Formed in 1981 in Osaka, Japan during the early days of J-Pop, Shonen Knife was the antithesis of the burgeoning pop wave. In a time where pop music was queen, Shonen Knife unapologetically opted to take the less travelled DIY route and honed a quirky garage-punk sound which they cleverly offset onstage with cutesy matching mod style dresses. Originally made up of sisters Naoko Yamano (guitar/vocals), Atsuko Yamano (drums) and Michie Nakatani (bass/vocals), the Osaka natives were all working as office clerks when they formed the band. Shonen Knife stood out as one of the only all-female acts of the time, but they could definitely hold their own. With influences ranging from The Beach Boys and the Ramones to girl groups of the 60’s and 1970’s British rock coupled with positive, unconventional lyrics about their favourite junk foods, Shonen Knife soon earned themselves a cult following.
Their 1982 debut release titled “Minna Tanoshiku” (which means ‘everybody happy’) established Shonen Knife as an original, untraditional rock group. Where most punk bands sang about rebellion, Shonen Knife wrote songs about seemingly frivolous things which in and of itself was a bold statement. By 1989 the band’s following had grown internationally and Shonen Knife’s influence and popularity was celebrated in a tribute album entitled “Every Band Has a Shonen Knife That Loves Them” with alternative music heavy weights like Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, L7 and Babes in Toyland doing cover versions of the band’s songs.
The huge alternative music movement of the early 1990’s gave Shonen Knife the international attention they deserved with many popular alternative and rock bands listing themselves as fans of the Japanese trio, including Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Motorhead. Once an underground band with a cult following, Shonen Knife soon entrenched themselves in American popular culture with their video for “Tomato Head” (off of 1993’s album, Rock Animals) receiving regular rotation on MTV and which eventually landed the group on an episode of the popular animated series, Beavis and Butthead. In 1994 Shonen Knife scored a much coveted spot on the Lollapalooza Tour line up which really solidified them as a world class act. Shonen Knife continued to capture American audiences with their brand of sugary punk rock when the band’s cover of The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” was included on the soundtrack of the 1998 Disney remake of the Parent Trap. Later on Naoko wrote “Buttercup (I’m a Super Girl)” especially for Cartoon Network’s extremely successful Powerpuff Girls, a cartoon about three girls with super powers who fight evil and who ironically love eating ice cream and candies while wearing matching outfits.
In their impressive 38 year-long career and through multiple line-up changes Shonen Knife have released an incredible 19 studio albums, and while nearly 40 years has gone by, they continue to unapologetically do what they have always done which is make music that makes them happy. They are currently on a world tour in support of their latest effort, ‘Sweet Candy Power’ released earlier this year. We had a chance to catch their sold out performance at Hard Luck Bar in Toronto.
The crowd is buzzing with anticipation for Shonen’s Knife’s sold out show at Hard Luck Bar. It’s the band’s first show in Toronto in 5 years and the excitement in the air is almost palpable. It’s a Wednesday night and the crowd made up mainly of older OG Shonen Knife fans is here to party. Naoko and the ladies hit the stage while a synth-y new wave melody plays in the background and the crowd goes nuts and starts swaying and bopping. They won’t stop moving again until the very last notes of the encore ring out.
For the next hour or so, the audience is treated to a killer set that includes classic Shonen Knife hits such as Banana Chips, Twist Barbie and Capybara as well as new songs off the latest album. The ladies don’t stop smiling for the entire set and neither does the audience. The group announces that they are so happy to be back in Toronto as they endearingly wave with both hands at fans in between songs. Naoko’s presence onstage is disarmingly sweet and personable. She asks the audience to clap the beat to “Dizzy”, the super catchy first single off of Sweet Candy Power, and the audience happily obliges, which ramps up the crowd’s energy and joy even more. Occasionally the lead singer pauses to tell a story about the next song or to introduce the band. After Naoko introduces current drummer, Risa Kawano she mentions that Risa’s favourite foods are ice cream and cookies which seamlessly segues into “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches” another song off Sweet Candy Power. Later in the set Shonen Knife’s original drummer turned current bassist, Atsuko Yamano greets the crowd with a wide smile and mentions that she is the designer for the group’s signature matching outfits, and we are reminded again of how inspiring these ladies are, how they have always stayed humble and true to themselves, and how they managed to capture the collective heart of the international underground scene in a lengthy and successful career that many musicians will never experience.
From breaking the mold in the underground music scene, to bridging the gap between eastern and western popular culture, to their message of positivity, to their forever iconic style, the ladies of Shonen Knife continue to remind us that in order to be happy we should remember to focus on the simple things in life which may just mean enjoying a really good green tea ice cream.