It was the warmest NYC night of the past few weeks. Not even close to the door time, long lines of Mohawk-hairstyle punks and innocent-looking college age kids have already formed alongside the dark-red brick wall of Sunnyvale. Even though the people here seem to have no visible intersection points with each other’s lives, everyone is waiting together for a show from Shonen Knife, one of the most significant girl rock bands in the world.
After being greeted by the band’s tour manager, I was led backstage to where the girls were hanging out before the start of the show. They seemed incredibly nice, easy to talk to, and even a little shy. I first asked what it is that has kept them going forward for 36 years, apparently not something that this band had been thinking of at all. Naoko, guitarist and lead singer, one of the original members of the band, told me she hadn’t even realized they have come this far. “All of a sudden”, she said,”we are already here.”. They never thought about what it meant to be a band. Why does it matter after all? They have played for this long, had a lot of fun, and are just not yet ready to move onto anything else.
The band members have not listened to any Japanese music for quite a while. When asked about what they thought of said music, Naoko explained to me how songwriting was so different when singing in a language with discrete syllables, like Japanese. The notes flow with incoherence. The language impacts the musical style, and in turn the musical style limits the choice of the language. This is a standardized answer for all Japanese bands who sing in English, and at the same time is a commonly-heard comment from western musicians on Japanese music. To not isolate Japanese pop music from the rest of the world, young musicians need to think out of box and push their way into the international market. In this sense, Shonen Knife are, without doubt, pioneers.
Atsuko, bassist and sister of Naoko, expressed her admiration of Japanese acts Miyavi and Dir en Grey. She also pointed out their alteration in music styles and attributed their success in America to a continuous effort to develop more modernized sounds. She especially praised Miyavi’s guitar skills and was “so impressed” by his fast speed and powerful riffs.
Talking about their album “Adventure” which was released last year, the band told me it was a fusion of 70s dance music and hard rock. “We played punk music all the time and we wanted to try something harder.”. They never stopped digging other genres of music. Naoko remarked on American band Earth, Wind and Fire. She had been listening to the Chicago legends a great deal and was inspired by the multiplicity of their music. “They are a little bit of everything. It’s hard to define.”, she said.
As a big fan of Nirvana and Sonic Youth of course I couldn’t miss the opportunity of asking how it felt to work with them, even though these questions must have been asked of them a thousand times. I guess I just needed to hear directly from the girls themselves about Kurt Cobain’s bluest, purest, most melancholy eyes, and their collaboration with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. That was a golden time of genres and cultures clashing, mingling, and breeding. Shonen Knife apparently, are an inevitable piece of the glamorous, tolerant, revitalizing and embracing 90s.
The girls also revealed a sense of humor when asked which musician they wish to collaborate with next. Their initial answer turned out to be Justin Bieber! Right after spilling the name of the Canadian teen idol there was an immediate sense of regret although Naoko persisted in his defense, “But isn’t he ‘Kawaii, Kakoii and Sugoi’?”. If you say so Naoko, only if you say so.
It has only been 6 months since Shonen Knife last played Brooklyn on Halloween night but the crowd here were acting like this was the band’s first show in America. Everyone went wild as soon as the first note hit the ground. Mosh pits were immediately formed in the middle of the venue. The air was filled with merriment and smitten infatuation. For an hour or so there was no time elapsing in the space. Everyone became Peter Pans, floating freely in the rock universe. It’s not hard to explain why. Look at the three girls of Shonen Knife. They have remained in their ‘Shonen Jidai’ (time of youth) where growing old has never been an option.
After this tour, Shonen Knife will get back to songwriting again. Although there are no plans for a new album yet, the trio are already thrilled about what is ahead of them. Yes, life carries on while what doesn’t change remains. That is their passion towards music, and a life forever young.