"We would like to be the world's oldest punk-rock band," declares Michie Nakatani, bassist, keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter and co-founder of Shonen Knife, Osaka, Japan's latest contribution to the global music scene. "If we can, we would like to play into our eighties."
If the idea of Japanese octogenarians achieving legendary punk status strikes you as a bit odd, keep in mind that we're talking about a unique band. Since forming in 1982, this technicolor trio (Nakatani and sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano) has toured with Nirvana, worked with superproducer Don Fleming (Screaming Trees, Alice Cooper) and had 23 American bands pay homage to them on a 1989 tribute album, aptly titled Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them. This indie compilation features rousing renditions of such Shonen Knife classics as "Twist Barbie" and "Froot Loop Dreams" as delivered by the likes of Sonic Youth and L7. "That's a very important album for Shonen Knife," Nakatani acknowledges. "Before our major debut [1992's Let's Knife, released by Virgin], lots of people already knew about us through that album." She adds, "We're pretty familiar with most of those bands, so whenever we see them we say, `Thank you! Thank you!'"
Now supporting a new album (last year's Rock Animals), Shonen Knife has enjoyed sold-out shows throughout its current North American tour. Still, the band remains something of a puzzle to some listeners. In contrast to the seriousness paraded by acts such as Pearl Jam, Shonen Knife takes a fun, simple approach that detractors dismiss as naive or downright silly. Pretentious critics have been especially hard on the band's lyrics, which often deal with critters such as raccoons and kitty cats. Shonen Knife devotees counter that these elements are precisely what make the group so intriguing and refreshing; the cutesy packaging is merely an ebullient expression of the players' unbridled enthusiasm. "As musicians, we're very serious," Nakatani insists. "But we don't want to forget the good sense of humor, either.
"I think our lyrics are very amateurish," she continues. "But the most important thing for Shonen Knife is to hide something underneath. So even though our lyrics may sound pretty innocent and sweet, if you think about it deeper you may find something cynical or critical." As an example, Nakatani cites "Brown Mushrooms," the first single from Rock Animals. The song seems to concern a search for the perfect mushroom, which eventually is found at an Italian restaurant, but Nakatani claims that the tune is about more than food: "We mean regular mushrooms, but also magic mushrooms--and atomic mushroom clouds."
Shonen Knife renders themes like these in a musical style that combines Sixties pop and Seventies punk. Nakatani recalls that back in 1982, "Naoko and I were in school and we were both very bored with the daily life, and both of us liked music very much. Especially back then, we were into late Seventies punk/new wave. So we said, `Let's form a band just for fun.' But we had never played music before, so we just went to a music store. She grabbed a guitar, and I grabbed a bass." She adds, "Since we didn't know how to play music, we couldn't cover other people's songs. So we started to write our own songs from the beginning."
From this humble start, Shonen Knife has won countless rabid fans at home and across the world. Among the group's most fervent supporters are American musicians, who seem attracted by the esoteric quality of Shonen Knife's cheerful exuberance. Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore makes a guest appearance on Rock Animals, while members of Redd Kross and Nirvana have gone public with their fondness for the band. The respect is mutual: When asked about her memories of Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana lead singer who recently committed suicide, Nakatani instantly lowers her voice. "We toured with them last December for seven shows, and before that we were with them in Britain," she recalls. "[Cobain] always tried to make sure the three of us were comfortable. He was a very honest person. I feel like we lost a brother. It's very sad."
Fortunately, Nakatani and the other women in Shonen Knife have plenty to be happy about these days, and they're intent on sharing their happiness with their audience. "Our live show is like a party," Nakatani says. "Please come and enjoy our Shonen Knife party."
Shonen Knife, with the Dentists and Grimace. 8 p.m. Monday, May 16, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8.40, 447-0095 or 290-
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