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We recently caught up with Naoko Yamano, founder and heart of the all-female Japanese punk group Shonen Knife as they toured the States in support of their latest LP, Adventure. A favorite of musicians like Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth for over 30 years, the Knife continues to blaze a path and kick down doors for DIY bands and female musicians across the globe. At 55-years-old, Yamano shows no signs of slowing down or going soft.
There’s a youthful quality to your music. It reminds me of bands like Deerhoof and the B-52’s. What is your general philosophy when it comes to writing music?
The first purpose is to make people happy through our music. I like pop rock music which has beautiful melody lines, like Paul McCartney. I’m trying to write fun and beautiful melody lines. Writing lyrics is hard for me. I would like to write lyrics in English because English is language of rock music but I’m not an English speaker. Also, it’s hard to find unique topics. I’m doing my best.
Do you get comparisons to bands like the Ramones or Sleater-Kinney?
We’ve never get comparisons to those bands. May be a little bit of the Ramones. I like Yellow Machinegun from Osaka.
There’s a song on your new album called “Rock N Roll T-Shirt.” The guitars on that track have a real heavy punk rock feel similar to the Ramones or the Runaways. What inspired this tune?
I like to listen to ’70s American and British rock music. The new album is inspired by such music. I wrote songs very naturally. I wanted to write about Rock ’n’ Roll T-shirt because I love it. After I wrote the lyrics, I tried to put melody lines on it. Seeing the lyrics, the melody lines appeared to my brain automatically.
Wasn’t your band featured on an old Sub Pop compilation in late 86/87?
Yes, we were featured on Sub Pop 100 in 1986.
Did being featured on that compilation allow you to network with bands like Sonic Youth? How was it opening for them in 1987?
It was long time ago and I don’t remember all the details, but I got an offer to join the compilation through the mail; there was no Internet at that time. My memory is vague. We didn’t open for Sonic Youth in 1987, but rather in the ’90s at their show in Osaka. Our first show in overseas was 1989. The record label at that time was Gasatanka, in Los Angeles, and Shonen Knife played a show with Tater Totz. Anyway, our first overseas release was a cassette album from K Records in Olympia, WA. Since then other labels made contact [with us to release music in America].
You toured behind Nirvana in the winter of 1991. Apparently, Kurt Cobain heard your debut cassette tape and invited you on tour. How did he initially hear about your music?
I think he listened to our cassette Burning Farm released on K Records. The label is in Olympia, WA and Kurt was from that city, too.
Let’s go back to 1977. Around this time, bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were popular. They were doing epic stadium shows and at the same time in small, crowded basements, punk bands were gaining popularity. What were you listening to back then?
At that time, I was listening to the Ramones and many underground punk bands from the United States. I also loved British new wave punk bands like Buzzcocks, Jam, Rezillos, XTC, Stranglers [and others] like that. Now I love major ’70s music but at that time, I’m against them.
What’s the difference between booking a venue in Japan vs. in America? For example, in Japan, do all of the bands take a cut of the door or is there another pay structure for bands?
Japanese audiences don’t buy alcohol so much at the venue. Usually one person, one drink. The audience’s main purpose to come to the venue is to watch the bands. Thus, the price of entrance tickets are higher than in the U.S.
Where did you record your new album Adventure and who produced it?
It was recorded at Yotsubashi LM studio in Osaka, Japan. I produced it by myself. The theme of it is ’70s British Hard Rock and American Rock and a little bit of ’60s taste. It was inspired by bands like KISS, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and the Beatles.
How long did you compile material for the album before going into the studio?
I spent four months writing the songs.
“Jump Into The New World” and “Dog Fight” are amazing tracks. When did you write these songs?
Thank you so much. For the lyrics in “Jump Into The New World,” I wanted to make people brave when they start something new. We have a new drummer Risa. She moved from her hometown to Osaka to joining to Shonen Knife. It’s her “jumping into the new world” — my younger sister and original member Atsuko came back to the band for this album. It’s also her “jumping into the new world again,” too. For the melodic lines, I didn’t want to use too much of the same melody’s refrain.
For “Dog Fight,” the lyrics are from my real experiences but [there’s] a little bit of fiction, too.
What type of gear did you use when recording the new record?
Mainly we use: Marshall amps, Taurus, Fender Twin amps, Flying V’s, Charvel, Rickenbacker, [various] acoustic guitars, Fender Precision basses, and Fender Jazz basses.
Any last words?
Please enjoy listening to our album Adventure and we will see you sometime soon at our show!
Standout Track: “Jump Into The New World”
Follow on Twitter @ShonenKnife