published: 28 /
Jamie Rowland speaks to Naoko Yamano, the guitarist/vocalist and founding member Naoko Yamano with Japanese punks about their thirty years together, and the effect of the Ramones on their work
Shonen Knife are one of the longest-running, best known and influential bands to have come out of Japan’s alternative scene – many people would say they helped create it – and their mix of catchy melodies and whimsical lyrics have won fans around the globe over their 30 year career. This year, they have gone back to their origins, releasing a tribute album to one of the band’s that inspired their formation back in 1981 – The Ramones. 'Osaka Ramones' was released in August in the UK, on Damnably Records and presents a band who are in it purely to enjoy themselves and have fun, and who want to share that with their fans.
Currently on the road, we caught up with guitarist/vocalist and founding member Naoko Yamano (currently completing the line-up are Ritsuko Taneda (bass/vocals) and Emi Morimoto (drums/vocals)) for a chat about songwriting, influences and how Japanese music has changed over the years.
PB: I understand you’re touring Europe at the moment?
NY: Yes, I am in Vienna, Austria.
PB: Are you enjoying the tour so far?
NY: Yes, we are enjoying it, and the tour is going very well.
PB: You played a show in London at the beginning of the month as Osaka Ramones – are you doing the whole tour with that show, or was it a one-off?
NY: For the first show, we played Osaka Ramones songs mainly. From the second show we played our own songs, and a few songs from Osaka Ramones.
PB: How did the London audience respond to the Osaka Ramones set? Did you get a good response?
NY: Yeah, everybody there said, “Hey-ho, let’s go!” It was so fun!
PB: When you’re touring around the world, do you get a very different response from when you play to fans at home?
NY: It depends on cities; there is no difference between Japan and foreign countries but for instance in our home town of Osaka the people are very energetic, so they are dancing a lot as opposed to just watching.
PB: I would imagine it would be quite hard not to dance – your music is very up-beat and bouncey!
NY: Most people dance but in some cities people are more energetic; moshing or stage diving.
PB: I recently interviewed Akron/Family, who told me that they had been very inspired musically when visiting Japan, as the people there seemed much less self-conscious and open to freely expressing themselves than a lot of western bands. Would you agree with that view?
NY: I think for me, there is no difference. I don’t feel so much of a gap. But Japanese people are very polite, especially to foreign bands!
PB: Shonen Knife is 30 this year. Is that right?
NY: Yes, at the end of this year it will be our thirtieth anniversary
PB: Well congratulations, that’s a very good innings so far!
NY: Thank you very much!
PB: Has the Japanese music scene changed much since you started?
NY: I think the mainstream Japanese pop, overground scene has remained the same but the independent scene, the underground scene has really changed. I think it has expanded.
PB: I think a lot of people would say Shonen Knife have played a big part in that over your 30 years; would you agree?
NY: Yes, I think so. Some bands say that they are influenced by Shonen Knife.
PB: Do you think it’s easier now for Japanese bands to get an audience overseas, compared to when Shonen Knife first started out?
NY: It depends on their music. If the band has a very unique, special sound and songs, they can be popular but if they just imitate Western music they cannot be popular. I think originality is very important.
PB: In terms of your own influences, obviously the Ramones were a big part of what brought Shonen Knife into being, and I know you are a huge fan of Judas Priest too. What music is influencing you now, and while you were writing Free Time?
NY: I like to listen to some death metal bands!
PB: I think you can here that in songs like ‘Economic Crisis’
NY: Ha ha. Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of Motorhead.
PB: That song is certainly a lot harsher sounding that a lot of your other material, and also lyrically it’s very political. What inspired you to tackle that subject?
NY: Recently Japanese society has had many problems, so I am inspired by such things and think that we should be happy through music. So I write songs about social problems. But if I put on some poppy, fun melody lines, everybody can be happy!
PB: How do you keep things fresh for yourself as a songwriter over a thirty year career?
NY: Keeping myself fresh is very difficult but I don’t do anything special. I just keep myself healthy!
PB: Do you think your songwriting approach has changed over the years?
NY: I think I am a little bit progressed! Just a little.
PB: What is your process for working on a new record?
NY: I write songs by myself at home, and then I make a demo tape and I give the other members a copy to listen to. Then we play the songs at the studio.
PB: Do you play the songs live at the studio in order to fully work them out and get the energy up?
NY: Yes, but I am a very slow writer, so I always write songs just before the recording date, so everybody is always very “hurry up!” We usually only have one or two days to rehearse.
PB: You released the Osaka Ramones album this year; what made you decide to make a Ramones tribute album now?
NY: Osaka Ramones have only ever played just once before in Tokyo. Many people requested to have another Osaka Ramones show and also release an album, and they got it this year.
PB: It’s a very fun album to listen to; was it fun to record as well?
NY: Yeah, very fun because I really like Ramones songs, so when I sing their songs I feel like I’m doing karaoke!
PB: Was it hard to pick just a few of their songs to do?
NY: I like all the Ramones’ songs; it was very hard to pick. But I like pop songs, so those 13 songs have pop melody lines, and also the songs have hooks.
PB: So all the ones that are easy to sing along to?
NY: Yes, just like “gabba gabba hey”, or “hey-ho, let’s go!”
PB: Do you have time to work on new material when you’re on tour?
NY: I have to write new songs, but I’m a slow writer...but once I decide to do it, I can write songs very quickly! I’d like to write new material after this tour.
PB: So we can expect a new Shonen Knife album in the near future?
PB: But it the mean time, you’ll be carrying on with your European tour for a few more dates yet?
NY: Our tour will be finished on September 11th, [at the Scala] in London
PB: Well,we look forward very much to seeing you there!
NY: Thank you very much - see you in London!
PB: Thank you.
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