Shonen Knife Keeps With the Sugar-Punk

Old-school Japanese band has evolved without sacrificing classic rock elements.

Left to Right: Atsuko, Risa, Naoko

Shonen Knife sprang to life in 1981 in Osaka and forever changed the rock ’n’ roll landscape of Japan. At the time, “rock star” was an unusual career choice for women, to say the least.

Shonen Knife didn’t and don’t give a shit. Their Minna Tanoshiki (or Everybody Happy) album in 1982, DIY released on cassette tape, was a riotous blend of Blue Oyster Cult/Thin Lizzy hard rock with Ramones-meets-Beach Boys surf-rock and Shirelles/Ronettes girl group sweetness. They found a way to make music powerfully hard-hitting and heavy, while simultaneously sugary and melodic. That’s the path that they’ve pretty much stayed on, with members coming and going, right up to this year’s Sweet Candy Power, their 21st studio album.

Singer and guitarist Naoko Yamano is one of two band members that have been in the ranks from the start, alongside drummer Atsuko Yamano. The rest of the band are relatively recent additions, though judging by the tightness on display on the new record, they’ve settled in quickly. It’s an album that has been getting a lot of praise, though Naoko says that all washes over her.

“I haven’t read the reviews of our new album by critics carefully because the English they write is a bit difficult for me to read and I am very busy preparing for tours,” she says via email. “Anyway, I don’t mind if the reviews are good or not. I’m happy if people pay attention to our new album. The reaction from our fans on this album is very good and I’m honored about it.”

It’s been three years since their latest, and 20th, album, Adventure, and Naoko says that the group has progressed and evolved even since then, and certainly since the early ’80s.

“Our stage performances, [lyrics], stage costumes, and physical power are getting better,” she says. “We have a lot of energy now. When we started the band, we were very primitive but learned things day by day. We had some member changes and I learned from the talent of each former member. Our drummer Risa has been in the band since July 2015. Her character of drum-playing is powerful, heavy, and rock. All of us can have a very good groove on stage. In these years, we are touring a lot. It helps make us a good combination.”

A glance at the track names on Sweet Candy Power reveals titles like “Party,” “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches,” “Peppermint Attack,” and “California Lemon Trees,” but also “My Independent Country.” That’s typical of this band, that “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” approach to songwriting, and it’s wonderfully effective. It all highlights the band’s many and varied influences.

“I’m writing about various kind of things,” Yamano says. “Not only delicious food, but songs about my imagination, like the song ‘My Independent Country.’ It’s a song about, if I made an independent country, what would I do. Other than that, I usually write about things from my experience … Once I write lyrics, I can create melody lines very quickly. I like 1970s or ’60s American and British rock. I’m inspired by music from that era.”

Naoko doesn’t listen to contemporary artists at all, sticking with classic rock, plus funk, soul and disco music from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. She prefers bands like Earth Wind & Fire, Con Funk Shun, the Isley Brothers and Michael Jackson. She also loves ’70s British hard rock and metal like Judas Priest, Rainbow, and Black Sabbath. Oh, and she’s keen to point out that she loves a good karaoke session. J-rock — not so much.

“Japanese major music is J-pop or J-rock,” she says. “They are very different from American or British rock, which I like. [In contrast, with J-rock,] the lyrics are Japanese and melody lines are Japanese style.”

Shonen Knife has been coming to San Francisco since ’91, that first show taking place at I-Beam on Haight Street.

“I got a t-shirt from the venue,” Naoko says. “It was a memorable souvenir for me. I was surprised that so many people came to see us. We had a smaller audience in Japan at that time and I was excited about that.”

This time, the band is playing at Bottom of the Hill, and we can expect plenty of songs from Sweet Candy Power as well as some crowd favorites.

“I always take very long to make a set list,” Naoko says. “It’s like a puzzle for me. But once I find that our audience is enjoying it, I get very happy. Our Australia/New Zealand Tour will start in the middle of October. Never stop rocking!”

That’s a fair request. After all — they haven’t.

Shonen Knife with Me Like Bees and The Greasy Gills

Tuesday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m., at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., $20, bottomofthehill.com

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