We all know Japan is a technological wonderland. It’s the place that gave birth to such novelties as the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Tamagotchi, for crying out loud. But Japan isn’t usually thought of as a centre of innovation in Western pop music.
Despite this, over the last 30 years Japanese technology has catalysed several major alterations in music industry operations. For instance, Japanese tech wizards brought us both the CD player and digital recording technology. In recent years, another Japanese invention, Vocaloid, has started to influence global pop music. Put simply, Vocaloid is a singing voice synthesiser application, which has led to an unsettling outbreak of virtual pop stars.
Anyway, what’s all this got to do with Japanese punk rockers par excellence Shonen Knife, you ask? Well, formed in Osaka in 1981, the three-piece retains its rock’n’roll spirit. But these days, the band’s authentic rock band approach is something of a marginal pursuit.
“[The] Japanese music scene is a little far from rock music and a little more artificial or computer,” says Shonen Knife bandleader Naoko Yamano. “When I started Shonen Knife, Western rock music was more popular, but recently many people like to listen to Idol songs or Vocaloid songs.”
This hasn’t impeded on Shonen Knife’s commitment to good-times punk rock, however. Last year the band dropped its 19th album, Overdrive. Shonen Knife are known for writing unflappably ecstatic tunes, heavily influenced by ’70s punk and ’60s pop, and there’s one band, more than any other, that’s had a bearing on Shonen Knife’s creative path.
“When I listened to radio when I was a teenager, the Ramones songs were played,” says Yamano. “I was very shocked and I was very inspired by the Ramones. And then I started Shonen Knife – inspired by the Ramones and also other late-’70s bands, like Buzzcocks or Jam.”
While Yamano’s affection for ’70s punk stands firm, when working on Overdrive she took pointers from the likes of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. “Recently, for four or five years, I like to listen to ’70s American rock and British hard rock,” she says. “’70s rock is very new for me. When I was a teenager I listened to punk/nu-wave bands and I didn’t like hard rock bands, but recently I discovered them and I was so inspired.
“For the new album, I decided to write songs of a ’70s style. Our last album, Pop Tune, the theme was pop. And another previous album, Free Time, the theme was punk. So punk, pop and then, what was the next? So I decided British hard rock and ’70s American rock. I wanted to change, because I don’t want Shonen Knife fans to get bored,” she laughs.
Overdrive might be derived from some relatively darker reference points, but the band’s emphasis on fun is no less pronounced. As per usual, the record is an exceedingly positive affair, which includes songs extolling the virtues of ramen noodles (‘Ramen Rock’) and green tea ice-cream (‘Green Tea’).
“Hard rock music, the lyrics are sometime very, very negative or sometimes very scary, but the purpose of scary lyrics is to make people have fun,” Yamano says. “I like such an attitude. I don’t like snobbish music. I just like fun, fun, fun music.
“If I listen to negative, depressed songs, I might be negative,” she adds. “But if I listen to happy songs, I can be happy. I want Shonen Knife fans to get happy, so I write happy songs. Then if Shonen Knife fans get happy, I can be happy too.”