Punk rock and ramen. Who knew they're nearly a peanut-butter-and-jelly-level match up.
The Japanese pop-punk band Shonen Knife released their 20th studio album in 2016. In support of that album, Adventure, and deep into their 2017 USA Ramen Adventure Tour, they swung by Ichicoro Ramen in Seminole Heights before their May 6 show at the Orpheum in Ybor City and I got to slurp noodles with them while fan-girling, hard.
Naoko Yamano, sister Atsuko Yamano and a rotating cast of bandmates have been playing together since 1981, in many ways a rebuttal to that decade's nascent J-pop. They loved the Ramones, eventually doing a tribute album, and in turn were loved by rock greats like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. (There was eventually a 20-band Shonen Knife tribute album.) But through 36 years of music, one thing has remained constant: They sing about food. Cute animals, too, but mostly food.
Naoko, over her mushroom ramen, tries to count up how many songs they sing about comestibles, especially sweet ones. (She's got a sweet tooth.)
"There's I Wanna Eat Choco Bars and Flying Jelly Attack," she ticks off.
Sample lyric: "I'm gonna eat jelly jelly jelly jelly / Jelly jelly jelly jelly beans / You're gonna eat cherry cherry cherry cherry / Cherry cherry cherry cherry drops."
She goes on to list banana chips, sushi bars, wasabi, barbecue, "rock 'n' roll cake," strawberry cream pop and, a new song, Green Tangerine, named for a fruit from the hometown of current drummer Risa Kawano.
Why food, I ask Naoko, who writes most of the songs.
"I'm so ashamed to write about love. But I can sing about food or animals. Eating delicious food is (a) universal theme."
Shonen Knife started as an underground band in Osaka and Tokyo, often playing at local clubs and getting booked with other bands. When the band started touring in the United States in 1989, there were no ramen houses in this country, according to Naoko. This may explain the USA Ramen Adventure Tour.
"Sushi is very popular here, but ramen is just coming. I'm surprised there are so many good ramen restaurants," Naoko says.
In fact, she and the rest of the band chronicle their American ramen adventures at shonenknife.net/blog. About Ichicoro, Naoko wrote: "It's mushroom ramen. The white one was whipped butter, (with) dried garlic on the top. The soup tastes like soy. I love mushrooms. It was so tasty!"
And yes, the band has a song called Brown Mushrooms.
Wearing matching Mondrian-style color-blocked minidresses that Atsuko sewed, Shonen Knife look like rock stars even as they bend over their bowls of soup. But nearly 40-year veterans (they opened for Nirvana on the Nevermind tour, for crying out loud)? They hardly look it. What accounts for these Japanese women's youthfulness?
"Probably genes," speculates Atsuko. But also, she says, Japanese women eat more fish and rice. Again, the band is talking food.
Inspired by American music and singing largely in English, Naoko says the most recent album Adventure was inspired by 1970s classic rock — the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles, that kind of thing.
"When I started I didn't like such classic bands," she says. "I liked Judas Priest and Black Sabbath."
So how do millennials and Generation Z respond to new Shonen Knife music with these kinds of influences?
"Young audiences listen with very pure feelings. The songs are very pop and fun, even little kids can understand," Naoko explains as the band finished their dinner. "English lyrics go well with my melody line. Our melody line is very pop influenced."
And as the band packs up, bids their farewells to Ichicoro owner Noel Cruz and heads to the Orpheum, I hum a bit of a song from their album Overdrive.
"I want to tell you about my favorite food / It's perfect for after the show /... ramen noodles."
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.