Shonen Knife Discuss their Upcoming NYC Shows, Kurt Cobain, their music, and more

In 1981 the all girl pop-punk group Shonen Knife hit the scene in Japan and quickly made a name for themselves worldwide with their unique and fun sound.  After the release of their first album in the States, Burning Farm, featuring the hit “Twist Barbie,” they made fans of musicians such as Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain.  They are about to release their 17th album, Free Time and I had a chance to catch up with founder Naoko Yamano, lead singer and guitarist, as the group began it’s North American tour.  They’ll be in town to play Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory on September 28th.

When K records first released your music in America you began growing a cult following immediately, especially after groups like Sonic Youth made it known they were fans, how well was your music first received in Japan and what is it like now?

Our music received well in Japan.  We released a cassette album by ourselves when we started the band.  We made 40 copies and all of them were sold very quickly.  Then, in 1982, we released a first record from a small label in Kyoto, Japan called Zero Records.  1000 copies were sold very fast and we re-pressed 1000 more and they were sold soon, too.

Next year you’ll celebrate 30 years as a band, a major achievement, what have you learned and how have you changed after making music for 30 years?

For stage performance and musical skill are a little improved but my spirit to rock music is always the same.

Influences from American bands like the Ramones and the Beach Boys can be heard in your sound, when were you first exposed to their music and what was your initial reaction?

When I listened to Ramones songs from radio, their music impacted me.  Then I went to a record store and got their record.  I was inspired by their songs.  I tried to make songs pop like them.

What contemporary music do you like?

Big Elf, Coheed and Cambria, Cannibal Corpse, the Answer…

Kurt Cobain was an enormous fan of your music and invited you to open for Nirvana on the Nevermind tour, what was your experience with Kurt like?

I was surprised that his eyes are very clear dark blue.  He was very kind to us.  When our dressing room was so cold, he invited us to their dressing room.  He offered jam and peanut butter sandwich for us.  One day he wanted to play my song “Twist Barbie” at their secret show and I taught him how to play the guitar.  It was fun.

You definitely have a very keen fashion sense in your wardrobe and design choices, what’s the inspiration behind the choices?

I like ‘60’s and ‘70’s fashion like Pierre Cardin, Givenchy, Mary Quant.  Our stage costumes are inspired by such mod style.  I think the band should be prominent and wearing matching costume is expressing our courtesy to audience.

You were recently picked by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, to perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties show he was curating in England along with some classic bands like Iggy and the Stooges and popular indie bands like Built to Spill and Panda Bear, were you aware he was a fan of your music?  What was the experience like?

I didn’t know he likes our music.  It’s very honored for us.  I like The Simpsons and Shonen Knife have covered Simpsons’ song “Do the Bartman.”  At ATP, I’ve got his autograph on my backstage pass.  I was so happy.  I saw The Raincoats there and I was a big fan of them.  We became to know each other and they invited us to their show in Osaka, Japan after ATP.  It was fun, too.

Your new album, Free Time, was just released and includes songs like: “Monster Jellyfish” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Cake” which are as fun and melodic as they are funny, is that intentional?  How do you develop the songs, where did the idea come from?

I’m always intentional.  I’ve read news that big jellyfish is breeding too much at the East China Sea.  Then I was inspired by the news. For “Rock’n’Roll Cake,” I just like rolled cake and wanted to write a song about rolled cake.

You have a few shows coming up in New York at the Asia Society and the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, how do you feel about New York, what do you like to do when you are in town?

I like New York a lot.  People are energetic, there are many good restaurants, if I use subway, it is easy to move.  I like tall buildings, too.  I’d like to go shopping when I’m in town.

Check out Shonen Knife when they play Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory on September 28th.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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