Shonen Knife – Burning Farm (1985)

The Cobain 50

Martin Douglas and Janice Headley dive into Shonen Knife’s 1983 album Burning Farm, which was released in America by Olympia, WA’s own K Records.

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Kicking off KEXP's month-long Pushing Boundaries celebration, Martin Douglas and Janice Headley dive into Shonen Knife’s Burning Farm, which was released in America by Olympia, Washington’s own K Records. Founding members Naoko and Atsuko Yamano share stories of touring with Nirvana in 1991. Plus, we celebrate this Osaka-based trio’s 40-year history of songs about food, animals, and toys. 

Special thank you to Yuko Headley for translation assistance

Hosts: Dusty Henry & Martin Douglas
Written + Produced: Martin Douglas & Janice Headley
Mixed + Mastered: Roddy Nikpour
Podcast Manager: Isabel Khalili
Editorial Director: Larry Mizell Jr. 

Support the podcast: kexp.org/cobain


Shonen Knife with Nirvana in Osaka, 1992

 

JANICE: In 1991, Kurt Cobain told Melody Maker magazine that when he saw first saw Shonen Knife in concert, he "turned into a nine-year old girl at a Beatles concert. I was crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out — it was amazing. I’ve never been so thrilled in my whole life."

JANICE: It’s no surprise that Kurt had Shonen Knife-mania. Quite simply, this trio from Japan create songs to make people happy.

JANICE: Shonen Knife was formed in 1981 in Osaka by Naoko Yamano, a recent college graduate who was working a boring office job. In Japanese culture, it’s a common tradition for a woman to take an office job while she waits for a marriage proposal. It’s no wonder why Naoko chose to rock out instead. 

JANICE: Naoko and her college friend Michie Nakatani decided to form a band, inspired by their love of American and British bands like The Beatles and The Ramones. Naoko recruited her younger sister, Atsuko, to play drums. Atsuko was only 17-years-old at the time. 

JANICE: Shonen Knife brought this youthful exuberance to their music. Naoko sings about candy, cute animals, and toys, in both Japanese and English.

JANICE: They released their first album – Minna Tanoshiku – in 1982. In total DIY fashion that Kurt would surely appreciate, it was recorded at home, as Naoko told KEXP over Zoom:

NAOKO: It was very, very casual recording. We recorded in 1982. But it was very casual. Our friend, he was a high school student, a very young guy, helped us to record it.

JANICE: Only 89 total copies of the album were ever made – 50 of those by the band themselves, with lip prints on the sleeves, although Michie once said that the lip print was by her grandmother. At the time, the album was released on cassette only. 

JANICE: While 1982’s Minna Tanoshiku is technically their first album, 1983’s Burning Farm is their first studio album. It’s also the album that landed on Kurt Cobain’s 50 Favorite Albums list.

NAOKO: When we played in Kyoto in, I think 1982 – sometime around there – a guy from a tiny record label in Kyoto asked to release our album from his label. The label is called Zero Records. And, he booked studios in Kobe. So, close to Osaka, or Kansai area, where we live. And, we went to the studio, but the recording was the first time for us, so, we didn't know everything. But, the engineer was very kind to us, and we could record safely.

JANICE: Atsuko remembered the days not recording with a click track: 

ATSUKO: First one, Burning Farm, we went to studio without click. Just listening, no click, just play together, the three of us. So very special group and very punk album, I think. 

JANICE: Minna Tanoshiku, Burning Farm, and the two following albums were all remastered and reissued in 2016. I asked Naoko what she thought of the albums, relistening to them thirty years later in preparation for the re-release.

NAOKO: Our album was re-mastered with very high technology, and it was released from Oglio Records in America. Listening to them, I feel it’s very creative and energetic and very, very unique. 

JANICE: While Burning Farm is indeed more polished than its home-recorded predecessor, it definitely retains the same child-like charm. Songs include "Elephant Pao Pao" – about an elephant eating a banana…

JANICE: “Animal Song” – which is exactly what it says it is… 

JANICE: And the song “Twist Barbie” – which was celebrating the iconic blonde fashion doll, way before the Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig movie that came out last year. 

JANICE: Here’s Naoko: 

NAOKO: I like Barbie dolls a lot, and I played with Barbie dolls a lot when I was a child at home. and I wrote this song, and Kurt Cobain covered that song at their secret gig, I know that.

JANICE: A year after Burning Farm came out, a young Calvin Johnson arranged to take a trip to Japan as part of an individual study program at The Evergreen State College. The trip would not only send him on a bright path, but also chart the course for an entire musical subculture.

JANICE: Here’s Kurt talking to Shonen Knife about how he discovered them: 

KURT: When you guys put out that Burning Farm cassette, well, Calvin, my friend Calvin from Olympia, he sold me that tape. I bought that tape from him because he works at K Records. And I heard it, and I fell in love with it.

MARTIN: Before Calvin Johnson became a somewhat accidental pioneer of the American indie rock scene, he was a young punk rocker with a dream of playing music in Japan. Luckily, he went to the perfect school to turn his overseas visit into course credit. 

MARTIN: The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington — where Calvin attended school — offered what is called an Individual Learning Contract. The long and short of these Individual Learning Contracts is that students are given the ability to create a long-term project of their choice, and their advisors would offer either a complete or incomplete; no grades, just learning by doing. The basis of Calvin’s Individual Learning Contract was to explore the Japanese underground music scene and publish his findings in Op Magazine. The publication was run by John Foster, who at the time also headed up KAOS FM, Evergreen’s radio station. 

MARTIN: Of course, there was an important side mission on this student journey to Japan: To play shows with his still-fairly-new band, Beat Happening. 

MARTIN: In fact, in the 33 ⅓ book series entry on Beat Happening’s self-titled debut, Calvin said the whole idea of Beat Happening was to go to Japan. With the help of a pal who happened to be an Evergreen exchange student from Japan, Calvin — along with his bandmates Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford — stayed in a building in the Nakameguro neighborhood of Tokyo, slated to be torn down. They were more or less squatting with permission while recording in the apartment, which didn’t have central heating nor hot water. 

MARTIN: The band did record and did play shows, but we’ll get into all that in our episode on Beat Happening’s Jamboree in just a few weeks. 

MARTIN: As Beat Happening fulfilled their goal of getting their proverbial feet wet in Tokyo, Calvin was making headway with his research project. He networked while browsing record stores and obtained numbers from various record labels. Eventually, he met with the head of Japan’s biggest distribution company, who gave him the name of an all-woman punk trio, called Shonen Knife. 

MARTIN: Calvin was unable to contact the band while he was in Tokyo, but ended up finding a copy of Burning Farm and taking it home with him to Olympia. He wrote Naoko at her home address, asking for permission to release an expanded version of Burning Farm. Naoko was very surprised that someone was interested in putting out Shonen Knife’s music in the United States.

NAOKO: He made a contact to me and he sent postal mail — not email at the time, but postal mail to me. And, after that, we exchanged postal mail, and he wanted to release our album Burning Farm as a cassette, and it was released in 1985. And so we shipped master tape to him, and he made a cassette tape, and he sent to me a sample cassette, and I was so surprised. Everything was going without my notice. So it was very, very far away for me. Seattle/Olympia is very, very far for me. So, it was incredible.

MARTIN: The release of Burning Farm — a cassette with handmade covers, as was the standard for K Records at the time — led to the widespread appreciation of a burgeoning style of music, called “twee punk,” which consisted of punk rock songs with sugary melodies and cute song topics. 

MARTIN: The rise of the indie-pop underground in the mid-80s led to artists like Sonic Youth inviting Shonen Knife to open for them in their hometown of Osaka, and even a 1989 tribute album — titled Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them — which included bands like the aforementioned Sonic Youth, as well as L7 and Redd Kross. 

MARTIN: Burning Farm’s American release on K attracted the attention of another pop-obsessed punk living in Olympia, who was not far away from becoming the biggest rock star on Earth. Kurt Cobain repeatedly designated himself as Shonen Knife’s biggest fan.

Kurt Cobain holds up his Shonen Knife t-shirt



JANICE: In fact, Kurt was such a big fan, he asked Shonen Knife to open for Nirvana on their 1991 European tour. 

JANICE: Nevermind had just been released in the US in September, and it hadn’t even been released yet in Japan. Nirvana hadn’t blown up yet, the way they would in January 1992 when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will become a #1 hit in America. Naoko told us about getting the invitation to open for them, even though they hadn’t heard of Nirvana yet:

NAOKO: We didn't meet them before the tour. We knew them only by photograph. I think management of maybe Nirvana made a phone call to our management in Tokyo at that time. Our manager was an American guy. And, he showed us the photograph of Nirvana, and they looked very wild. And I was a bit scared to tour with them at the time.

JANICE: When Nirvana arrived in Japan for their tour, Shonen Knife quickly realized they had nothing to fear. Here’s Naoko talking about the first time she met Kurt:

NAOKO: When I first met Kurt was in a very dark truck. Many music equipments in back cargo of truck. And members of Shonen Knife and Kurt Cobain took a ride in the same cargo. And I talked with Kurt in very, very dark, tiny boxes.

JANICE: Atsuko added:

ATSUKO: At the time, we talked to Kurt, and Kurt [was] missing his dog. And then we saw his suitcase in there, and he painted the picture of dog on his public suitcase. So cute.

NAOKO: In Scotland or somewhere, it was very cold at the dressing room. So Kurt invited us to his dressing room because his dressing room was warm. And he let me eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He gave it to me. So I was surprised because I usually don't eat peanut butter and strawberry jam together in Japan. I got to know American people's favorite. 

JANICE: Shonen Knife opened again for Nirvana during their 1993 US tour, alongside The Breeders. The band talked about the audience response on MTV News:

GROHL: They went into their first song, and everyone seemed baffled. Next couple of songs, they won over the audience by the end of the night…
KURT: I was an emotional sap the whole time. I cried every night.
KRIST: You couldn’t help it! 

JANICE: Here’s Kurt one more time, talking to the band backstage during their 1991 European tour:

KURT: We're glad that we finally got to go on tour with you. Now a lot of people love you guys.

MARTIN: In the years since their Nirvana tour and major label debut, Shonen Knife has kept up a mark of delightful artistic consistency and has grown and shifted, a natural byproduct of anything continuing to exist. They have welcomed and endured lineup changes, pregnancies, terrible car accidents, and the longstanding love and gratitude of their fans. They’ve recorded a cover album with songs belonging to their beloved formative inspiration the Ramones. 

MARTIN: They’ve contributed songs to the soundtracks of Powerpuff Girls (a spiritual connection if there ever was one) and that one Fast and the Furious movie set in Tokyo, they’ve delivered outstanding covers of My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep” and the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” to tribute albums. They’ve been panned by Beavis and Butthead, known to some — and by some, I mean me — as the last of the real music critics. In the MTV era, bands getting made fun of by Beavis and Butthead was considered a gold ribbon of success.

JANICE: Shonen Knife are celebrating over 40 years as a band now. They released their 20th album last year titled Our Best Place. Always staying true to their love of food, it contains the singles “Spicy Veggie Curry” 

JANICE: and “Vamos Taquitos”, inspired by Atsuko’s new home in Los Angeles… 

JANICE: When we spoke to the band, they were in the middle of a Japanese tour. I asked if we might get to see them in America. While no official tour dates have been announced yet, when they are, Naoko suggested you won’t want to miss it. 

NAOKO: Yeah, I think we continue touring in Japan and overseas, but, I am getting old. I don’t know how long I can continue or not. So, I hope people come to our show. It might be the last chance.  [ laughs ] 

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