Since 1981, Naoko Yamano has been the lead singer and driving force behind the pioneering Japanese pop-punk band Shonen Knife. She's still based in the band's hometown of Osaka, and after 35 years in the biz, she's about as plugged into the music scene in her home country as it gets. So when Yamano visited World Cafe with her bandmates to play tracks off Shonen Knife's latest record, Adventure, I couldn't resist asking her to recommend a few rising stars in the Land of the Rising Sun. Below, hear Yamano's five picks.
In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Extruders bassist and vocalist Yohei Toriyama stood onstage in front of a crowd of temple-goers and rock-worshippers alike at the stunning Saimyoji Temple in Kyoto and had something of a religious experience. He looked up at the image of Benzaiten, the Japanese Buddhist deity of flow and music, and "rediscovered rock" in a revelatory moment that redefined his band's sound. The result is a hybrid of Extruders' minimalist post-punk leanings and the free-form noise aesthetic with which its members dabbled as Toroid. But what truly sets Extruders apart from the pack, both in Japan and on the world stage, is the band's poetic approach to rock 'n' roll. Toriyama may be the only rock frontman who whispers more than he sings, and drummer Toru Iwashina may be the only rock percussionist to describe playing as if he were Picasso: "I started to see drumming as a big, white canvas and I'd splatter paint over it."
In 1996, three young punks from Osaka, Japan, unleashed Father's Golden Fish, a thrashing metal debut that includes the most terrifying song ever written about chocolate. After making ears bleed on both sides of the Pacific, the surprisingly smiley trio of women behind Yellow Machinegun found themselves playing punishing shows with Slayer and Motörhead for a rabid international fan base. Although the band is now defunct, lead thrasher, bassist and badass Kaori Okumura recently teamed up with friends from the Tokyo band Abnormals to shatter vocal glass another day. Their new project is called Suzisuzi, which means "vein." Listen to Okumura and company bleed on their raw 2016 record Scream Addict.
From the opening bass riff of Convex Level's November 2016 record Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth, it's clear this is a band rooted in rhythm. Over seven albums, it's experimented with Talking Heads-style avant garde art-pop, Steely Dan-esque syncopation and brass solos worthy of Bond movies. But at its core, Convex Level's 30-year history is all about that bass.
Yoko, Ikuno and Junko were working as bartenders at a music venue in Yokohama in 1991 alongside sound engineer and wannabe drummer Ayumi. None of them had played in a band before, but they shared a love of artists like the Pixies and Echo and the Bunnymen, along with a hunger to make music like their heroes. A few years later Noodles put out its debut record on the all-female label Benten and found itself rocking major radio airplay after their song "Booster" was snagged for a Coca-Cola commercial. The band has also toured both the U.S. and Japan many times over, having opened for anime legends The Pillows and American alt-rockers The Breeders. While diehard Noodleheads wonder whether there will be a follow-up to the playful 2014 record Loafers On The Japantown, Noodle newbies may enjoy diving into the band's languid musical stream with "Beautiful Dreamer."
Since coming together in 2011, the three women behind Aaps have released one mini album, one cassette tape and a sold-out 7-inch single. With limited tracks available on its Soundcloud, Yamano's final recommendation may remain Japan's best-kept secret for a little while longer. But if you happen to be hanging in Okayama on Dec. 11, you can hear Aaps for yourself at Pepperland with Tokyo's The Diditits. If not, check out the Sangria Disco Remix of "Summer Trip" — it's sort of what it might sound like if Ok Go went surfing in the Pacific.