Like a Knife: 25 years on the edge with Japanese pop sensations

That a band like Shonen Knife can turn 25 is as sure a sign as any that innocent joy still exists in the universe. Despite a lifeless hometown music scene, and critics who wrote them off as either a mindless sugar rush or the Ramones of an alternate universe, Shonen Knife has been able to thrive as an eternal source of cute and comical pop-punk tributes to food, animals, and rock ‘n roll.

Lead singer and guitarist Naoko Yamano, the only original member still part of the Knife’s current line-up, never dreamed the band would be so popular and long-running. “I didn’t imagine it,” she said. “Many Shonen Knife fans and people around us made me continue Shonen Knife so long. I’m happy about that.”

The band formed in 1981 when Yamano, then a bored machine factory assistant, got a hold of records by The Jam, the Beatles, and of course, the Ramones. She and her bandmates responded the same way American teenagers did half a world away: they picked up instruments.

Shonen Knife did get a major leg-up from big-name acts like Sonic Youth and Nirvana–number one “fan-girl” Kurt Cobain even said that when he “finally got to see Shonen Knife live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” Cobain hand-picked the Shonens for Nirvana’s “Nevermind” tour, and Thurston Moore joined the band on parts of their highly acclaimed 1993 album “Rock Animals.”

But star power alone couldn’t have kept the Shonens going for a quarter-century; At any rate, Yamano says Shonen Knife and their ‘90s tour mates have long since gone their separate ways. The band hasn’t had an easy ride to 25. Line-up changes alone make it seem as if Yamano has at times kept Shonen Knife going by sheer force of will.

In 1999, bassist and vocalist Michie Nakatani had a change of heart about her musical career and left the band. Mana Nishiura moved in to fill in the gap, but she too left the band after three years; in 2005, she died in a car crash. The band’s most recent departure came from Yamano’s sister last year.

“My sister Atsuko got married and moved to Los Angeles,” said Yamano. “LA is too far from our hometown Osaka. We have many shows in Japan, and she can’t come back at every show.”

Through loss and tragedy, Yamano has always managed to scrape together a band to go behind the Shonen name, whether that has meant juggling instruments on studio recordings or taking on temporary musicians for tours. All the while, she’s kept Shonen Knife true to its original definition: female, Japanese, and fun.

Circumstances seem to have cut Yamano a break on the Shonens’ latest Knife and Dagger Tour, so named because the band shares the bill with the Buffalo indie rockers the Juliet Dagger. New drummer Etsuko Nakanishi has become an official member, and Yamano’s sister Atsuko has returned to bass for the tour.

Yamano says her sister “can’t continue [to play in] the band as a permanent member,” but for the Knife’s American gigs, “it’s [a] one month tour and Atsuko can join.”

So besides Yamano’s tireless effort, what has kept Shonen Knife alive for so long? After all, doubts about the band’s relevance and lyrical sophistication are so easily triggered by mere song titles, like “Broccoli Man,” “I Wanna Eat Choco Bars,” or “Frogphobia” (“The song was written by Michie, our former bassist,” Yamano says of the latter. “She fears frogs.”)

Ten years ago, Yamano told Perfect Sound Forever, “We want to continue to play nice music and we want to make people happy.” Today, her motivation for playing in Shonen Knife remains unchanged. Whether you laugh with or at the band is beside the point. All that matters is you laugh.