Do you know Shonen Knife? Do you like Shonen Knife? They are this Japanese all women three piece who play punky pop music and have been going forever. I think they sprung onto the Western world musical scene in the early 1990s, at a time when they had already been going for a while in their home country. Artists like Nirvana and Sonic Youth championed them and their nice dresses and good looks meant that they were always going to get some attention. They had songs with titles like 'Twist Barbie', 'Cycling Is Fun', 'My Favourite Town – Osaka*' and 'Bear Up Bison**', all sung in heavily accented English as a second language, which meant that to some they were easily fileable in the novelty to idiot-savant continuum. Some even saw them as a typically rubbish J-Pop act who had lucked out by attracting some undeserved international attention.
And then we stopped hearing about Shonen Knife. Maybe the novelty wore off, maybe they stopped touring outside Japan for the various reasons that lead to bands taking it a bit easy, or maybe the demise of grunge and the rise of Britpop (dread word) meant that there was less interest in a naïve pop-punk act that had been championed by Americans. But now – they're back! Shonen Knife (or The Knife as people sometimes call them, particularly if they want to mix them up with the popular Swedish electronic act) played an ATP a year or two back (or earlier this year, or something), and then a concert in Dublin (part of a long European tour) was announced. After some humming and hawing, I decided to go along to the concert, in Whelans, accompanying my old friend and quaffing partner Paul W---- who is a massive Shonen Knife fan***.
First we had a support act. They are from Tuam, and are called Slow Cow, or something like that. Paul W---- had said that they were some kind of indiepop act, and I think this might have coloured my perception. I started imagining them playing one of the stages at Indietracks. Musically they would fit right in, but they lacked a certain something in the visual department. Indiepop is one of those forms that likes to think itself as being above the fickle dictates of fashion and uniform appearance (witness the railing against the NME's support of bands who look flash in indiepop stalwart Pete Greens' classic tune 'The Best British Band Supported By Shockwaves'), but there is very much an indiepop look, and Slow Cow did not have it. Still, I reckon that if they were scrubbed up and fitted out with some new threads they could be the new Just Handshakes Please, We're British. That really does sound like damning with faint praise, so I should add that I thought Slow Cow were definitely good at what they do and displayed genuine talent at playing their instruments, particularly in the rhythm department area. However this is not really my kind of music.
And then Shonen Knife themselves. Time has dictated some line-up changes. Of the original members, only guitarist Naoko is still in the band. The other women on drums and bass are far younger and, it seems, far better musicians, though all the recent songs are written by Naoko. They start by standing together at the front of the stage, holding up sweatbands bearing cryptic Japanese characters. Then they launched into their music. The first track or two sounded distinctly ropey, making me think that this was going to be much more idiot-savant than actually good, but they picked up – maybe the Whelan's sound munter was on the case or maybe they just had some weak tunes to start off with.
And yes, this was a bag of fun – amiable poppy punky tunes like momma used to make. As well as the old classics they also had a song about everyone's favourite giant rodent, the capybara, perhaps inspired by the one in Osaka zoo who has taken to giving lifts around to squirrel monkeys. They also had some songs about the current world economic crisis and they encored with tracks songs from their Osaka Ramones album of Ramones covers. What was most striking about them, though, was their boundless enthusiasm. In Naoko's case, she has been doing this kind of thing for over twenty years, playing not particularly enormous venues. Yet she still seems to love playing and connecting with the audience, and the younger players also come across like they are having a blast (unlike the kind of session muso wankers you get padding out line-ups in Western bands). It was noticeable, indeed, that it took forever to buy anything at the merchandise stand, because the band were selling their stuff themselves and insisting on signing (and drawing pictures of cats and dogs) on everything people were buying. It is basically great to see a band playing who are so obviously in love with what they do.
If you were cynical you could wonder how calculated this all is, whether the Knife are creating a front of naivety as a ploy to sell records. I prefer to think that they actually do love capybaras and cute things generally. I know I do.
An inuit panda production
Capybara Shonen Knife
* Somewhat conveniently, Shonen Knife are from their favourite town.
** A song about visiting a zoo, seeing a bison who looked a bit sad and then trying to cheer him up.
***Paul W-----'s musical tastes are endlessly fascinating and entirely unpredictable.