Interview with Shonen Knife
Recently Shonen Knife, an all-women punk trio hailing from the underground scene in Japan, came to Pittsburgh for their last show on their North America tour, and The Tartan had a chance to interview them. This is an edited transcription of the original audio interview. All of the questions were answered by the lead guitarist and main founder, Naoko Yamano.
Q: Who are your influences overall? What bands and artists have influenced your music and songwriting style over the decades?
Shonen Knife: When I started Shonen Knife, I liked to listen to The Beatles, and also the late ‘70s punk bands like The Ramones or The Buzzcocks. Now I don’t listen to punk music as much, but now I like to listen to hard rock, R&B, and ‘70s classic rock music.
Q: You’ve mentioned a lot of American groups, but are you influenced by any Japanese music or are you only influenced by non-Japanese music?
SK: No, mainly British and American music.
Q: Generally, what shifts have you seen in the Japanese punk scene, especially women in punk?
SK: I think we are not an actual punk band. The image of a punk band is usually more aggressive, and they sing about politics or anarchy or something. I think we are more of a pop or rock band. But I can say that the underground scene in Japan when we started, there were some all female bands or female rock musicians in Osaka when we started.
Q: You all have been around for a while. Over the course of 19 albums, did your sound evolve naturally or was it ever planned out?
SK: At the beginning, our music was more simple, but the spirit of our music has always been the same. After the ‘90s, we recorded with professional producers and I learned lots of things about recording and arrangement and making music from famous producers. Now we usually record and produce by ourselves. I have improved a lot after the ‘90s.
Q: Shifting away from the music, do you identify as a female band or do you consider yourselves just a band? Is female identity a part of your overall image as an artist and does it impact your music?
SK: We are not feminists, and I don’t think of myself as a female musician. Musicians are musicians. Whether or not they are male or female, there is no meaning to that. So we are just musicians. Since we are an all female band it’s easy because we can share a hotel room and everything is convenient.
Q: That’s interesting to hear because the responses from different all female groups varies. Just to build off the last question, have you ever encountered any barriers for being an all female group in the music scene?
SK: I have not felt any barriers. There is only one thing I find difficult being a woman, and it’s that carrying equipment is very hard. That is the only difference from male bands.
Q: What are some of the differences you see between the Japanese music scene and the non-Japanese music scene?
SK: Our case is very, very rare, and no other Japanese band is touring outside for so long. But Japanese music is usually sung in Japanese, and it is very different from English, especially the phonics. So melody lines in Japanese are much different than melody lines in English. Japanese rock music in general is very different from British and American rock music. But I am inspired by British and American rock music, so for me, English is the language of rock. So I write the lyrics in English.
Q: What would you say are the differences between your interpretation of rock and punk music and your American and British counterparts?
SK: I think our music style is very unique. We have a lot of different styles of songs, ranging from pop-punk to hard rock to ballads. I listen to various kinds of music, especially ‘60s and ‘70s music, and inspired by that, I write something different. So I can’t compare our music style with other bands.
Q: Do you follow along with your fans’ reactions to your music and see how it has changed over the years?
SK: We have a very good reaction from our fans, especially the past ten years, where fans have been getting more energetic. When we started Shonen Knife, we played at a very tiny venue in Osaka, and Japanese audiences are a bit different. But talking about America, they react to our shows with a very positive feeling. They come to our shows to enjoy themselves. So the reaction is always very good.
Q: So that you have said you’re from the Osaka underground scene. Is there something particular about that scene that allowed you to become popular? Like if you were in Tokyo and you tried to do the same thing, do you think you would have become as successful?
SK: I think the underground scene bands in Osaka are more free, and in Tokyo there are many major record companies. Many musicians who want to be popular or famous, they move to Tokyo. But the people who are in Osaka are more free, so a lot of bands from there go abroad, like Acid Mothers Temple and bands like that.
Q: How do you feel about the rise of girl groups like AKB48? Do you think the rise of these groups could be hurting the underground scene?
SK: AKB48 is just made by producers. They are not DIY or independent. But in our case, we do everything ourselves. My sister makes our stage costumes. I am emailing people overseas. AKB48 is kind of just controlled and made to act like cute dolls.
Check out Shonen Knife’s 19th album, Sweet Candy Power, on Spotify or Apple Music.
Emily Giudici contributed to reporting.