Musician Josh Berwanger has been playing guitar since he was a young kid, acquiring his first guitar at the age of 10 and learning to play with the help of a friend. Although he played in some pop punk bands as he got older, he formed the beloved emo/indie-rock band The Anniversary in 1997 with his friend Justin Roelofs. Wanting to veer in a different direction musically, the band released 2 albums before breaking up in 2004. Berwanger went on to form the country rock band The Only Children, which called it quits in 2007, at which time he decided to take a hiatus from music due to feeling burned out. After a seven year hiatus that saw him getting married, having a child, coaching women’s high school basketball and taking college classes for graphic design, Berwanger has since returned to music with a solo career that he has simply named Berwanger, as well as the formation of the punk band Radar State with Matt Pryor and Jim Septic (The Get Up Kids) and Adam Phillips (The Architects/The Gadjits). He recently released his new album Watching A Garden Die, an album that is his most personal work to date that reflects the changes he’s gone through over the past few years. Now divorced, the album sees him address topics such as aging, anxiety and loneliness in songs that channel a slower pace than previous albums with sounds of pedal steel and orchestration. With a new music project, a new Berwanger album and a tour in the works, Josh Berwanger has given his fans plenty to look forward to! Staff writer Emily May recently spoke via email with Josh and discussed the new album, his hiatus from music and what’s next for him. You can follow Josh Berwanger and stay up-to-date with all upcoming news, music and tour dates via the following links. Check out the videos for “When I Was Young” and “Friday Night” from the new album below.
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You recently released your latest album Watching A Garden Die. The album has a more heartfelt and moody tone than previous albums, focusing on some of the changes you’ve undergone in the past year. You have said that in order for you to change the the things you wanted to do in your life and who you want to be as a person you needed to take better care of yourself and make necessary changes. Do you feel that writing this album was cathartic for you and helped you to make the changes you wanted to make?
It was really the only way I knew how to express some of the things I was going through. But, writing a song wasn’t going to solve everything. I had to seek out talking to a professional and being put on medicine(s) for anxiety and depression. It’s an ongoing battle and everyday I feel different. But, at this current moment the anxiety medicine is definitely working, which has been wild…in a good way.
You initially had doubts about releasing the album. What changed your mind?
When I finish up an album and after it’s mixed (before mastering) i’ll listen to it over and over in my truck driving wherever I need to go. I just had a hard time listening to a few of these tracks as they were more personal then previous songs I’ve released. I would get 30 seconds in and turn off the record and put on something else like WASP or Pretty Boy Floyd.
I talked with some friends about how I was feeling on it and sent them some tracks and we just talked about how some of the more personal songs that our favorite artists have released are the ones we love the most. Which is pretty obvious, but I just don’t look at my music that way. So it’s just like letting time take care of it all. It’s not that I haven’t released personal songs before, it’s just that this was a collection of way more personal tracks all in one.
You took a hiatus from music a few years back due to feeling burned out. You have said that looking back, you realized there was no way you could get away from music, something that you love doing. Do you feel that your break from music helped to relieve the burn out you had felt or did you find yourself longing to return?
The break helped 100 percent. I ended up coaching High School Girl’s Basketball for 7 years and in that break I hardly had touched a guitar. When I started writing the Strange Stains album I was completely doing it not knowing I was doing it. I had about 10 songs and cut about 3. I alsowent out to Colorado and recorded a handful of songs with Jim Macpherson (from The Breeders) on drums and Marc Benning (who produced the first Only Children record) on bass. Only 2 of those Colorado songs made Strange Stains.
You have said that prior to your break you never thought you would look at music as much like a business as you do now and that every little detail matters. What led to that change in perspective for you and how does it affect the music you make now?
I feel I’m in a spot I’m happy with but also not happy with. I really do whatever I want when writing and recording and our fans are completely supportive of that. I’m super thankful to have that, even if it isn’t a huge fanbase. But, we are also a band that can’t just go out and headline a tour.
Every little detail matters. One of the first things John Wooden (arguably the best basketball coach of all time) would teach his players was how to properly put their socks on and tie their shoes. In Bill Walton’s book he talks about how he came in as a High School All-American and how all the players were trying not to laugh and couldn’t believe what this guy was talking to them about.
Teaching young men to tie their shoes and put on socks properly may seem ridiculous. To me it is a teaching point and it’s a metaphor for how he coaches and how the tiniest detail will make the final outcome the best it can be. It’s about everyone being on the same page. It’s easy to say “oh that’s good enough” when you know it isn’t. In the end the final outcome will show the work you put in or didn’t put in.
During your hiatus, you enrolled in college for a bit to study graphic design. Is that something you had always been interested in?
I’ve always loved drawing and design. I was a Para at the High School I coached at and didn’t really know what else to do, I was encouraged to go back to school and learn some of the tools I wasn’t as experienced in by taking some Graphic Design and Video courses.
What do you feel that you have been able to apply to your band, or your life outside of the band, as a result of your studies?
I would say that if you are in a band learn how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects and Premiere right now! I’m able to edit my video’s, do the artwork, do the layout. Or if someone else does the art I’m able to lay it all out and save on money. Also, it gives you opportunities to do other people’s art and/or if for some reason the band doesn’t work out…you have a whole set of tools that can keep you doing something in the world of art.
I read that your love for music started at a young age and developed during your time in school at Blue Valley Northwest where the local talent show introduced you to the guitar. What was it that drew you to the guitar specifically?
I got my first guitar when I was 10. I started learning it from a friend in 7th grade. He would write out tab during Science class and I’d go home and sit there and figure it out and the next day ask him to write out more. So I was introduced to guitar way before BVNW. And what drew me to the guitar? In 1987 MTV premiering:
Randy Rhoads – “Crazy Train” – guitar solo.
What fueled your hunger to get better and continue to learn?
Once I started understanding how songs were written. For a long time I didn’t care about getting better. I felt I was good enough, lol. But again, why wouldn’t you want to be the best you can be at what you do? So I just bought books and VHS tapes on how to play slide and taught myself how to finger pick. I’m really not that good at guitar.
You have said that you created The Anniversary in order to improve your writing and create fresh music. What did you learn about songwriting from that band?
Justin and I started the band for that reason. We had both played in pop punk bands and just wanted to write music that wasn’t, well, pop punk. I feel with every band you are in you learn, from every musician you encounter you learn. Justin has always been such a great songwriter so watching his process on writing helped me create and further the way I would write. Also we would tour with so many cool bands in that time and I would be able to see how they wrote the songs and put them together. Bringing up John Wooden once more, after he retired and until the day he passed he would go to Basketball clinics and sit in the front row with a pencil and pad and listen to what other coaches were teaching. He loved the sport and wanted to learn until the day he died.
Do you feel that you were able to reach your goal as a band of pushing the boundaries and learning to be better songwriters?
Not at all. That is the saddest thing about that band. We had so much more we could of done and were not even halfway up the creative mountain.
You are described as being really great at writing songs that span multiple genres of music, going from the emo and punk sounds of The Anniversary to the country rock sound of your second band The Only Children. Have you always approached music in a genre-less way, not limiting yourself to a particular sound?
I guess so. My record collection is just about every style of music. I’ve never understood limiting yourself to one genre, as a musician or a listener. I’ve always heard all the bands I like as genre-less.
You are a record collector and have a large collection! What recent additions have you made to your collection? What are you listening to currently?
Recently I got the new Here Lies Man album, Who Framed Roger Rabbit OST, Death and Vanilla – Are You a Dreamer, Ofege – Higher Plane Breeze, Pacific Breeze – Japanese City Pop 1976-1988, Escape From Synth City, and I also just ordered John Rejba’s (Boy’s Life) new band called Wet Tropics 7″. I’ve been listening to all of those and some of the Dennis Wilson solo stuff.
Your video for “When I Was Young” features you, your dad and your son. What was it like to have 3 generations of your family in the video?
It was a little emotional for a minute. But ultimately just thankful to be in a situation where I was able to do that.
You mentioned that the images in the video are from recently discovered and processed film that your dad had shot in the late 70s/early 80s. What was it like to look through all of those old photos?
My Mom found the 8mm film last year in a box, so I sent it to a shop to have developed. It was very crazy to see. Seeing our old home in Indiana, Christmas time in the late 70’s and early 80’s, my relatives as young adults. Too much to handle really.
What was your dad’s reaction to seeing all of these old photos he had taken?
Before the album came out my Dad turned 70 and my Mom threw a surprise party for him. So I did a whole other edit of When I Was Young set to pics of him through his life and more of the 8mm with him in it. I believe everyone at the party had tears of joy flowing.
You have said that the best part about touring is revisiting old venues and meeting new people. What have been some of your favorite and most memorable venues?
The Troubadour in LA, the Metro in Chicago, The Crocodile in Seattle, Bowery Ballroom in NYC. I love all those places, there really are so many. Berwanger band was fortunate enough to play a place in Maquaketa, Iowa called Codfish Hollow, that is easily one of the coolest places if not the coolest.
You are also in Radar State with Jim Septic, Matt Pryor and Adam Phillips! You have said that you want to write write music for the band like you did when you were younger, but with a twist in the songwriting. What can you tell me about your approach to songwriting for the band? Does Radar State have anything coming up?
I think the idea was to just write more upbeat pop-rock songs. I’m not sure there are any big twists in these tunes unless you hear how each of us as musicians bring in our different styles of writing and that is what makes the group really fun to be part of.
I’m not sure what we are doing…Matt? Jim? Adam??
You had your first art show in Kansas City in early June! What was that experience like for you and what were some highlights? How did the show come about? Have you ever tried to have an art show in the past and do you have others planned in the future? What can you tell me about your artwork and what inspires it?
Drawing it’s like cooking in the sense it’s very meditative to me. My friend Dave Keith who is a really great artist not only in painting but film making as well…and he also does a dope podcast called Taco the Town. Dave had done a few shows at this spot in KC and I inquired about doing one, I had never done one before. He put it together. It went over really well. We are talking about doing another one very soon. I’m not sure I have any big inspirations I just start drawing and whatever happens happens.
What’s next for Berwanger?
I’m finishing up a new project with Ricky who plays guitar in the band, his wife Carly Gwin, and our friend Jarod Evans who is an amazing producer and musician (but, average bowler.) We have 7 songs and will be finishing them in September. I started writing a new Berwanger album and am hoping to start tracking by the end of the year. We have 3 shows coming up in October in KC and anyone can find out about them and/or stay up to date with the news on our FB, IG or Twitter page. I update the IG one the most.