Interview: Josh Berwanger

Interviews / November 2, 2012

Josh Berwanger has been immersed in music for almost his entire life — from collecting records to writing music. In the 90’s, Berwanger was one of the founding members and principle songwriters of the seminal indie-rock band The Anniversary. Signed to Vagrant Records, the band was a bit of the label’s black sheep — performing indie/alt-rock rather than the label’s post-punk, emo mainstay genres. After releasing two albums, a handful of EPs and partaking in numerous tours, The Anniversary broke up in 2004.

However, not to be discouraged, Berwanger started a new band, The Only Children, an artful blend of alt-country with liberal helpings of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Again, after only two albums and a few singles, Berwanger called it quits. Since then, Berwanger has enrolled into college — studying graphic design — is the head coach of the girl’s junior varsity basketball team at the high school where he graduated and is a loving and devoted father to his son Oliver. Oh, and most importantly, he’s started recording music once again. Berwanger’s new musical project, simply titled as Berwanger, was successfully funded this past April through the help of donations on Kickstarter.

Berwanger was kind enough to take time out of his day to discuss his life, his new musical project and share his record collection with us.

How would you describe the sound of your new project, Berwanger?

The Only Children was more like, this kinda country style rock and roll, kinda thing. I haven’t been into that style of music, that particular feeling that it possesses as of late. But, I am so influenced by every genre of music. As long as it’s good, I’m into it. I like disco, blues, soul, hip-hop – I am influenced by every little part of all of it. Lately, what I have been writing is short poppy rock, punk-pop songs. That was not what The Only Children was about and it did not have that sort of feeling. I wanted this Berwanger record to be more fun and really focus on melody.

How were you able to get a former Guided By Voices/The Breeders member to help with the record?

Marc Benning played bass and produced two of the songs on the new record. He is good friends with Jim Macpherson. He played Jim some of the demos and Jim liked them. Jim is one of the coolest guys ever! It was an honor getting to play with him. I use to wake up every morning in high school and listen to The Breeders, so it was surreal for me to see him on the drums playing on my songs.

What have you been listening to that you feel has inspired the music, the feel of the record?

A lot of power pop from the 70’s and 80’s, The Shirells, 50-60’s rock n roll, Titans Records stuff, The Shambles, Flamin Groovies and Bee Gees. But also a lot of pop punk like the Queers and Screeching Weasel, I love that band. The Mean Jeans as well.

You mentioned that The Only Children was kind of like this alt-country band and Berwanger was more pop-punk/punk-rock. How would you say it differs from The Anniversary?

I think other people have said The Only Children is an alt-country band, but to me it’s just a rock n roll band. I guess it has a sorta twanginess to it and I feel there is more room to get sloppy with it. To me, the Berwanger stuff is more similar to The Anniversary in terms of the pop aspect and melody. I really love the bands from the 50’s and early 60’s, like the Impalas, Leslie Gore, and Crickets and Ronettes. The songs had very few chords, but the melody and percussion is what really made them great.

How has being a father changed how you work as a musician?

I really don’t see a difference. I’m a pretty darn good dad, I would like to say. I am able to be there for my son, be a major part of his life.

My son turned seven a couple of weeks ago and he’s getting to the age where he understands things. I mean, he’s really smart, easily smarter than me. We talk about music, about what he wants to listen to. He’s never seen me perform.  But I love being a dad. I love my son more than anything.

Berwanger will be heading out on tour within the next couple of months. How are you going to handle touring with your son? Will it be a family affair with everyone going?

Hopefully the record should be released sometime around March. So, we’re going to try and plan to tour around then. We don’t have everything worked out yet, but it’s going to be something like…two and a half weeks on the East Coast, then home for two weeks. Then two and a half weeks on the West Coast, then two weeks at home.

This is what I enjoy doing – making music, performing, touring. This is the only thing that I have ever had a real passion for doing. I’m in school for graphic design and I’m having a hard time getting into it. I like it, it’s just not my passion. You know? Anyways, just being stuck in the same place for too long is hard.

A few years ago, you had mentioned that you were interested in using music as a way to combat diabetes. Is that something that you are still interested in doing?

I wanted to build a community of people, of local musicians who would get together for a benefit concert, a fundraiser once a year. It would raise money to combat Type 1 Diabetes. That’s the disease my son has. Matt Pryor [of The Get Up Kids] was real supportive, but for some reason the concert couldn’t find a good footing. And we were able to only do it that one year.

But, I would like to get to a point, being an artist where I would be able to give away a portion of album sales or merchandise or tickets to help fund a cure for Type 1 Diabetes. I’m not there yet though. I haven’t sent the record out to anyone yet. I’m funding it all on my own. But I really don’t care about money, obviously I need it to a certain point, but it’s not my goal to make a lot of money.

One of the rewards that you offered on your Kickstarter was the chance to contribute to the album’s artwork. What sort of things did the people send you or is it a surprise?

No one has sent anything in yet, but I have an idea of what the artwork is going to be. I gotta keep it under wraps for now, but all I can say is it’s going to be sleazy. Something your mom won’t like.

Many people probably don’t know this but you’re a high school girls basketball coach. Are you disappointed that no on pledged enough [on Kickstarter] to get basketball lessons from you [$1,000]?

A little. That’s one thing that I always thought would be cool to do with a musician or band that I really enjoyed. Getting to play them in basketball would be great. I’ve always wanted to beat Justin Timberlake in basketball.

How did you get involved coaching girls basketball?

I was living in Canada for a while and then moved back to Lawrence. This was when I thought that I wouldn’t play music again or have much to do with music. With basketball, I’m not the best player in the world, but I understand it. I’m good at strategy. I know how to run a team.

Anyways, after I had moved back to Lawrence, I ran into someone from my old high school and I started thinking of things that I liked doing that didn’t have to deal with music. I got as far as basketball. But anyways, I ran into an old teacher of mine and she told me about an opening. I applied and got the job, it’s been seven or eight years now. When I started, me and the head coach (Dave Glenn) really worked at changing the attitude, and the atmosphere of the girls varsity and basketball program. And two years ago we made it to State; it was the first time that our school’s team had made it there in close to twenty years. So I’m really proud of that!

You mentioned that you’re in school studying graphic design. How did you get into that? Was that something on your list of things you enjoyed doing that did not involve music?

My ex-girlfriend enrolled me. I didn’t really know much about it. But guess I sorta had a head start from designing flyers and some record covers back in the day.

You are also a record collector. How big would you say your collection is?

I don’t know, I have never counted. My mom and dad gave me their record collection when I was like eight years old. It wasn’t that big or anything. But I remember mowing my neighbor’s lawn and after I would finish she would ask me if I would like to get paid or go into the basement to pick a record. I always chose to take a record. So out of that I had most of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, all these albums before I was like twelve.

Anyways, I have a seven foot wide shelf that goes from the top of my ceiling to the floor and there are six racks and it’s filled. And then I also have a jukebox that I just fixed up that’s filled with 45s, I’m gettin’ a lot of use outta that. The main thing about my collection though, is to not have any shit. If you put a blindfold on and pick a record it’s going to be a good record.

Within a year everything probably gets played at least once. I don’t have my stuff alphabetized or anything. It’s just broken up in sections – country, blues, soul, punk-rock, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, on and on. And depending on how I’m feeling, or what I’m in the mood for, I just go to that section and pick something out. But I seem to play a ton of 45s. I love listening to them!

What is it that you love about vinyl?

I love just holding a big piece of music. I love the fact that the music was thought out. On every record there’s a concept behind it. Makin’ it, you think about the artwork just as much as you do the music. You think about the tracklisting just as much as the artwork. Musicians and bands thought about music back in the day, about the artwork, all in terms of vinyl. It has to be good front to back. I love that fact. I love the sound. Most kids these days listen to twenty seconds of a song before they hit “Skip.” They do it because the song sucks. There is no soul in it. They listen to it because they’re told that they should like it. And they end up listening to twenty seconds of all these songs they don’t actually like.

With vinyl though, it’s owning something, it’s artwork, it’s music. Putting the record on the turntable and…there’s just something about hearing the needle hit the vinyl. The whole thing, to me, is warm and comfortable.

What records are you most proud of owning?

My Kenny Carter 45 collection! Kenny was this soul musician in the 60’s. He never put out an LP, but he released a  collection of 45s. And, I guess, I’m pretty proud of owning all of them. But, I don’t think about what a record is worth. If it’s worth nothing, it’s cool with me.

Last question – is there any chance that The Anniversary’s two albums will be repressed? How much of that is in your control and how much is it in Vagrant’s?

I wouldn’t see why they wouldn’t. Janko would be the man in charge of getting all of that done. I have no idea how much Vagrant has control either. I think that is something they might be into.

Big thanks to Josh for participating!

Update 11/12/2012: Josh Berwanger’s B-Sides and Rarities collection, Because No One Wants to Hear A-Sides is now available to download over at itunes.

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Ethan Merrick

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