In Japan, the yen doesn’t stretch far for musicians, let alone everyday people.
Recording studio space, if and when it’s available, is cramped and sky-high expensive. And for the loopy pop trio Shonen Knife, there’s the added distraction of fans at every corner in their native Osaka.
That’s why, for their Big Deal Records debut album, “Brand New Knife” (due March 11), sisters Naoko (guitar) and Atsuko Yamano (drums) and bassist Michie Nakatani chose to record outside Japan for the first time since they formed Shonen Knife in 1982.
“The studios in Osaka are usually very small,” Naoko Yamano said recently. “We don’t have enough space to record drum sounds. We couldn’t play all together at the same time. We could just play guitar and bass.
“This time, we recorded at a studio in Los Angeles. The studio was very huge and the sound system was nice, so we could rent a nice drum kit and also could use many amplifiers. We could finally all play together in one room, so we could make a very nice groove.”
Yamano said the band was pleased with the vibrancy of “Brand New Knife,” giving credit to the producers, the Robb Brothers (Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Rod Stewart).
“They were very good to us,” Yamano said. “They didn’t do anything by force. They understood that we are a three-piece rock guitar band, so they knew the most important thing was the band sound.”
The trio’s last album, “Rock Animals,” wasn’t a big seller in 1994 for Virgin Records, but it continued a growing industry buzz for their lighthearted, untarnished songs about their favorite things (ice cream, cats, jelly beans, rockets), filled with instantly graspable pop hooks.
Before “Rock Animals,” Shonen Knife built a U.S. cult following on several independent releases. Virgin stepped in 1993 and issued “Let’s Knife,” their major-label debut, and their popularity soared after opening for the likes of Nirvana and Redd Kross and an appearance on the Lollapalooza tour in 1994. They also cut a track (“Top of the World”) for the Carpenters tribute album in 1994. It recently was used as a theme song for a Microsoft TV ad campaign.
An example of their standing among their peers: Some 20 American bands teamed for a Shonen Knife tribute album, with groups such as Sonic Youth, L7 and Babes in Toyland contributing cover versions.
Yamano said the past three years have been their busiest yet.
“We toured a lot and then in ’95 we started to make demos and preproduction for the new album,” she said. “In ’96, we went to Los Angeles for two months, from April to the end of May, for recording. During the recording, we had Saturdays and Sundays off so we could refresh ourselves.”
Shonen Knife is an anomaly in the cookie-cutter pop world of Japan. Bored with their jobs, they quit and pursued their musical dreams, despite having no training or experience. Passionate and determined, they taught themselves how to play.
Today, they are perhaps the most independent act in Japan, often booking their own tours, managing themselves and handling all the bookkeeping.
“We are the bosses,” Nakao Yamano said. “Usually, Japanese bands, singers, pop idols have managers or they are controlled by producers or record company people. We are very independent.
“Sometimes it’s hard because we are too busy for paperwork. We need more spare time. Also, many Japanese bands or singers hire professional musicians for recording. Sometimes all their background music is played by computers, so it’s very easy for them.
“For Shonen Knife, we write the songs, we have to do arrangements and we do rehearsals for recording.”
All that on top of writing their songs in English first, contrary to pop customs in Japan.
“I write them in English and then I translate them into Japanese,” Yamano said. “That’s why I think English is not only American language but it’s also rock ‘n’ roll language.
“The style of language is totally different. We can put many meanings in one line if I use English, but it’s very difficult to put many meanings for one line in Japanese.”
BWF (before we forget): A selected Shonen Knife discography – “Burning Farm” (K Records, 1985); “Shonen Knife” (Gasatanka/Giant, 1989); “712” (Gasatanka/Rockville, 1991); “Let’s Knife” (Virgin, 1993); “Rock Animals” (1994); “Birds and B-Sides” (1996); “Brand New Knife” (Big Deal, 1997).