Shonen Knife Write Sick Songs About Cats, Cookies, and Cakes
Thirty-three years and still going strong. We called Naoka find about about their new record, robots from hell, and how she avoids obesity.
"Like A Cat" - Shonen Knife
When Naoko Yamano’s mouth isn’t full of food, she’s usually singing about it. Shonen Knife have built a 33-year career on songs about the important things in life: cookies, cakes, ice cream and sushi, as well as sunshine, fishing, cycling and the sweetest possible sides of rock ’n’ roll excess.
Their new album, Overdrive, serves up another 10 slices of indie-rock fun, with the usual food songs accompanied by tunes about tennis, shopping, bad luck, good luck, and robots from hell. Noisey’s Tokyo guy Daniel Robson got on Skype with Naoko, who was on the other side of Japan in her native Osaka, to find out more about the album, and how she manages to avoid morbid obesity.
Noisey: Hi Naoko. The first thing I wanted to tell you is that you need to remake the video for your new song "Like A Cat." You had your fans around the world send in videos of their cats doing funny stuff and edited them into a music video, and if I’d known you were doing that I’d have sent you this hilarious clip of my ex-girlfriend’s cat trying really hard to get a pen that was stuck underneath a see-through plastic file, just scratching and scratching and scratching forever. That cat was so stupid, it’s amazing. If I send it over will you edit it into your music video?
Noako: Yeah, I hope so! That video was the idea of Janice, a woman who works at our British label, Damnably. She said that since everybody likes cats, and since Shonen Knife have so many cat songs, we should make a cat video.
It’s an unstoppable marketing idea.
Yes. Of course, everybody loves their own cat, so it was very hard to choose between the clips. Janice edited it herself, and matched up the kitties’ actions to my lyrics.
You do have a lot of cat songs—"I Am A Cat," "Catnip Dream," "Giant Kitty," "Riding On The Rocket" and now "Like A Cat." What is it about cats that makes you want to write songs about them?
Um, I just like cats. Dogs are sometimes too earnest, but cats are so free.
And of course it wouldn’t be a Shonen Knife album without food songs. This time each member of the band sings a food song; yours is about fortune cookies.
Yes. I like to eat fortune cookies after Chinese food when we’re in America, and I did some research online and learned that they were actually invented in Japan. The root was in Kyoto, where there is a famous shrine called Fushimi Inari, and around the shrine there are some shops selling fortune cookies. A long time ago a Japanese person went to America and taught the recipe to some Chinese-Americans, and they started to serve fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants. I thought that was fun.
Your bassist Ritsuko sings the song "Ramen Rock." In the UK we always would go for a kebab after a rock concert, but in Japan it’s ramen. Is that why you wrote a ramen rock song?
Yeah. Ramen is very popular in Japan, and it’s starting to become popular in America and Britain too. Ritsuko always eats ramen after a show, so I wrote that song for her. She loves Tenka Ippin ramen, which is very thick, like spaghetti carbonara, haha.
A long time ago Shonen Knife had a song about "Gyoza," which is the natural accompaniment to ramen—you should play those songs together.
Actually we already do that: we played the ramen song and gyoza song together in Tokyo last month.
Your drummer Emi sings a song on the album about green tea-flavored food. In Japan you can get almost anything flavored with matcha (green tea powder)—ice cream, cakes, lattes...
Yes, and Kit Kat chocolate too. After I wrote that song I wanted Emi to sing it, because she’s from Kyoto, which is very famous for its green tea. I think the song suits Emi really well.
You’ve talked about your love of tennis for many years, but "Jet Shot" is your first time to write a song about it, right?
I think so. I wanted to write a song about tennis for a long time, but I always felt sport was a very distant topic from music. But I was watching a tennis match on TV and when Kei Nishikori hit the ball the announcer said, "Wow, what a great jet shot!" I thought that sounded cool, so I decided to write my tennis song at last. As it says in the lyrics, I’m a passive player and I want to be more aggressive. It’s about how you should never give up.
Shonen Knife started to tour overseas 25 years ago, in 1989, and now you’re 25 years older and still touring. Does it feel different?
Hmm... The live performances are pretty much the same, but around the live show is different. 25 years ago we didn’t have the internet, and international phone calls were very expensive, so I used to exchange letters by snail mail (with promoters), and when we went to America in 1989 I didn’t know what kind of people had invited us, or even if they’d come to meet us at the airport or not. I just bought an airplane ticket and used my vacation allowance, and it was a very big adventure for me. But these days I can tell what kind of people they are through their website or Facebook, and everything has become easier.
How about while you’re on the road? Do you party much less on tour or spend less time sightseeing now? Does the way you spend your time offstage change over the years?
It depends on the schedule. In the early ‘90s we were on a major record label and we had shows almost every day, so it was a very tight schedule. And recently when we tour in America the schedule is very tight, because the cities are very, very far apart, so there is no time to go sightseeing. But on a European tour the distances are not so far, and we have time to look around. Last year I went to the Dick Bruna museum in Holland and went on the London Eye at night, so I had some spare time. I also went inside Buckingham Palace.
Really? Is Queen Elizabeth a Shonen Knife fan?
I don’t think so!
Whenever I go overseas, the best part about visiting another country is always the food. I always get fat when I go on holiday or when I go back to England. As a culinarily obsessed band, it must be dangerous to go on tour.
On European tours everything is delicious. I love cheese and bread, and those things are especially delicious in Europe. I used to think Japanese food was the best, but after I went to Spain my opinion changed. The tastiest country in the world is Spain. The tapas, everything in Spain is good. And also I like chocolate from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium... European chocolate is better than Japanese. And the biscuits in Britain are very good, like shortbread and McVitie’s biscuits. So I always put on weight when we tour in Europe.
How do you deal with the ludicrous portions in the States?
The portions are so big! But in America it’s often hard to find restaurants within walking distance; you need to drive. So sometimes I don’t get a chance to eat after the show, because we finish very late and the restaurants are far away. So I actually usually lose a kilogram when we tour in America.”
You should get a column on VICE’s new food site, Munchies. You’d love it.
What’s that? Cheese? A kind of cheese?
No, Munchies—like when you get cravings for junk food when you’re high or drunk. You know what VICE is like.
Haha. Yeah, I used to send my recipes for inclusion in recipe books in America – a sweets recipe book and a book of recipes by rock musicians. I think it was a recipe for okonomiyaki. I’ll have to make a weird recipe for Munchies too!”
Shonen Knife are on tour in Europe right now and will hit North America in autumn. Their new album Overdrive is out now everywhere.
Daniel resides in Japan and we like him very much even though we've never met him. Ahhh the internet. Follow him on Twitter - @ItCameFromJapan