Interview: Shonen Knife – The Influencial All-Female Pop-Punk Band
“I think we can make any kind of people enjoy our performance and be happy.” (Naoko)
On Sunday 11th September 2011 at 18.45 at the Scala in London, DJ had the good fortune of interviewing Japan’s finest all-female band Shonen Knife three hours before they went on stage to give a rousing live performance, which included fan favorites like “ESP”, “Banana Chips” and “Twist Barbie”, as well cover versions of The Ramones classic “The KKK Took My Baby Away”, and “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” taken from their recently released Ramones tribute album Osaka Ramones.
Naoko (vocals & guitar), Ritsuko (vocals & bass) and Emi (vocals & drums) were extremely gracious and charming; possibly the most unassuming band ever. The interview was scheduled to last 20 minutes, but the Osaka sweethearts were happy for it to go on for a very generous 45 minutes in total giving us a glimpse into their world of rock n’ roll. Enjoy!
What has the response towards your 30th Anniversary Tour been like ?
(Naoko) It’s been very good.
When you formed SK 30 years ago, was the initial reception toward the band in Japan positive?
(Naoko) Yes, because the number of rock bands in Japan were not so many at that time. And also Shonen Knife was all-female band, so very popular.
Apart from the fact that you love music and you want to keep on playing, what do you think is the secret to Shonen Knife’s longevity?
(Naoko) I never look back, I just look forward.
Has there ever been a time when you thought you wanted to quit, give it all up and do something else?
(Naoko) No. Never, never!
The line-up of SK has changed many times over the years with you, Naoko, being the only original member left. How long do you, Emi and Ritsuko, plan to remain in the band?
Emi) I have been in the band for over one year. I hope to stay for a long time.
And you too, Ritsuko?
It’s a great line-up, isn’t it?
(Naoko) I think so. Everybody rocks! (Naoko, Emi and Ritsuko laugh.)
Would you ever consider having a male musician in the band?
(Naoko) I don’t know why, but I just like all-female. All-female is very convenient; we can all share the one room.
How did you get involved with your UK record label Damnably?
(Naoko) Damnably made contact through the internet to us. We have website, and they contacted us by email.
And your label in America, Good Charamel Records; how did you get involved with them?
(Naoko) In 2007 a band from Good Charamel Records wanted to do a tour and we were invited as a guest star on the tour in the beginning, but the band broke up (laughs).
Do you think if you were more of a mainstream band with international chart success that that would actually be more of a burden to you than the level of success you have now, and have had for the past 30 years?
(Naoko) I don’t mind being mainstream or underground. I just want us to continue to make our own music.
Which song on your latest album Free Time was the most difficult to record and took more takes to get right?
(Naoko) “Love Song”. The arrangement was quite hard to do.
You wrote that song as a kind of parody to love songs didn’t you, but ironically it is a love song in itself?
(Naoko) I wanted to make it a special song. But I wanted to record that song different to other regular songs. So it was difficult to sing.
Why is it that you don’t really like to write ballads, are you not very sentimental?
(Naoko) I am too ashamed to sing about love. And also, I don’t think I have so much experience about love. Everybody is writing about love, so I want to do something different from other rock groups.
You’d like to be more of original in that sense?
One of my favourite SK songs is ESP. What inspired the song?
(Naoko) There was a Japanese lady, they say, who had ESP. But now she has died. I watched her TV program.
Being a creative person, do you believe in psychic abilities?
(Naoko) Half believe it, and half don’t. I have played ESP card game; I can tell the triangle or circle or something without seeing, I could tell.
So you have ESP, you are that lady you are singing about?
Naoko, Emi and Ritsuko (laughs)
Do you tend to write the lyrics at the same time as the melody, or do you write the music first then the lyrics, or vice versa?
(Naoko) Mainly lyrics first and then put melody line to it. It’s easier for me. If I make melody line first, it’s difficult to put lyrics to it.
Will you, Emi and Ritsuko, write songs for the band?
(Emi) I haven’t yet.
(Ritsuko) Not yet. But I have written songs for my previous band.
When you learn songs in English do you learn by listening to the record or by reading the sheet music?
(Naoko) I can get the melody line by listening to the record. But for lyrics I refer to the book.
Do you think listening and learning to songs in English helps you understand the language more?
(Naoko) I think so, but every Japanese person learns English at Junior High and High School for six years. And also I studied English at collage, and also I had private English lessons. When I write music I ask my English native friends to check my grammar.
Do you each record your parts individually, or do you all play at the same time?
(Naoko) At first we record all together. If, say, the drums are fine, then we will use it, but if the bass and guitar are not fine then we will record those parts again.
So you basically isolate a particular instrument, if everything else is fine, and then re-record it?
Do you ever get any complaints from your neighbours when you practice at home?
(Emi) I practice in studio.
So you don’t practice at home?
(Emi) Oh yes. I have rubber pads for training.
(Ritsuko) I practice bass without amplifier.
When and why did you start to learn to play the drums?
(Emi) I started ten years ago. I was in a band and there was no drummer, so they ask me to do.
Which do you enjoy the most: performing live, recording in the studio, or filming the promo videos?
(Ritsuko) Performing live.
(Emi) Me too, live.
Naoko, you have a daughter called Ema, don’t you, is she musically talented like you?
(Naoko) She doesn’t like rock music, she prefers classical music. But normally, kids don’t like their parents’ music.
How old is Ema?
(Naoko) She’s eleven.
She drew the picture used on the cover of the Perfect freedon EP, didn’t she?
Was the picture purposely drawn to be used as the cover?
(Naoko) Yes. She’s a big Shonen Knife fan, so she understands the music a lot.
Do you design your own outfits, and do you still have those you wore from say 20 years ago?
(Naoko) I designed them myself, and I still have them all.
Will you ever consider releasing a DVD of all your promo videos?
(Naoko) Well, we released a live DVD in America last year, or two years ago. We’d like to do, but I have to write songs first for our new album.
To coincide with your anniversary tour you’ve released a tribute album to The Ramones – who have been a huge influence on you musically – called Osaka Ramones. Have you ever met The Ramones or seen them perform live?
(Naoko) Yes. In Britain I saw them at Brixton Academy in the 90s. And then in 1998, Shonen Knife opened up for The Ramones for two nights in Osaka.
So they obviously appreciated what you were and still are doing?
(Naoko) Oh yeah!
Back in the mid 70s, The Ramones played at a Heavy Metal festival but didn’t get a great reception from the crowd. Have you ever played at a venue that consisted of the “wrong” crowd?
(Naoko) No. I think we can make any kind of people enjoy our performance and be happy.
You’ve recorded a great version of The Monkees track “Daydream Believer”. Would you ever consider recording or performing one of their lesser known songs like “Star Collector” or “Circle Sky” – I think that would be an excellent live track for you to do?
(Naoko) Thank you. I like every Monkees song. What is the name of this song… (Hums a tune by The Monkees. To listen, play youtube clip below.)
What is your opinion on Japanese idol groups like AKB48?
(Emi) (Laughs) I am not interested in idol bands.
(Naoko) It’s very different. Their music is very plastic.
Naoko, you collect guitars – how many do you own and do you have a particular favourite?
(Naoko) I have more than 40 guitars. My custom made guitar is my favourite. I was inspired by 60s and 70s style. But I have a lot of guitars, so it is difficult to pick one.
Do you have any Rickenbacker guitars in your collection?
(Naoko) I have a 360 and a John Lennon model.
Where do most of them come from?
(Naoko) Mainly from Japan and America.
Have you been to Denmark Street, a popular location in London selling musical instruments?
(Naoko) Yes, but it is really expensive for me. American guitars are cheaper.
Would any of you consider living abroad, such as England or America?
(Naoko) When I was very, very young, I tried to live in London and other cities for one year because I don’t like really hot humid weather in Japan. So if I can move just in the summer, it would be nice.
You’re all very modern young ladies, but do you appreciate the traditional culture of Japan?
(Naoko) Of course!
Do any of you wear or own a kimono?
(Naoko) Kimono is too tight for me, and too hot. Kimono is very expensive. And I cannot wear on stage because I cannot dance in it.
Aside from music, what else do you like to do?
(Naoko) I like to play tennis. My favourite player is Rafa [Nadal]
(Ritsuko) I like to play video games – very relaxing.
(Emi) I like to eat and drink with my friends.
What are your plans once your 30th Anniversary tour is over?
(Naoko) We will be recording sometime at the end of this year (2011) or early next year (2012).
You are always working, aren’t you?
Thank you all very much for your time.
(Naoko, Emi and Ritsuko) Thank you.