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Thursday, June 29, 2006
Shonen Knife cuts the cake
The most famous Japanese band in the world turns 25
By SIMON BARTZ
I recently caught up with guitarist/vocalist Naoko from Shonen Knife, arguably the most famous Japanese band in the world, as they celebrate their 25th anniversary this year.
Do you ever think about packing your bags and taking a trip? I ask Naoko.
"Sure," she says.
Where, exactly? I ask.
"How about Honolulu?" she says.
And we are there.
"It must be about 30 degrees. Hot and dry," she says as we bask poolside. "But I love Honolulu. I've been to Hawaii two other times and I've always had a very peaceful time here. Hawaii is just sooooo good."
We are chilling out under the beach umbrellas at a five-star hotel and I tell Naoko that at least this Shonen Knife tribute album ("Our management thought the time was right, and the record company agreed, so then we said 'OK, just do it.' ") might encourage people with a bit of nous to go out and buy original Shonen Knife albums.
Naoko and I both agree on our favorite Knife albums -- "Brand New Knife," "Heavy Songs" and "Genki Shock." And that is where, folks, you should start your love affair with this band.
Tribute albums suck, don't they, I say.
"Yeah, I agree. Actually, I don't buy them so often, but I am pretty happy with this one because at least we got the tribute!" says Naoko.
I'm feeling a bit weird, though, that Shonen Knife, who have always played the rock 'n' roll game straight up, might be . . . err . . . selling out -- at least with this tribute album (called "V.A.: A Tribute to Shonen Knife: Fork and Spoon" and released together with "Live in Osaka"), on which mainstream-sucking bands such as Eastern Youth, Bloodthirsty Butchers and Beat Crusaders play not-so-good covers of very-damn-good Shonen Knife songs.
But, again, anything that attracts attention to probably the most perfect pop-punk phenomenon in the history of rock 'n' roll is well worth mentioning. That's why I am writing this.
"Yeah! That's what it's really all about," agrees Naoko as she steps up from her sun-bed and kind of dances on her toes across the hot tiles toward the pool in her pink and black bikini -- those are her favorite colors. She stretches briefly at the water's edge and then dives in and swims a leisurely few lengths. Then she strolls in to one of the changing rooms, and a few minutes later emerges in a black T-shirt with AC/DC emblazoned across it in silver. And a pair of dark-green shorts.
"The swimming is over so it's time for a cocktail," she says.
Something exotic to fit the occasion? I ask.
"Nah," she says. "Just a rum and Coke."
I order two. Rum is all about beautiful sunny days like today. Gin reminds me of Britain where the sun does not so often shine.
Naoko is a little hungry too. "I want fresh food," she says, and asks the waiter for mango. Then I spot macadamia nut ice cream on the menu and order it 'cos I know she has a sweet tooth. Have you heard their intricate lyrics about fighting off the desire to eat a dessert before bedtime? Oh, you should.
When are you playing in Japan next?
"On July 7 there's an instore at Tower Records in Tokyo, July 8 we play Shibuya Quattro and July 9 it's Shinsaibashi."
When are you going to release a new record with original songs?
"Not quite yet. I have to write new songs. But I really want to release a new album next year, if not this year."
Since Shonen Knife are Japan's most famous musical export -- and inspirational to all Japanese indie bands -- I have to ask: What's it feel like to be a legend?
"Well, if that is true it's fun, but only being a legend is difficult to do business. You must compromise with your cool if you want to make money."
I know. And I know you don't do that. Well, apart from maybe this tribute album. But I can hardly blame you. You deserve a bit of a nest egg, I reckon.
"We've never had a million seller so I am happy with our legendary status. At least we got something. But, then again, I think we need more good business!"
It seems unlikely you will get the million seller because anyone with any brains doesn't buy records anymore. They download absolutely anything they want from the Internet, for free.
"I really doooon't like that! It's a big problem and I am annoyed about it. People should pay some money."
I'm a bit of a communist and I think everything should be free, but I get your point. It's nice to be able to pay the rent.
"Exactly. If I can pay the rent I don't have to go and work a regular job, and I can make more music."
Your lyrics conjure up images of dizzy girls who want to indulge in desserts rather than serious conversation. You are often thought of as a candy-floss pop-punk band, with songs about elephant-nosed insects or trying to catch a spider on your balcony. What's the most serious song you have written?
"I can't choose one. I agree the spider song ['Kumo No Ie'] is not so serious."
What's the saddest song you've written?
"I don't write so many sad songs, but on our album 'Rock Animals' there is a song about vandalism called 'Concrete Animals.' The concrete animal is like a statue in a park and they get vandalized and that is tragic. So I guess I was writing about social problems. Also I wrote a song called 'Bear Up Bison' about bison extermination. There were loads of them and now there are very few. I saw bison at a zoo and they smell bad and nobody wanted to look at them. But I walked up and read the explanation about them on the cage and I learned that they were almost wiped out. It made me think about protecting animals, or at least doing my bit and singing about it!"
What do you think about before you go to sleep at night?
"I think nothing! I know I need to think before sleeping; maybe search my conscience and think over my experiences in life, come to some conclusions, and think about the future. But I don't think! Every night I do GameBoy as soon as I hit the futon. Gradually I become very sleepy and then I turn it off and I am out cold!"
Unlike many Japanese bands, who leave their hometown to pursue fame, Shonen Knife have always been based in Osaka. What's special about the place?
"I think people in Osaka are very energetic and kind. That's why we released the live album from a show in Osaka. The audience always responds to the talking and has fun. In Tokyo people seem more polite. They don't shout too much."
You went it alone with your sister, bassist Atsuko, for a while, but now you've got a drummer, Etsuko, in full-time.
"I wanted to get back to a three-piece band. The former support drummer [Mana 'China' Nishiura] had to leave Shonen Knife because she became involved in another band."
Yeah, I met her a few years back when you played in Shibuya. She went out with that guy from Boredoms, right?
"Yes. She was [Seiichi] Yamamoto's girlfriend. She joined DMBQ, but she died last year in a traffic accident in the U.S."
I knew that DMBQ's drummer died in that crash. But I didn't know it was the girl who I used to chat with when Shonen Knife came to Tokyo. I don't know what to say. I'm shocked.
This vacation that Naoko and I have invented evaporates and I am sucked back into my grungey apartment in Ebisu, and she's at her place in Osaka, and we're on the phone, as we've been using our imaginations. Which, as you can tell from her lyrics, Naoko is very good at.
Simon Bartz edits a bilingual Web site on Japanese music at www.badbee.net