By Tom Murphy
In the late 1980s, it was nearly unheard of for Japanese underground rock bands to play in the United States. But Shonen Knife, appearing at the Firebird this Saturday, October 18, played a show in Los Angeles in 1989.
By then, the band's music had already spent several years circulating in the U.S., thanks to a 1983 visit to Japan by Beat Happening frontman and K Records founder Calvin Johnson. While overseas, Johnson found Shonen Knife's second album, Burning Farm, on cassette; he reissued the album the following year on his label. The group's original take on punk rock and its surreal, straight-faced send-up of pop culture struck a chord with artists in the English-speaking world, including Sonic Youth, Red Kross and, famously, Kurt Cobain, who invited Shonen Knife to open for Nirvana on the U.K. leg of its tour for Nevermind.
"I don't know why he liked Shonen Knife," says guitarist and singer Naoko Yamano. "But I'm very honored about that. I think his favorite bands were Black Sabbath, ABBA and the Shaggs. I think he liked unique bands."
Shonen Knife played its first show at Hosei University in March of 1982 and released its debut album, Minna Tanoshiku, just months later. What set the band apart from many other Japanese rock bands of the time was that Shonen Knife made its own cassettes, and its all-female membership was very rare outside of pop music.
"I think it was an advantage, because many boys helped us to carry equipment," jokes Yamano, the group's sole original member. "My parents were a little conservative, and they didn't like me playing in a rock band. But after I put out an album, Let's Knife, with a major record company, they understood."
Championed by prominent underground acts, Shonen Knife, like many Japanese bands, became more popular here than in its home country. The group may not have spent the intervening years playing stadiums, but it has maintained a dedicated cult following.
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"I think we are a very DIY band," says Yamano. "Even now, I exchange e-mails with overseas record labels by myself. Many major Japanese bands are not DIY, because they have very big management."
Still, the globalization of culture and the democratizing effect of the Internet have made those distinctions less pronounced. "The underground scene is the same," says Yamano. "There are many rock clubs in Japan. In America, I think the cover for a show is a little cheaper than Japan, and people drink alcohol a lot here, so the clubs can survive by people drinking. But in Japan, people don't drink so much -- just one cup of beer.
"Also, in Japan, only young people go to music clubs. Here, all ages of people come to the rock club, and they know how to enjoy music. Japanese shows start very early, usually at 7 p.m. Here, it's 9 p.m. or 11 or midnight.
"I prefer 7 or 8 p.m."
In March 2014, Shonen Knife released Overdrive, and while the sound may remind some listeners of Thin Lizzy or the Runaways, it's more rooted in British and American hard rock of the '70s. Although Yamano's first and second concerts were Aerosmith and Kiss, the new songs were more inspired by bands such as Deep Purple, Motörhead and Boston.
"I think rock music in the '70s was very young; I think rock music has gotten old now," she says. "Rock & roll was born in, I think, the '50s. In the '70s, everything about rock music was very fresh, and even the fashion was very fresh. Now I have rediscovered how it was so good."
Twenty albums into a 34-year career, Yamano is clearly still able to steer the band in the direction of experimentation and reinvention, and the refreshing vitality that made Shonen Knife so popular from the start remains intact. Don't miss a chance to see this dynamic trio live.
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