Ramen Rock: These Japanese Punk Legends Sing About Food

May 25, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 2:20 pm

By night, they play gigs. By day, they sample ramen in cities across America.

They're the three women of Shonen Knife, a legendary rock band from Japan. For over 35 years, the band has been serving up infectious punk songs with a delicious twist: Many of them are about food. Think song titles like "Wasabi," "Hot Chocolate" and "Sushi Bar." But don't dismiss them as bubblegum pop: Over the years, some of their biggest fans have included giants of alt-rock music.

This spring, Shonen Knife embarked on its latest adventure – a ramen rock tour of the U.S.

Why ramen? Well, ramen is really like Japanese soul food, says Daisuke Utagawa, a ramen restaurateur in Washington, D.C., and unofficial ambassador of Japanese food culture. "It's probably as important as your pizza here."

And the noodles are becoming all the rage in America. So, to promote its latest album, called Adventure, Shonen Knife is on what it calls the "Ramen Adventure Tour" of the U.S. I met up with the band at Haikan, one of Utagawa's hip ramen restaurants.

The band's line up has changed over the years, but these days, it consists of drummer Risa Kawano and its two founding members — guitarist Naoko Yamano and her sister, Atsuko Yamano, who plays bass guitar. Like Cher or Beyonce, all three ladies prefer to go by first names only.

Naoko is the most fluent in English and does most of the talking. I kick off by asking the obvious: Why go on a ramen tour?

"Sushi is already very popular, but ramen is now happening in America," Naoko says.

And — oh yeah — they happen to have a hard-rock anthem called "Ramen Rock," written for a former band mate who had a habit of dining out on the noodles after playing shows. (Ramen is also a traditional hangover food in Japan.)

Naoko and Atsuko formed Shonen Knife in 1981 in Osaka, Japan. They were inspired by pop punk bands like the Ramones. (In 2011, the band released a tribute album called Osaka Ramones.) These days, Naoko says, she's more into "'70s hard rock music, like Judas Priest or Black Sabbath or sometimes KISS."

Naoko has always been the front-woman. And from the very beginning, many of their songs have been about food. "When I started Shonen Knife, I was ashamed to write about love," she explains.

Naoko says romantic love, the standard stuff of music lyrics, was just too embarrassing to sing about. But love of food was another story.

"I found that eating delicious food is the most important thing for people," she says. "It's a kind of universal topic."

So is dieting. Naoko — who is quite petite — says the need to curb her love of cookies inspired the song, "I Wanna Eat Cookies," which features a memorable refrain that many listeners can identify with: "I wanna eat delicious cookies .... as much as I want to eat!"

By 1989, Shonen Knife's catchy, playful songs had attracted some pretty big-name fans – including influential alternative-rock bands like Sonic Youth, Red Kross and L7, all of whom sang on a tribute album to the group called Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.

In 1991, Nirvana asked Shonen Knife to join them on tour. At the time, Naoko says, she'd never heard of Kurt Cobain and company, but their grunge look gave her pause. "I was so scared because their looking was very wild," Naoko recalls.

That was just as Nirvana's seminal album Nevermind was blowing up. But as Cobain told MTV News a couple of years later, he was the one in awe of Shonen Knife, watching them perform night after night from the side of the stage. "I was an emotional sap the whole time. I cried every night," said Cobain, who frequently shared his love of the band with interviewers.

Unlike Nirvana, Shonen Knife never made it huge. But over the decades, the band has remained a cult favorite. A couple of hours after our ramen dinner, they took the stage at D.C.'s Black Cat. And they kicked things off with a song called "Banana Chips" ... of course.

Shonen Knife's latest U.S. tour wraps up this weekend.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we turn to a story about a legendary rock band from Japan. It's Shonen Knife, a trio of women. And for over 35 years, they've been serving up bubbly punk songs with a delicious twist. A lot of their songs are about food with titles like "Wasabi," "Hot Chocolate" and "Sushi Bar."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUSHI BAR")

SHONEN KNIFE: (Singing) Sushi, sushi, sushi bar, going to a sushi bar. Sushi, sushi, sushi...

SHAPIRO: The band's latest adventure is a Ramen Rock tour of the U.S. Here's NPR's Maria Godoy host of our food blog The Salt.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Yeah. You heard that right - a rock band on a ramen tour. Why ramen? Well, ramen is really like Japanese soul food, and it's becoming all the rage here in America. So to promote their latest album called "Adventure," Shonen Knife has embarked on what it calls the Ramen Adventure Tour of the U.S. By night, they play gigs. By day, they sample ramen from cities around the country.

ATSUKO: OK. I will take a Shoyu ramen.

NAOKO: I'll have a Shoyu ramen.

GODOY: I met up with them at Haikan, a hip ramen restaurant in Washington, D.C.

RISA: Hi. I'm Risa. I play the drums.

ATSUKO: Hello. I'm Atsuko. I play the bass guitar.

NAOKO: Hi. I'm Naoko. I play the guitar.

GODOY: Atsuko and Naoko are sisters. Like Cher or Beyonce, all three ladies go by first names only. Naoko's the most fluent in English and does most of the talking. I kick off by asking the obvious. Why go on a ramen tour?

NAOKO: Sushi is already very popular, but ramen is now happening in America.

GODOY: And, oh, yeah. They happen to have an anthem called "Ramen Rock."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMEN ROCK")

SHONEN KNIFE: (Singing) Ramen noodle (unintelligible). Ramen noodle, the more I get...

GODOY: Naoko and Atsuko formed Shonen Knife in the early 1980s in Osaka, Japan. They were inspired by pop punk bands like The Ramones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKAWAY BEACH")

THE RAMONES: (Singing) Rock, rock, Rockaway Beach, rock, rock, Rockaway Beach...

GODOY: Naoko has always been the frontwoman, and from the very beginning, many of their songs have been about food.

NAOKO: When I started Shonen Knife, I was ashamed to write about love.

GODOY: Naoko says romantic love, the standard stuff of music lyrics was just too embarrassing to sing about. But love of food - that was another story.

NAOKO: I found that eating delicious food is the most important thing for people. It's a kind of universal topic.

GODOY: So is dieting. Naoko who is quite petite says the need to curb her love of cookies inspired this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA EAT COOKIES")

SHONEN KNIFE: (Singing) I want to eat delicious cookies as much as I want to eat.

GODOY: In the early '90s, Shonen Knife's catchy, playful songs attracted some pretty influential fans like alt-rock giant Sonic Youth. In 1991, Shonen Knife was asked to join Nirvana on tour. At the time, Naoko says, she'd never heard of Kurt Cobain and company.

NAOKO: I was so scared because their looking was very wild.

GODOY: That was just as Nirvana's seminal album "Nevermind" was blowing up. But as Cobain told MTV News a couple of years later, he was the one in awe of Shonen Knife watching them perform every night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KURT COBAIN: I was an emotional sap the whole time. I cried every night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He couldn't help it.

GODOY: Unlike Nirvana, Shonen Knife never made it huge. But over the decades, the band has remained a cult favorite. A couple of hours after our Ramen dinner, they took the stage at D.C.'s Black Cat. And they kick things off with a song called "Banana Chips" of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANANA CHIPS")

SHONEN KNIFE: (Singing) Banana chips for you. Banana chips for me. In the afternoon, banana chips and tea.

GODOY: Shonen Knife will be on tour in the U.S. through the end of May. Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANANA CHIPS")

SHONEN KNIFE: (Singing) They're just a little bit sweet. Banana chips, banana chips, banana chips, banana chips, banana chips, banana chips, banana chips. Oh, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.