Shonen Knife (少年ナイフ)
The Knitting Factory, Brooklyn
"Let’s Pig Out!"
Never go to a Shonen Knife concert on an empty stomach. I had a sandwich before I went down to the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn to see them and they still made me hungry. But before the Japanese pop-punk legends could make my stomach growl with their songs about mushrooms and cookies, Brooklyn band Grooms and Brooklyn-by-way-of-Japan group The Hard Nips opened. Grooms were a fine choice for an opening band, with a noisy sound that paid respects to rock ‘n’ roll.
The Hard Nips, on the other hand, were an inspired choice. Each member accessorized her fashionably slouchy attire with a neon streak of hair dye, but they had a lot more going on than good presentation. Like a lot of great Japanese rock bands from TsuShiMaMiRe, to Boris, to Shonen Knife themselves, The Hard Nips freely mixed noise and pop melodies, and disparate genres — often in the course of one song.
Their sound is something like X-Ray Spex and The Go-Gos filtered through raw garage rock, with forays into shoegazing, girl group territory. At one point, they paired stoner riffs with clean, pretty vocals for what amounted to a sludgy power ballad. Nice!
Lead singer Yoko Nips looked into the eyes of audience members before gazing far away, playing the melancholy ’80s rock goddess á la Siouxsie Sioux. Then she threw Nips candy into the audience. (The band’s name refers to Nippon — as in Japan — but she always throws the candy.) I wondered how the night could possibly get better.
The intimate backroom venue filled up by the time Shonen Knife took the stage, but, as might be expected on a Tuesday, it didn’t get too crowded. Those who made up the healthy assembly included an older couple who brought a toddler wearing tiny ear plugs, slightly creepy older guys, and the less-creepy older guys and some girls who looked like they may have tried out to play bass in Screaming Trees or helped book a Mudhoney show or something back in the day. These were in addition to the usual show-going crowd of hip boys and girls, of which a larger-than-usual percentage were Asian.
The aging alterna-dudes and dudettes were surely among the truest Shonen Fans present. Shonen Knife was introduced to the States and the UK through gigs with OG-Shonen Knife fans like Sonic Youth and Nirvana in the 1980s. No doubt such American admirers envied the creativity and artistic conviction required to write Ramones-meets-Beatles pop-punk songs about banana chips.
Shonen Knife took the stage wearing matching mod play suits and throwing metal horns. Guitarist Naoko Yamano brandished a glittering guitar with a blue metal-flake finish. Bassist Ritsuko Taneda bore a matching pink one. Lastly, they were joined by drummer Emi Morimoto, who is a recent addition to the band. I could tell then that, yes, the night really could get better.
“Banana Chips,” with its “Banana chips for me/Banana chips for you” refrain was one of the first songs of the night, punctuated with synchronized headbanging. When the song was over, an older man next to me said to a friend, “I want banana chips.” Shonen Knife can have that effect on you.
Another early song was “Perfect Freedom” off their new album Free Time. When it was over, I heard the same guy next to me say, “I want to hear another song off the new album.” That isn’t something I hear at concerts a lot. But thirty years after the band started in 1981, Shonen Knife (admittedly with Naoko as the only continuous member) continues progressing and refining, well, Shonen Knife. “Perfect Freedom” has as much, or more, dynamic energy, and, in fact, raw power as anything they’ve done in the past.
On Free Time, Naoko has even penned tunes about stranger animals than ever before. There’s a ska punk song called “Capybara.” Naoko introduced the song: “Do you know capybara? It’s a kind of big mouse.” This is completely true. The capybara is the largest rodent species. She also described it as a cute animal. This statement is also based in inarguable and empirical fact.
Things hit a peak when the band launched into “Super Group.” They definitely played the super group with Naoko and Ritsuko gleefully taking solos with one foot perched on the raised edge of the stage.
Standing in their beaming presence, listening to their three-way silver-and-gold vocal harmonies, I started asking myself questions like, “Could Shonen Knife be the best pop-punk band ever?” In a blur of whipping hair and buzzsaw guitar, the trio seemed to embody that aspect of rock ‘n’ roll that is sheer joy. Naoko soloed with such gusto that you actually looked forward to her next bout of grandstanding. (Cutest grandstanding ever!) They made being in a band look like more fun than smashing your face into your birthday cake or jumping into a pile of dry raked leaves.
The audience shouted requests (the most vocal audience members being the middle-aged creepy dudes): “Choco Bar!” and “Sushi Bar!” With grace, Naoko replied, “the song we want to play is also about food. Chinese dumplings … gyoza!” Shonen Knife had pretty good idea of what they wanted to play and they were sticking to it despite the stunning variety of snacks and mammals shouted at them by the crowd.
“This next song is a very delicious song. Let’s pig out!” said Naoko, introducing “BBQ Party.” The chorus was “Pig out! Pig out! Pig out!” The audience burned some calories shouting along.
The steady encore clap began almost as soon as the three musicians left the stage. Shonen Knife answered by returning promptly. They had barely enough time to change into their matching Shonen Knife tees before marching back out to salute the audience by holding up their long Shonen Knife sport towels. “We love you!” a girl in the audience yelled. “We love you too,” was Naoko’s reply.
Throughout their set, Shonen Knife played mainly the pure pop-punk songs about food and animals that they are known for, but the band has a lot of albums and there is great musical breadth to them. Case in point, the encore was “Antonio Baka Guy” off 1992’s Let’s Knife. It sounded a bit like “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath periodically played at quadruple speed. It was rad as hell.
In closing, I’d like to offer proof that there is a very good reason why this band has been around for thirty years. Such is the mysterious power of their righteous J-rock that I left the show that night with a craving for green grapes that would not be denied. I don’t even like grapes.
Can you tell we like all-girl J-rock? We do! We even have a top ten list of our favorites.
Check out our Shonen Knife interview and our exclusive video of the band performing “BBQ Party” and “Supergroup”:
Shonen Knife INTERVIEW:
Shonen Knife — “BBQ Party”
Shonen Knife — “Supergroup”
Photo: MTV Iggy/Nichole McCall