Former Anniversary singer and guitarist Josh Berwanger has crafted the most glorious man cave in the basement of his mother's Leawood home. It's an elaborate setup: Star Wars collectibles still in their original plastic, lava lamps, a bookcase stacked with vinyl, a jukebox, a samurai sword. There's also a soundproof practice space and a bed for Berwanger's bandmate, Michael Hutcherson, to crash on.
This, you think when you see it, is a place where magic must happen.
Lately, it has. This is where Berwanger came up with the music for his new solo record, Strange Stains, and it's where he and Hutcherson practice and listen to records and eat pizza. It's also the place where Berwanger rediscovered his love for making music after a long hiatus.
"I had kind of taken a little bit of a break from music, just because I was tired," Berwanger says. We've left the basement temporarily to eat pad Thai and talk about the musician's recent history. "I wasn't necessarily tired of writing songs but just tired of being part of a music scene, and I was just burnt out on everything."
Following the demise of the Anniversary, in 2004, Berwanger started a new project, called the Only Children. In 2007, after the Only Children's second album, Berwanger stopped making music and started coaching high school basketball. Six years into that job, though, Berwanger started creating again.
Berwanger still has a few grumbles about the music business, but, at 35, he has learned that the best defense against that wariness turns out to be the work itself. "I was constantly writing songs and wanting to perform again, because I realized that that's just what I loved," he says. "It was realizing that the shit I don't like [about the music industry] doesn't matter, because I don't need to associate myself with those things."
Reflecting that new attitude, Strange Stains isn't like what Berwanger did with the Anniversary or the Only Children. It's upbeat, sunny rock and roll with shots of doo-wop, a pop album that makes Berwanger's sarcastic, often frustrated lyrics go down sweet. The songs run two to three minutes each, and the album's 11 tracks don't push past half an hour.
"I wanted to do more songs that get to the point and don't mess around," Berwanger says.
He has left himself very little time to mess around these days. Berwanger has quit his coaching job and fully recommitted himself to music.
"Behind the scenes, Michael and I are working our asses off," he says. "Every day, we're e-mailing and trying to work social media. We're working really hard on it. We have goals, and we're working our way there. If you would have said that to me in the Anniversary, I would have just been like, 'I have no idea what you're telling me right now. We're just going to go tour and write songs.'"
Back in the basement, Berwanger digs out a small metal box of old 45s. These are his most prized possessions, he says as he sifts through them with careful fingers.
"I don't think people get what rock and roll is anymore," Berwanger says. "People think that if there's no flashing lights or fog machine, or if Pitchfork doesn't write about it, it doesn't matter." He slips a record from its sleeve. "The world is so strange. How can a band be on tour and there are five people listening in a room and they're all on their phones and none of them go say 'hi' after the set or get a free sticker?"
Berwanger plays the single, a 1960s soul song by Kenny Carter. He closes his eyes and smiles.
"You should go and support the best stuff," Berwanger says, leaning back. "You should love every aspect of what you do, and you should take it 100 percent seriously. And you gotta search for it."