"Hello, I'm Michie," said Michie Nakatani. "I play the bass guitar."
"Hi, I'm Naoko," said Naoko Yamano. "I play the guitar."
"Konnichiwa!" said her sister, Atsuko Yamano. "Watashiwa Atsuko desu. Watashiwa drum o tataite imasu."
Interviewing Shonen Knife is not like talking to other punk rock bands. For one thing, these three women are cheerful and polite, with none of the surliness characterizing other punk rockers. For another, not all of them speak English.
Fortunately, I have enough Japanese to know what Atsuko said: "Hello! I'm Atsuko. I play the drums." But if our conversation over dinner was to proceed at anything approaching normal interview pace, it would have to be in something other than Japanese.
What we settled on was more-or-less English. I asked questions zTC as simply as possible, Michie translated when that wasn't simple enough, and Naoko answered in fractured (though generally comprehensible) English. Atsuko mostly smiled pleasantly.
In a few hours, Shonen Knife would be hitting the stage at the 9: 30 Club in Washington as part of its "Brand New Knife" world tour. Dressed in matching white-vinyl outfits (handmade by Atsuko), the Osaka-based trio seemed entirely too cheerful to count as actual punk rockers. They were more like a cross between Hello Kitty and the Ramones.
But there was no denying Shonen Knife's musical appeal. Not only did the three play with a proficiency that put the opening acts to shame, but they also had great songs -- simple, catchy, well-constucted tunes like "Explosion!" and "Riding on the Rocket." By the time the band got to "E.S.P.," it was hard not to join in on the chorus: "Extra Sensory Perception/She's got special power!"
Getting a critic to go ga-ga over their show is old hat for Shonen Knife. They have been raking in raves since their first albums were released over here in the late '80s. Rolling Stone dubbed them "the most unpretentious guitar band on the planet," while Britain's New Musical Express deemed the band "godlike."
Critics weren't the only ones. Kurt Cobain was a fan, as are the members of Redd Kross, L7 and Sonic Youth. There was even a tribute album in 1989, an all-star offering dubbed "Every Band
Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them."
A cult following
Granted, all that acclaim hasn't exactly pushed the band to the top of the charts, either here or in Japan. But its giddily upbeat odes to Choco Bars, Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner ("The best pot cleaner in the world") and flying jelly beans has earned it a cult following. There are fanzines, web pages, even its own Usenet group (alt.music.shonen-knife). Shonen Knife has come a long way in the last 15 years.
One reason is that, beginning with "Let's Knife" in 1992, Shonen Knife has been making all-English albums for the world market. (Japanese fans still get a mix of Japanese and English, though).
This raises the question: Which language comes first when writing songs, English or Japanese?
"[For the] 'Brand New Knife' album, I wrote English lyrics first, and then I translate into Japanese," answered Naoko in her fractured English. "It was very difficult to translate into Japanese, because [with English] I can put many meanings on one melody line. But Japanese language take very long for explain. So it was very difficult to translate.
"But recently, I write lyrics in Japanese first for some songs."
Naoko added that writing in English is not a conscious effort to reach an overseas audience. "When I have some interesting experience, I write down the key words," she said. "And the key words are mostly English words. In Japanese language, Japanese people use many, many words from foreign countries. So, Japanese people like to use English words as ordinary
We sat for a while, rattling off examples -- terebi (TV), tehpu reekohdah (tape recorder), wain (wine), sahrahdoh (salad) -- before getting back to music.
"About music, we use many American [words]," Naoko pointed out. "Like 'show,' or 'band,' or 'melody.' Everything is American English."
One of the band's song titles, "Pretty Little Baka Guy," even manages to include a multilanguage pun. "Bakagai is the name of a seashell," explained Naoko. "Also, 'baka' means 'idiot' or stupid. And 'guy' is also people and friend." So the song, she said, is about a pretty shell, "and also idiot person." She laughed. "It's my original joke."
Eating with Shonen Knife is a pleasure. These three enjoy their food and attacked their meals with gusto. They don't have American-sized appetites, however, and no one made it into the clean-plate club that night.
"When I first time came here, I was very surprised about the one [person] portion," said Naoko. "Portion was very big. Japanese people like to eat various kinds of things at the same time. But here, one kind of thing, and it's very big."