When it comes to Japanese musical exports, most people immediately think of monolithic J-Pop bands like AKB48 and weirdo viral stars like Pikotaro. Japan however is one of the biggest music-loving nations in the world, and, as a result, the country is overflowing with groundbreaking iconic artists that for one reason or another never get the international accolades they deserve. Garage bubblegum pop trio Shonen Knife, aka one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite groups, is one such band.
Shonen Knife formed in Osaka in 1981. Its original lineup featured sisters Naoko Yamano (guitarist-vocalist) and Atsuko Yamano (drummer) alongside their friend bassist Michie Nakatani. Heavily influenced by garage punk bands like The Ramones and classic Western pop icons like The Beach Boys and 1960s American girl groups, the band completely rejected the rising wave of J-Pop in their home country in search for something more international.
During their early days, the band was considered a little bit of a novelty given the fact that in Japanese all-girl bands (not J-Pop groups, but actual bands) were rather scarce. A few years following the formation other groups, like Quentin Tarantino favourites The 220.127.116.11’s, would begin to come out of the woodwork, but really Shonen Knife was the ground breaker.
The band played its first-ever live show in 1982 at Studio One, a bar/club in Osaka. It’s said that the show had total of 36 audience members who paid 100 yen each for a ticket. A year later in 1983 the band released their debut, a straight up fast and fuzzy punk pop gem, ‘Burning Farm’, on Zero Records.
After releasing two more records, the band captured the attention of the Sub Pop Records, the label home of Nirvana and an iconic name on U.S. alt-rock scene at the time. The label added their track ‘One Day of the Factory’ to a Sub Pop 100 compilation and floods of offers from U.S. labels began to roll in.
Kurt Cobain’s discovery
In 1991, the band played a show in LA, which was attended by the mega-star to be Kurt Cobain. In an interview with music magazine ‘Melody Maker’ in September of that year, Cobain was quoted as saying “I turned into a 9-year-old girl at a Beatles concert. I was crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out — it was amazing. I’ve never been so thrilled in my whole life. They play pop music — pop, pop, pop music.” Not long after the show, Cobain personally invited the band to join them on their upcoming U.K. tour, on the eve of the band’s massive breakthrough release ‘Nevermind’.
Touring with Nirvana
What’s so amazing is that being stuck in a world of ’60s pop and ’70s punk, Shonen Knife had absolutely no idea who Nirvana were. Naoko Yamano told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘I went to a record store, and I bought their CD. And when I saw their photograph, I thought they might be scary persons, because their hairstyles and their clothes were very grunge. But once the tour had started, I noticed that all the members were nice, good persons. And because this was our first experience of a long tour, the drummer, Dave [Grohl] helped us with setting up the drum kit.” Together the bands played nine shows across the U.K. and throughout November and December of that year.
On the tour, Shonen Knife taught Cobain how to play their infectious bubblegum punk track, ‘Twist Barbie’, which Nirvana covered during one of their elusive secret shows. The track was taken from the band’s second release, ‘Burning Farm’, which Cobain also named one of his most favourite albums of all time. Once the tour was over, the bands continued to cross paths. In February 1992, Shonen Knife performed at a Valentine’s Day concert; Nirvana was in Japan at the time and attended as well. Later in the year, both bands shared the bill for the 20th Reading Festival back in the U.K.
The ’90s up to today
Even following a number of lineup changes, a Ramones covers album, a Ramen-themed U.S. tour, pregnancies and countless world tours, the band has never once slowed down, taken a hiatus or called it quits. Since the ’90s, the band has continued to tour and release albums, the latest being 2016’s ‘Adventure’. If you are in Japan, be sure to keep an eye on the band’s Facebook page for more info on upcoming local shows.