What were The Only Children to do after a hellish six-week U.S. tour that featured a dysfunctional school bus and rendered frontman Josh Berwanger thousands of dollars in the hole? For the guitarist, vocalist, and founder of the Lawrence, Kansas-based outfit, he did the only thing he could: Berwanger cut his losses and mothballed the shop, boarding up the band’s metaphorical doors and windows.
The release of The Only Children’s striking sophomore effort, Keeper of Youth, finds Berwanger with hammer in hand, prying off the nails and re-opening for business. With a new batch of material, new roster and new vitality, The Only Children are poised and primed to give it another go.
Created by Berwanger during his final days as a member of indie-rock act The Anniversary, The Only Children came about from the sheer necessity to move forward with his ideas and creations. “The Anniversary broke up, and I think [The Only Children] started practicing about five minutes after we broke up,” says Berwanger. “Staying in The Anniversary was one of those things where I had no idea what was going on in my life at that time — I had been doing that for so long that I didn’t want to fully quit it and didn’t want to fully be in it.”
With his musical heart finally in the right location, Berwanger and The Only Children recorded their debut effort, Change of Living, which was released on Glurp in 2004. Shortly after the album’s release, the band embarked on its ill-fated tour. “Well, no one died, so I guess it wasn’t that bad,” says Berwanger. “But I’ve been touring since I was 18-years-old, and every tour I’ve ever went on, I came home with some money. On that tour, three of us came home $4,000 in debt.”
Though Berwanger opted to hit the brakes on performing, he knew The Only Children wasn’t parked for long — in fact, his song writing endeavors went full-throttle. In a head-clearing move, Berwanger and wife Heidi-Lynne Gluck left Kansas, temporarily relocating to Winnipeg. In the snowy climate, Berwanger often found himself indoors, demoing and writing songs for what would eventually become Keeper of Youth.
With over 30 songs in the bag, Berwanger originally planned to do two albums. But, in the end, the double-album concept didn’t make sense and after moving back to Lawrence, he opted to focus on recording and releasing an album’s worth of tracks, with some additional inspiration in tow. After connecting with SideCho Records in May 2006, Berwanger pulled the lever on the album-making machine. With a plan to assemble the tracks over several weekends, The Only Children entered the studio to begin work on their sophomore effort.
This time around, The Only Children featured a different cast as part of the band’s ever-rotating line up. Berwanger retained lead vocal and guitar duties and Gluck moved from the keys to bass. Drummers Ryan Pope (Get Up Kids), Bill Belzer (The New Amsterdams) and Christian Jankowski were deputized with the rhythms in addition to Casey Prestwood (Hot Rod Circuit, Limbeck) on pedal steel and new guitarist/organist Ricky Salthouse.
“We had things a little more figured out,” says Berwanger. “I took the time to realize that I really wanted to do this, to make music and make it a living. I really believed in the songs and getting them out and to keep going at it. I just wanted to put something out that other kids could listen to and find something that doesn’t sound like anything else. I don’t pigeonhole myself into one genre of music. It just comes out how it comes out.”
In fact, Keeper of Youth doesn’t sound like most of what’s going on these days — and that’s because Berwanger opted to not polish rough spots, instead aiming for sonic comfort over musical conciseness.
“I wanted the songs to be fun, rock ‘n’ roll and back to the basics,” he says. “Something that drives me nuts about today’s music is how everything has to be so perfect. I wanted to do the opposite of that and do it how they did from where my influences came from, in the earlier days of the music.”
“It’s kind of a risk doing that because everyone’s used to everything being so polished,” Berwanger adds. “But emotion to me isn’t some guy singing perfect pitch, having recorded the same part 70 times.”
Cutting a little less country out of the equation this time around, listening inspiration for Berwanger for Keeper of Youth included early rockabilly and Memphis-based rock ‘n’ roll. “I wanted to do something a little different with each record,” he says. “And there are a lot of different influences and flavors on this album, from reggae to ’50s rockabilly to ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll to roots and folk. It’s kind of like all those things in one instead of sticking in songs that are the same music, but with different lyrics.”
With the impending release of Keeper of Youth, Berwanger is seeking to hit the road once more — hopefully this time with far better results — and reignite The Only Children as a full-time endeavor. “We’ll work on getting this one going and hopefully it’ll catch on in popularity, and by the next record, we’ll be able to take our time and then just go at it from there.”