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.