Shonen Knife (Japanese: 少年ナイフ, Hepburn: Shōnen Naifu, literally "Boy Knife") is a Japanese pop punk band formed in Osaka, in 1981. Heavily influenced by 1960s girl groups, pop bands, The Beach Boys, and early punk rock bands, such as the Ramones, the trio crafts stripped-down songs with simplistic lyrics sung both in Japanese and English.
Despite their pop-oriented nature, the trio maintains a distinctly underground garage rock sound rooted in edgy instrumentation and D.I.Y. aesthetics, which over the course of their long career has earned them a solid, worldwide cult following and made avid fans out of seminal '90s alternative rock bands such as Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Redd Kross. The band has been credited with making "the international pop underground more international" by "opening it up to bands from Japan". They have also performed as a Ramones tribute band under the name The Osaka Ramones.
Shonen Knife was formed in December 1981 in Osaka, Japan with sisters guitarist-vocalist Naoko Yamano and drummer Atsuko Yamano and their friend bassist Michie Nakatani. Naoko sang lead and played guitar, Nakatani was also a lead singer and played bass and keyboards, and Atsuko sang backing vocals, played drums, and designed their stage outfits. The group was something of an anomaly when they started, as they were coming in at a time where all-female bands were scarce. Influenced by 1970s punk rock and new wave bands such as The Ramones and Buzzcocks while ignoring the then-rising, early J-pop movement, the trio began crafting energetic rock songs rooted in rough instrumentation and do-it-yourself ethos. However, unlike traditional rebellious punk rockers, the trio emphasized positivity using catchy, upbeat melodies and frivolous, carefree lyrics that often touched on sweets and animals. The group eventually came to describe their music as, "oo-oo-ultra-eccentric-super-cult-punk-pop-band-shonen-knife!" Shonen Knife performed their first gig on March 14, 1982 at Studio One, a club in Osaka, before an audience of 36 who paid 100 yen each. Later that August, they released their first independent album, Minna Tanoshiku, on cassette.
Following their first Tokyo gig at Hosei University, Shonen Knife released their debut album Burning Farm on Zero Records on July 21, 1983. They then contributed to the Zero Record compilation album AURA MUSIC which was released on November 15 and included three of their songs: "Watchin' Girl", "Banana Fish", and "Parrot Polynesia". Their second album, Yama-no Attchan, was released by Zero on May 25, 1984. Named after drummer Atsuko, the album saw the band slightly improving their musicianship and giving way to broader musical influences, ranging from Motown to heavy metal, while maintaining their penchant for lighthearted lyrical topics like bike riding and insect collecting. At the end of the year, Shonen Knife contributed "Parrot Polynesia" and "Elephant Pao Pao" to another compilation, Huddle No Trouble, for Balcony Records.
Towards the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, Shonen Knife would earn recognition by members of the burgeoning alternative rock scene. By June of the following year, the Burning Farm cassette had made its way from its Kyoto imprint to K Records of Olympia, Washington, who decided to release the cassette in the United States. A year later, on June 20, 1986, Shonen Knife released their third album Pretty Little Baka Guy. Four months later, the album was re-released with three additional live tracks. While their records had previously been available in the U.S. solely through import, in 1986, Shonen Knife managed to strike a chord with the American underground rock scene when one of their tracks, "One Day of the Factory," appeared on a Sub Pop 100 compilation. The album was released on November 1, 1986 by the independent record label Sub Pop. Soon after, Shonen Knife began receiving lucrative offers from a range of US labels. By this time, many alternative rock groups had begun citing Shonen Knife as a favorite of theirs, and the resulting word-of-mouth created significant exposure for the band. On March 26, 1987, the trio's songs begin receiving spins on BBC radio from the legendary English disc jockey John Peel. After spending some time concentrating on their live performances, they had the opportunity to join Sonic Youth as guests at the Muse Hall in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The two bands even shared a jam session as an encore. They then embarked on their very first gig abroad, playing at 2nd Coming in Los Angeles with the support of Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Jeff and Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. Shonen Knife's popularity with alt-rock musicians was perhaps best expressed in 1989, when over twenty different bands came together to record renditions of their favorite Shonen Knife songs for a tribute album entitled Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.
The trio's cult following by international audiences flourished during the early 1990s. After releasing a self-titled compilation album comprising tracks from their first two albums in the US market, the trio began touring America on a somewhat regular basis and released their fourth album 712 on July 1, 1991 in Japan on Nippon Crown. That same July, Sub Pop released "Neon Zebra" as a single in the US. Shortly after, a slightly different version of 712 was released in America by Rockville Records. In August, Shonen Knife was featured on CNN News during its This Week In Japan special. On September 25, Pretty Little Baka Guy was re-released in the US by Tokuma Japan. The 1991 US re-release of the album was coupled with eight live recordings from 1982 and 1990. The trio performed with Fugazi at the Sun Hall in Shinsaibashi, Osaka on November 14. Days later, the Christmas-themed single "Space Christmas" was released to British and American audiences by Seminal Twang and Rockville Records, respectively.
It was in 1991 that Shonen Knife came to find their biggest fan in the form of Kurt Cobain. Cobain had seen them play in LA and had come to deeply enjoy their music:
"When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert."
Nirvana asked Shonen Knife to serve as their opening act for their UK tour, just prior to the release of their breakthrough album, Nevermind. Yamano later admitted that when Cobain asked them to open for his band, they had no idea who Nirvana were.
"So I went to a record store, and I bought their CD. And when I saw their photograph, I thought they might be scary persons, because their hairstyles and their clothes were very grunge. But once the tour had started, I noticed that all the members were nice, good persons. And because this was our first experience of a long tour, the drummer Dave [Grohl] helped us with setting up the drum kit."
Furthermore, despite Cobain's reputation for being difficult, Yamano states working with him was a friendly experience, describing Cobain as "quiet, but very nice". From November 24 to December 11, Shonen Knife toured with American grunge band Nirvana and Eugenious all over the UK for a total of nine shows and during the tour Naoko taught Cobain how to play "Twist Barbie" which Nirvana covered live at one of their secret shows. Kurt Cobain listed the Burning Farm Cassette 25th on his Top 50 favorites albums On December 6, Shonen Knife headlined at Camden Underworld in London, England. During their stay in the UK, the trio recorded a John Peel Session with BBC radio.
On February 22, 1992, Shonen Knife performed in a Valentine's Day concert sponsored by JA. At the time, Nirvana was touring Japan and was able to come to the venue, much to the delight of their Japanese audience. After touring through the US and signing onto Capitol Records, the trio released their major-label debut, Let's Knife, on August 26. They then embarked on a brief three-show tour through the UK. While on tour, the trio appeared at the 20th Reading Festival alongside bands such as Nirvana and Mudhoney. They also recorded another John Peel Session and filmed a music video for "Riding On The Rocket" in London. On December 2, the group released the mini-album Do The Knife on MCA Victor before going on another, longer UK tour with BMX Bandits as their opening act.
As the early to mid-90s were the peak years for alternative rock, so were they for Shonen Knife's commercial success. After releasing Rock Animals in the UK on Creation-August Records, the trio once again enlisted the BMX Bandits for another eighteen-show tour through the UK. They followed it up by releasing the album in America on Virgin, along with the EP Favorites on March 2, 1994. From March 9 to 16, Shonen Knife shot the music video for "Tomato Head" in LA. The video came to be a quite popular on MTV, eventually landing a spot on the station's hit animated series Beavis & Butthead. Shonen Knife then launched a twenty-nine-gig tour through the United States and Canada spanning April 14 to May 25. Over the course of the tour, the trio appeared on myriad radio programs and television shows, such as MTV's 120 minutes and Conan O'Brien. From August 17 through September 8, Shonen Knife joined in the traveling alternative rock festival Lollapalooza. They ended the year by contributing a cover of "Top of the World" to the Carpenters tribute album, If I Were A Carpenter.
Lineup changes and 2000 onwards
Michie Nakatani left the band in December 1999, with Atsuko Yamano moving to bass. Mana Nishiura took over on drums, though was not considered to have officially joined the band and continued to play with her other group, DMBQ. On November 4 2005, whilst on a US tour with DMBQ, Nishiura died in a car crash in New Jersey. Etsuko "Ettchan" Nakanishi, who had been playing drums for Shonen Knife during this period, became her permanent replacement. Atsuko Yamano married, moved to Los Angeles, and retired from Shonen Knife, though she did join the group's late-2007 tour. Atsuko was replaced by the group's touring bass player, Ritsuko Taneda, who had previously been a member of J-Pop group Denki Candy.
The group's song "Buttercup (I'm a Super Girl)" appeared on the cartoon series Powerpuff Girls soundtrack Heroes and Villains. A Shonen Knife cover of the Carpenters' hit "Top of the World" was used in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, a US television commercial for Microsoft, the credits music for the documentary Double Dare, as the ending song for the movie The Last Supper and in summer 2006 by the BBC in UK TV trailers for a season of nature programmes.
In 2009, Shonen Knife played their first UK & European dates in 16 years, coinciding with the release of the album Super Group, following this with a headline tour of the US and Canada, including performances on MTVU and a headline performance at the Fun Fun Fun Festival in Austin TX. The group's next album, Free Time, was released in January 2010, and later in the year band were chosen by Matt Groening to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival he curated in Minehead, England. The band followed this with a European and UK tour .
On 2 April 2010, just over a month before the tour was due to start, Etsuko posted on the group's blog to say that she'd left the group. On 9 April Naoko posted about the news on their record company's blog. The group did some recording and played some live shows with new drummer Emi Morimoto (formerly a member of bands Ni Hao!, mamastudio, Ultra Jr & NASCA CAR) before embarking on their European tour in May and a North American tour in September and October 2010.
In 2011, Shonen Knife celebrated their 30th anniversary and released Osaka Ramones - Tribute to The Ramones, the album was recorded between Osaka, Japan and Buffalo, NY and co-produced by Robby Takac of the American rock band The Goo Goo Dolls. The release was followed by a world tour.
In June 2012, the band released Pop Tune, followed by a U.S. tour.
The band has completed a new LP, "Overdrive", for worldwide release on April 16, 2014, to be followed by a UK/European tour in April/May/June 2014, followed by a North American tour in September/October 2014. According to Naoko, the new record is "70s UK rock inspired". A video for one song, "Bad Luck Song", from the new record, was released as of 3/23/2014.
From March through April 2015, Atsuko rejoined the band to play bass for Shonen Knife's Four-Leaf Clover Tour of Japan with Ritsuko moving to rhythm guitar.
On April 20, 2015, Ritsuko announced that she was pregnant with her first child, and would be not be joining the band on their 2015 North American tour with co-headliner C. J. Ramone. Though she remains the band's official bassist, she will not rejoin the band until 2016. Atsuko continued as the touring bassist until the tour's end.
On May 27, 2015, the band announced Emi's decision to leave the band. At the end of 2014, Emi, concerned about the extensive overseas touring commitments of the band, announced that she would leave the band after Shonen Knife's June 2015 US Tour, and July's 712 Day performances in Japan.
On July 12, 2015, Risa from the band 'Brinky' was announced as the new drummer for Shonen knife. Bassist Naru has joined the band for the duration of Ritsuko's hiatus.
Ritsuko gave birth to a baby girl on 17 September 2015.
On October 5 2015 All Tomorrow's Parties announced Shonen Knife had been selected by English comedian Stewart Lee to appear at his curated Festival held at Pontin's Holiday Centre in Prestatyn, April 15-17 2016.
In 2016, the band released their album Adventure.
Naoko Yamano – lead vocals, guitar (1981–present)
Ritsuko Taneda – bass, rhythm guitar, vocals (2006–present, hiatus 2015-2016)
Naru Ishizuka - bass, vocals (2015-2016)
Risa Kawano - drums, vocals (2015-present)
Atsuko Yamano – drums, vocals, bass (1981–2006; drums from 1981–1999, full-time bassist from 1999–2006; North American touring support bassist, 2006–2008, 2015, Europe, Japan touring bassist, 2015-16)
Michie Nakatani – bass, vocals, keyboards(1981–1999)
Mana Nishiura – touring drummer (2001–2004)
Etsuko Nakanishi – drums, backing vocals (2005–2010)
Emi Morimoto- drums, vocals (2010-2015)