- Vicente Rondon
FOR Shonen Knife, life is just a bowl of noodles.
2017 marks 35 years of rocking out all around the world for the influential Japanese trio, and to celebrate, they’re taking their love of food and music to the next level.
Any Shonen Knife fan knows that the band is one of the best out there for noshing and moshing (they’re coming for you, Weird Al). The band’s discography is a banquet of sonic delicacies like “I Wanna Eat Chocobars,” “I Wanna Eat Cookies,” “Strawberry Cream Puff,” “Sushi Bar Song,” “Banana Chips,” “BBQ Party,” “Rock N Roll Cake,” “Green Tea,” and “Ramen Rock,” just to scratch the surface.
For their spring shows, Shonen Knife has created the 2017 USA Ramen Adventure tour. In every city they play, band members Naoko Yamano, Atsuko Yamano, and new drummer Risa Kawano will head to ramen-serving restaurants to sample the local fare and share their experiences online.
Culinary curiosities provide more than lyrical inspiration for guitarist/vocalist Naoko; she often evokes the taste and aesthetics of certain foods in her arrangements and delivery. Look no further than “Wasabi” from the band’s latest album, Adventure: the spiky, ‘70s metal-drenched tune offers a fiery, shreddy intro mimicking the hot rush of the spicy paste on one’s tongue.
“I make my melody lines by the theme of my lyrics,” Naoko explains. “The word ‘wasabi’ inspired me, and my melody line came up very naturally. Wasabi is Japanese food and I try to put some essence of Japanese musical scale.”
Adventure is a ripper of a rock ‘n’ roll album, taking inspiration from the heyday of metal and stadium rock.
“In these years, I’m influenced by ‘70s hard rock and American rock,” Naoko says.
“Especially the themes of our previous album Overdrive and latest one, Adventure, are ‘70s rock influenced. By listening to such music a lot and playing the guitar, I make guitar riffs without notice. My riffs are simple and easy to play. I’m trying to write songs which are pop and rock with melodies.”
For some time, Naoko was the only original member left in Shonen Knife. She formed the group in 1981 in Osaka with her sister, Atsuko, on drums, and bassist Michie Nakatani, a college friend of Naoko’s.
The Yamanos’ musical education began, as it does for many, with piano lessons. For rocker Naoko, the formal environment wasn’t quite her style.
“My piano teacher was so strict, and I didn’t like it,” she remembers. “I had lessons only a few years. Before I started Shonen Knife, Atsuko and I didn’t play music together because I started to play the guitar when she started the band. Both of us loved the Beatles and we shared things about the Beatles a lot.”
From the beginning, the trio found inspiration in the melodic punk of bands like Ramones and Buzzcocks, taking beefy, distorted power chords and pairing them with fanciful lyrics. They shared their first release, Minna Tanoshiku, on cassette in 1983, creating 50 copies. An additional 20 copies were pressed by Japan-based label Zero Records; it’s now a highly-coveted item among collectors.
Zero released Shonen Knife’s official debut album, Burning Farm, the next year; by June, beloved DIY label K Records, based in Olympia, Washington, gave the album a U.S. cassette release. The alternative rock scene couldn’t get enough.
Their song “One Day of the Factory” was included on a Sub Pop compilation, and the courting began, with offers pouring in from American-based labels. Influential English DJ John Peel began giving Shonen Knife singles a spin on his BBC radio show; the band toured with Sonic Youth, performed with Fugazi, and, in 1991, met one of their biggest fans: Kurt Cobain. As the Nirvana frontman famously said: “When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” Cobain’s dream came true when Shonen Knife, who had never heard of Nirvana, agreed to open Nirvana’s UK tour.
Shonen Knife signed a deal with Capitol and released Let’s Knife in 1992. Through the early ‘90s, the band’s underground fame went major, with slots at Lollapalooza and a cover of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” turning into a hit for the band.
Though there have been lineup changes over the years, Naoko continued at a hardworking pace—Shonen Knife has put out 22 albums since its formation, toured relentlessly, and inspired countless budding musicians to rock out, loosen up, and enjoy the sheer fun of performing.
Though Atsuko retired from the band in 2006, she rejoined in April 2015 for the Four-Leaf Clover Tour of Japan. Now, for the Ramen Adventure tour, she’s back full-time, and her sister’s glad of it.
“Since we are sisters, it’s easy to communicate onstage,” says Naoko. “We share a hotel room and I can be relaxed.”
Naoko says the Ramen Adventure Tour comes at the perfect time: Americans can’t get enough of the affordable, versatile food right now, and it’s one of Naoko’s favorite meals. The band will sample a local ramen bowl before and after each gig; with 21 shows, that’s a lot of noodles!
“Ramen is a very creative food,” Naoko points out. “Each restaurant has each recipe. I think I’ll never be tired of it. I also love noodles a lot. I’m really looking forward to eat various ramen.”
Could the tour inspire an entirely-ramen themed Shonen Knife album? We can only hope.