Japanese pop-punkers Shonen Knife to play their 1001st show tonight at The Mill

Shonen Knife
Shonen Knife released their 20th album earlier this year. — illustration by Ben Mackey

Shonen Knife w/ Habibi

The Mill — Wednesday, Sept. 17 at 9 p.m.

Naoko Yamano, the vocalist, guitarist and founder of Shonen Knife, has guided her musical vision under one basic tenet: Rock and roll is best when it’s fun.

Across 20 albums and 33 years, Shonen Knife has completely changed the musical landscape, all along the way writing excellent, catchy songs and playing exceptionally energetic live shows. The all-girl Japanese trio expanded the underground’s collective consciousness to include and embrace Japan, but they also laid the groundwork for the Riot Grrrl movement, creating safe spaces for female fans in the late-’80s clubs they played at. There are very few bands today that don’t owe a debt to Shonen Knife.

That being said, their approach is neither political nor ideological. Yamano describes Shonen Knife as being born of boredom as much as anything else.

“I’m very shy and I wanted to start a band with people who [I] knew before the band formed,” Yamano said, “Thus, I formed the band with my sister and my friend. I wanted to play music together other than, like, going bowling. For me, this band is for music and I’d like to make people happy through our music. It is the happiest thing for me that our fans enjoy our show.”

Though their goal is to just make people happy with their music, the group’s journey was far from easy. Whether it be a fatal car accident of a drummer in 2005, near-constant lineup changes (indeed, Yamano remains the sole original founding member) or the waxing and waning of critical adoration, Shonen Knife has weathered it all. Often caricatured as a few goofy girls who only play songs about cats and candy (a caricature that they’ve earned, to be fair), their 2012 album Pop Tune showed signs of weariness and melancholy. The last track, for instance, nearly reached the 5-minute mark, an epic by their standards. Concerningly, that track was titled “Move On” and, though certainly not a downer, stuck to a decidedly wistful tone.

The release of their 20th album, Overdrive, back in April of this year, sees the band pushing their sound into, well, overdrive. Doubling down on their aesthetics, the album is all buzzed-out guitars and shouted-out harmonies, like ’70s proto-punk in the hands of the most cheerful Japanese girls in the world.

Shonen Knife is a band that’s always been at their best when they try to make big, over-the-top American rock, letting their idiosyncrasies naturally seep into their songs. Yamano has never been shy about her love of The Beatles and the Ramones (indeed, Shonen Knife sometimes performs as a Ramones cover band called Osaka Ramones), but she also lists the Buzzcocks, The Jam, XTC, Nick Lowe and KISS as influential when the group formed.

“Now I like to listen to ’70s British hard rock and American rock like Thin Lizzy, Chicago, Boston, Rush, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and the Doobie Brothers,” Yamano said of her current listening habits. Overdrive certainly wears these influences proudly, displaying its fair share of muscular moments (and even borrowing a riff from Black Sabbath at one point).

For their decidedly mainstream classic rock influences, it’s important to note that Sonic Youth were perhaps their most ardent supporters, helping the trio thrive in the U.S. and introducing them to Nirvana, for whom Shonen Knife opened on their Nevermind tour. To this day, it’s nearly impossible to find an article about Shonen Knife that doesn’t shoehorn a Sonic Youth reference. If Sonic Youth was the oldest brother of the ’90s underground, then Shonen Knife was the youngest sister.

So, with Sonic Youth dissolving near the 20-album mark (if double albums are counted as two entries, that is), there’s a feeling that on their newest release, Shonen Knife’s legacy is not being taken for granted. This trio of girls has rightly stuck to their guns for 33 years, and their ability to continue to churn out fun, infectious rock and roll is something to behold.

Shonen Knife’s show at The Mill on the Sept. 17 marks their 1001st show ever, an impressive milestone if there ever was one. And if there’s any feeling that playing live has become monotonous, Yamano never lets on. “I’m very excited to play the first show after 1000,” Yamano said. “It will be the starting point of our new rock and roll voyage. We’d like to celebrate with our fans in Iowa City.”

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