News Column

Music calls Josh Berwanger back on the road

October 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 30--Life can have its hard-lesson ways of making you appreciate what's important. Josh Berwanger knows that.

Ten years ago, the music world looked promising for Berwanger. The Lawrence band he had co-founded, the Anniversary, was touring with big-name bands and recording for a big independent label, Vagrant Records. It had signed to Madonna's management company and was getting attention from bigger labels.

"We experienced a lot of success," Berwanger said. "We were touring a lot and making money. We were ... right there."

But the Anniversary imploded in 2004, starting what Berwanger called "the most confusing time of my life." He responded by turning what was going to be a side project into his next band, the Only Children, which included the rhythm section from the Anniversary and Heidi Gluck, who'd played in Juliana Hatfield's band, Some Girls. Despite the connection to the Anniversary, he was starting over again.

"I'd gotten spoiled," Berwanger said. "It was my time to go out and lose money."

Berwanger and Gluck married, moved to Canada and then back to Lawrence, and had a son, Oliver. But as he was getting ready to tour on the Only Children's second album in 2005, his son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Berwanger eventually shut down the tour and the band.

"I had too much anxiety about my son," he said. "I canceled the tour, came home and we raised Oliver together."

He returned to Lawrence and resumed a former job, coaching girls' basketball at Blue Valley Northwest. But he never lost the music bug.

"I'm a songwriter," he said. "It's what I do. I never stopped writing songs."

Six years later, he has quit his job to devote his time to music and is back on the road with a record to promote. He put together a touring band comprising Michael Hutcherson, the Anniversary's first drummer; Zach Shoffner (guitar) and Brian Klein (bass).

This month, they climbed into a van and hit the road for a tour of the East Coast that included a stop at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. They are touring on "Strange Stains," Berwanger's first recording since 2007.

"Stains" includes backing support by Gluck, Hutcherson, Brandon Phillips of the Architects, T.K. Webb, who was in the Only Children's first lineup, and Jim Macpherson, who has done time with the Breeders and Guided By Voices.

The music is a mix of pop and rock, instantly catchy and accessible, and it has been getting lots of praise. Spin magazine called it a "shimmering solo debut": "11 tracks of upbeat, '70s-style singer/songwriter tunes that counter sad-sack lyrics with cheery handclaps and gentle harmonies."

Berwanger said he purposely stayed away from the sound of the Only Children. "Those were more country-style songs," he said. "I could see going back to that again at some point, but for this I wanted to focus on shorter pop songs."

Live, he said, those songs are even shorter, purposely, to deliver the point faster and with more punch.

"They sound different from the record," he said. "We speed them up. I love how the Ramones did that and even the Stones: You put more energy into the set. Plus, we're a new band, so we want to keep the sets short and catchy."

The mood of the songs may be light, bright and blue-sky, but the lyrics focus on heavy matters of the heart. Thus the title of the album: "Stains are like memories," he said. "Some you can remove, others remain."

The grand plan, he said, is to keep touring on its own, booking shows with friends' bands on both coasts, then trying to land an opening gig with a national touring band.

"Sleep less, drive more and do the extra promotional stuff," he said.

The band has already experienced the hardships that can come with life on the road. On Oct. 14, about $8,000 worth of computers, cameras and other valuables were stolen from its van outside a club in Washington, D.C. Most of it wasn't insured.

But Berwanger was undeterred. Being away from music for so long only deepened his appreciation for it: "I realized that I love music more than anything in my life that isn't breathing."

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send emails to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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