Beatle Bob isn't here, and Josh Berwanger is disappointed. "I really wanted Ricky to see him," Berwanger says. It's a Wednesday night at the St. Louis club Cicero's. The small room is packed with perkily groomed high school kids. Berwanger's band, the Only Children, is headlining a three-band bill, and both he and guitarist Ricky Salthouse know they're screwed. They should have gone on second; as sure as curfew, the room will empty after Walk Sophie, a St. Louis University High School band with its first big gig, finishes its emo-earnest mutation of Jack Johnson and the Format.
Whatever you want to call Lawrence's the Only Children — rootsy, Stonesy, twangy — you wouldn't call them emo. Or would you? After fronting emotive kid fave the Anniversary and releasing two albums of earnest guitar and synth pop, Berwanger ditched that outfit just as it was building national momentum. The Only Children sounds closer to his native Midwest's classic guitar-riff roots, but as a songwriter, Berwanger still relies on unfiltered feeling, as if he were forever singing the first thing that comes to the heart on his sleeve.
Tonight that first thing would sound something like fuck this.
Berwanger finds a chair in the corner and watches the kids and their parents file out, as orderly as a Catholic-school fire drill. He knows he's had worse gigs — one of his first major tours with the Only Children ended in thousands of dollars of credit card debt and boxes of unsold beer coozies. But he'd rather be back in Lawrence with his wife and his baby boy. If Beatle Bob were bopping around, at least he'd have photos to send home.
When he gets onstage, the scowl fades, the guitars turn up, and the band just plays rock and roll. The opening song, "Tired of This Town," from the recently released Keeper of Youth, crashes and sparkles with a Big Star guitar hook but also stings like punk. The Children's short set keeps moving forward like that, all tough riffs and tuneful choruses, and the 12 people left in the room dance as though they've found the hippest secret garage party in town.
A few weeks before the Only Children's Midwest tour, the Pitch caught up with Berwanger to get the scoop on where he's been and where he's going.
The Pitch: We were warned not to ask you about the disbanding of the Anniversary.
Josh Berwanger: Really? I never said anything like that. I don't care about talking about it. It's just boring. And it's very personal. We were best friends, and it was a bad breakup, a bummer.
On the scale of breakups, better or worse than your first girlfriend?
Worse than any breakup with any girlfriend. I'll never have what I had with that band again. I'll never experience that camaraderie and friendship. It's as close to a family as you can get.
What was the best thing about quitting that band, that people stopped calling you emo?
It's really weird. When the first Anniversary record came out, I didn't even know what it meant. Now I hate the label "alternative country" even more. I don't even like that kind of music.
You've been called "country rock" and "meat and potatoes pop." Aside from the fact that you don't write country songs and your steel guitarist is a vegetarian, that's pretty silly.
For the first record, I can sort of hear it, but this record has nothing to do with that. Is Steve Earle alt-country? I have one his records. I like him.
Austin, Texas, songwriter Michael Hall has a song called "Sometimes I Wish I'd Never Heard the Rolling Stones." Ever feel that way?
No, no. But if he hadn't written that song, I would have. Even if people say we're a B-grade Rolling Stones rip-off, that's a compliment to me. Just having their name somewhere near ours — they're the best band ever.
So this new record is your Emotional Rescue?
Well, maybe not that one. A better influence is Black and Blue. They were getting into the reggae thing.
You've said that you wanted to make an album that sounded like shit. You'll have to try harder next time.
I went into the new album thinking I wanted it to sound like shit, but it ended up not sounding that way. I just didn't want to spend a lot of time setting everything up, choosing this mic or that mic. There was no second-guessing, just track it and go with it.