NOT many bands can claim to have been an influence on grunge icon Kurt Cobain. It’s an elite club that Japanese rockers Shonen Knife, formed in 1981, belong to.

The Nirvana frontman was a devoted fan of the band and invited them to support his group on a British tour.

“When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine year-old girl at a Beatles concert,” said Cobain, who died just a few years after Shonen Knife and Nirvana shared a stage (more on that later).

Of course this is just one notable chapter over the course of a career that has spawned 22 albums. Shonen Knife’s record titles alone reveal their energetic, upbeat approach: one is called Fun! Fun! Fun!, for instance, and another the Osaka Ramones, named after the American punks that shaped the way Shonen Knife wrote music.

Since 1981 the philosophy of the band has remained the same, according to Naoko Yamano, the only remaining original member.

“I just want to make people happy though music – that’s my purpose,” says the singer. “When I started Shonen Knife I just played music for fun, for myself, but now I understand it is important to make others happy.”

She’s certainly done that – Shonen Knife have built up a reputation as one of the most hard-working bands on the circuit and have earned a loyal following.

Naoko first realised that she could make a career out of the band when she began to see “a reaction from fans at shows, and when I started getting fan letters”. She says she still receives mail from all over the world. Shonen Knife celebrated their 35th birthday a few years ago – although perhaps celebrated isn’t the word. Naoko insists there is no room for sentiment.

“I try not to think about playing for so long – I only look forward and never back. I would like to keep myself fresh.”

This attitude has surely contributed to Shonen Knife’s extraordinary lifespan. They’ve released records at the rate of more than one every two years.

And yet Naoko says she finds songwriting “very difficult”, especially the lyrics, which are almost always in English (she says that communicating in English while on tour here can be a “big stress”). She also claims that she is a “lazy human”, which seems a very harsh self-assessment.

Shonen Knife have gone through a few line-up changes over the years, which is inevitable, but they have been able to “keep rocking” by hiring new musicians from the Japan rock scene.

“Of course it is hard to continue sometimes, but everyone is happy now and we’re doing well,” says Naoko. In another interview, Naoko said she would never write above love. Songs about food and rock music itself are far more common in the Shonen Knife back catalogue. I wonder if Naoko has an aversion to writing from a personal point of view.

“If I write lyrics about myself, I cover them to make sure people don’t know they are about me,” she says, cryptically.

Because of their success in the West as well as the East It would be easy to assume that Shonen Knife were one of the few punk bands in Japan in the early 80s. The reality, says Naoko, is that there were many “underground rock” groups in her hometown Osaka as well as Tokyo.

The attention from Nirvana – as well their alternative rock counterparts Sonic Youth – gave Shonen Knife a greater level of exposure overseas.

Does Naoko ever tire of talking about her connection with that era of American music?

“I always enjoy discussing that, but it was a long time ago and I can’t memorise it all,” she says. “Every memory of I do have is very good, though.”

Of Cobain’s avid fandom, she adds: “The spirit between Shonen Knife and Nirvana is similar, but musically we are very far apart. Both of us could not play like the other, but we liked each other’s bands a lot.”

Naoko remembers Cobain as a very “calm, gentle and kind” guy, even though at that point Nirvana were on the brink of breaking up.

“When we toured with them our backstage area was tiny and cold, but Kurt always invited us to Nirvana’s big, warm room,” she adds. “I remember he gave me a peanut butter and jam sandwich – very American”.

At that point, Naoko could surely not have predicted her band would still be going strong almost three decades later. The rock scene would be a poorer place without their brand of joyous, life-affirming punk.

Shonen Knife
Patterns, Brighton, 
Saturday, April 7