettes singing "Be My Baby" on the T.A.M.I. Show. Those ones where you can see the producer or director or choreographer behind the camera shouting, "Smiles, everyone! Smiles!" It’s like that and it isn’t, because this is Shonen Knife and, chalking it up to their culture or to just plain being kind people, there is warmth to it. It feels genuine. They want to smile, and they want you to smile, they just appear to have to work a little at remembering to do it.
Then there are the bigger, nice unexpected surprises, things like the general cadence of a Shonen Knife set. It has a very particular rhythm that no modern American/British/Canadian band – of any musical color, really – can do naturally or recreate. It’s very presentational, in a way many things were in various American entertainment mediums going back to the ‘20s and on through to the mid-late ‘60s or so. When Yamano chats it up between songs, she does it the way Mike Love did in those Beach Boys performances from the early ‘60s, the way Ed Sullivan introduced everything from the dancing bear to The Jefferson Airplane, the way one might imagine Bobby Darrin did it at the Copacabana during his crooner period. It’s polite and rehearsed. It’s… Cute. Yamano doesn’t say things like "this song is about [oblique two to five words here]" in a plain, conversational tone; she doesn’t introduce the next song by mumbling the title into the mic and kicking it off. There are lots of introductions like "And for our next song, we will perform something off of our new record, Super Group. This song is called ‘Super Group’. We hope you like it." When introducing the band, she waits a good beat or two after the applause from the last song, and will then say "Thank you very much. I would like to take this time in our show to introduce to you the other members of the band," and proceed to introduce them with the kind of witty, quaintly stilted introduction Mike Love might have given about one of the Wilson brothers. Then, once again, she would politely segue with another "This song is from our album [insert well known Shonen Knife album here]", take another beat to visually circle with the band to make sure everyone is ready, and then play.
Clearly, Yamano and company have done this for a while and they know what they are doing with this particular cadence, because it works. The audience loves them, they love those quaint, presentational introductions, and they seem to especially love the way that they are doled out with a liberal dose of broken-Englished Japanese accent. Shonen Knife get away with what no other band could ever get away with, because they are Shonen Knife. They are being themselves, and in doing so, offering up the kind of show only their parents or their parents’ parents might have seen. And it works. It is thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.
Keeping in the presentational theme, the band’s set on Tuesday, October 27th at Portland, Oregon’s Doug Fir Lounge was curt and resolute, with only one encore. They played a smattering of material off of Super Group (QRO review), as well as some favorites like "A Map Master" off of Heavy Songs and "Riding On The Rocket" from Let’s Knife. Among the highlights of the set was a new song off of Super Group called "Muddy Bubbles Hell", a monster of a metal jam that included an introduction by Yamano pronouncing her love for Judas Priest (QRO album review) and Black Sabbath. It was heavy, dark, and somehow still managed to be fun, the way only Shonen Knife can make a song fun.
The power trio closed the night by standing in line at the front of the stage, each holding a very tradition Japanese looking banner that said "SHONEN KNIFE OSAKA" over their heads, and took a bow in unison. The Bay City Rollers couldn’t have done it better if they tried.
Prior to taking the stage, another unexpected surprise took place, this one coming in the way of local Portland outfit Explode Into Colors. Much praise has been written about Explode Into Colors in the local rags here in Portland. The Willamette Week declared them 2008′s Band of the Year; they have been interviewed and reviewed many times for a band of their tenure. Upon seeing them, the thing that came as a surprise is how unlike so much of the media has described them. They’re not dance-punk, or art-disco, or most of the other things they’ve been called. Explode Into Colors have taken the Burundi beat tribalism that pervaded early ‘80s post-punk in the form of bands like "Kings of the Wild Frontier" period Adam & The Ants, Bow Wow Wow, Bush Tetras, early Echo & The Bunny men, and last and most significantly, The Slits, mixed it up with a little latin and afro-cuban spice packs, and have made it completely their own. They have rediscovered and reintroduced this music in a way that is truly exhilarating and exciting. And they’ve done it with a drum kit, another member with a couple of tom-toms and some cowbell, with singer/guitarist Claudia Meza wielding Ari Up-like shrieks and chants, and what appeared to be a baritone guitar. They are something special, and one can hope a full-length long player and the proper high praise is in their future.