Remember Mrs. Livingston, the adorable, self-effacing Asian housekeeper on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father? Now imagine three of her, each dressed in matching striped miniskirt and earrings, sporting a Morticia-like black wig, and playing music that sounds like the Go-Go’s backed by the Ramones. Now imagine a packed house of twentysomethings at the San Francisco club Slim’s, cheering them on, yelling for encores, and giving a collective, charmed awwww when the bass player says, in fractured English, ”Thank you — we luuuv you!” with a cute lilt at the end. No doubt about it: Shonen Knife is in town.
The cult of the all-woman alternative band from Osaka, Japan, extends farther than the Bay Area music underground. Virgin has released Let’s Knife, the band’s first album for a major American label. Members of L7 and Mötorhead attended a Shonen party in L.A., part of the group’s two-city U.S. promotional swing in mid-February; Metallica’s Kirk Hammett wants to record with them. Kurt Cobain, in the liner notes of Nirvana’s Incesticide, marvels at their ”honesty.” A tribute album, Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them, released in 1989, features 23 American alternative bands, including Sonic Youth and L7, covering Shonen Knife songs. The trio even has a U.S. fan club, based in Hoboken, N.J.
Virgin isn’t alone in turning eastward, as U.S. record companies gradually discover the exotic thrill and diversity of the Japanese underground rock scene. Last year, Sonic Youth fans who attended the group’s U.S. tour also experienced the frenetic art-thrash of the Boredoms (another band from Osaka — Japan’s Seattle), fronted by two bent-over-screaming lead singers. The hip indie label Shimmy Disc has released albums by them and the Ruins, a similar ”Japanoise” combo. Seattle’s Sub Pop will unveil the first American album from Tokyo’s all-woman grungesters Supersnazz in June. Another indie, Rockville, has just released an album by another distaff band, the 184.108.40.206’s. ”When Sho-nen Knife comes to America, they want to go to Häagen-Dazs,” says Rockville label manager Jeff Pachman by way of distinguishing the bands. ”The 220.127.116.11’s want to go to a sleazy bar and play pool.”
Yet another example of the Westernization of world culture? Not to Shonen Knife. ”We have a lot of things in common (with American music fans) — taste in music, and in kitschy and colorful things,” says wide-faced bassist Michie Nakatani, the Shonen best versed in English, over Mexican food the afternoon after Slim’s. Guitarist Naoko Yamano, the Shonen with the most delicate features, adds haltingly that she loves Beverly Hills, 90210: ”It is very funny.”
Like its Western musical counterparts, Shonen was raised on a diet of the Beatles and punk bands like the Buzzcocks and XTC. ”I wanted to be like them,” says Naoko Yamano. (Cheap Trick’s 1978 At Budokan album was more than an influence — long-faced drummer Atsuko Yamano was in the audience when it was recorded.) The group formed in 1982, naming itself after a child’s knife, and has recorded three previous albums. ”Everyone who wants to be big has to go to Tokyo,” says Nakatani. ”But the people who want to be themselves and play their own music stay in Osaka.”
There are a few crucial differences between Asian and American rock stars. Japanese punk bands who have played at New York City’s CBGB have been known to apologize on stage if they feel they haven’t played a good set. Danny Goodwin, vice president of A&R at Virgin, says of Shonen Knife, ”You don’t give them a Hollywood hug or anything. There’s head-nodding and distancing before you get close to them.” Indeed, the trio has refused to divulge their ages (they’re said to be in their early 30s) to anyone, even Virgin executives.
Will Shonen Knife and the Japanoise combos be perceived as merely a gimmick by attention-span-impaired alternative-rock fans in the U.S.? ”People do say such a thing, but we don’t take ourselves as a novelty act at all,” says Nakatani, a bit sadly. Naoko Yamano sternly adds, ”We are not Al Yankovic.” Virgin’s Goodwin admits that the group needs to work a little on enunciation. ”The repartee they have on stage is very cute,” he says, ”but in a song with 120 beats per minute, it’s hard to understand what they’re saying.”
Before heading back to Japan (a summer U.S. tour is being considered), Shonen Knife has to endure a few more American rituals, like interviews and record-store appearances. At 10:30 the morning after their appearance at Slim’s, the group finds itself huddled around a bunch of microphones in a control room at KUSF, the FM radio station of the University of San Francisco. They’re sleepy and in need of coffee, but game. Before the interview begins, though, the young, bespectacled DJ hands them a form letter about the use of on-air profanity. ”Can you sign your name and then write ‘Shonen Knife’ underneath?” he asks. Then he pauses. ”Uh… do you have signatures?”