Growing up is weird. Very few of us ever end up doing that thing for a living that we imagined we might when we were kids. Even fewer end up doing the same thing for the rest of our lives that we were doing as teenagers, even if that thing happens to be making music with our friends. In the case of The Sidekicks, a teenage affinity for playing propulsive punk rock somehow, against all odds, managed to turn into a full-time life pursuit. After nearly a decade of making noisy rock music, The Sidekicks have the audacity to finally grow up and their newfound maturity is at the very core of their excellent new album, Runners in the Nerved World.
“This band essentially started when we were kids, when we were fifteen,” recalls front man Steve Ciolek. “Every time we make a new record I always stop and ask myself if we’re even the same band now. We were in high school, you know? We loved bands like Against Me! and that’s where we were coming from. Over the years we’ve all grown and changed—like anyone does—and you want the art you make to reflect that. It’s just funny sometimes to think about it. The Sidekicks feels like an arbitrary moniker sometimes, you know? We’re certainly not the same people we were back then.”
Formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 2006, The Sidekicks paid their dues according to the old-fashion punk rock model—by playing lots and lots of shows, sleeping on floors, and generally devoting themselves to recording and touring at the expense of any other kind of life. The bands earliest recorded efforts—2007’s So Long, Soggy Dog and 2009’s Weight of Air—reflected this. By the time they released 2012’s Awkward Breeds, the romance of punk rock was beginning to wane and the influence of pop music began to creep in. “To me the appeal of punk rock was that there weren’t any rules,” says Ciolek. “Now the word “punk” has changed so much. I still like the whole spirit of punk rock, but it’s crazy to spend so many years on the road playing with so many bands that all sound exactly the same, like they are all working within this very rigid formula. A lot of our music now feels like a reaction to that, to having been around that for so many years. This record was really about trying to get away from that punk format, even though I have a lot of respect for that music.”
For the recording of Runners in the Nerved World the band— Steve Ciolek (Vocals & Guitar), Matt Climer (Drums), and Ryan Starinsky (Bass)—decamped to Seattle to work with famed indie-rock producer Phil Ek, a pairing that proved to be something of a dream come true for Ciolek. “The dream from the very beginning was to work with Phil Ek,” says Ciolek, “When that became a reality it was almost too good to be true. It was working with Phil that really shaped the sound of the record. Up until this point we’d just go into a studio for a week and record everything live and that would be it. This time around I just really wanted to make a great pop record. I was ready to abandon that idea that we’re a punk band and everything has to sound like we’re a punk band playing in a basement somewhere. I wanted to let the songs just go wherever they needed to go, which was liberating. This time we got to spend six weeks on the songs instead of just one.”
According to Ciolek, the songs that eventually found their way onto the new record represented a period of growth for the band, which is obvious from the beginning of album-opener “Hell is Warm”—a track whose feather light guitar lines give way to charging drums and Ciolek’s soaring vocals asking the question “How do we not get lost?” It seems a fitting question to open an album all about piloting new and mysterious paths. Tracks like “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist” and “Deer” bring to mind the kind of jangly pop euphoria of early Band of Horses or old Built to Spill records, while “Everything in Twos” is the kind of pop punk jam seemingly tailor made for singing along in a car at peak volume. According to Ciolek, the album offers a variety of firsts for the band. “ ‘Satellite Words and Me’ is kind of the first ballad we’ve ever written, like our version of “The Long and Winding Road” or something,” he explains. “Also, ‘Jesus Christ Supermalls’ is kind of our way of taking a step towards making a real pop song. We weren’t trying to get all symphonic or Phil Spector on this record, but there wasn’t any rule that we couldn’t use strings and things like that. For the first time ever we really let ourselves explore the possibilities of a studio. Plus, Phil Ek really knows how to make guitars sound great and I think he really enjoyed the opportunity to make a real rock record.“ The end result is an album that feels deceptively effortless; a collection of songs about the need to move forward, packed with buoyant melodies and razor-sharp hooks that go on for days and days.
“At its core, Runners in the Nerved World is about getting past the excitement of growing up and finding new ways to simulate that movement,” says Ciolek. “How that movement manifest itself varies from song to song–whether it be chemically (basically all the drinking references), physically (“Blissfield, MI”), or even by having new romantic partners. The point the record is supposed to make is that it’s often pretty arbitrary how that movement is simulated. Regardless of the situation, inevitably the characters in these songs just get stuck in those cycles. The record tries to deconstruct that inertia–that constant motivation to run.”
As for what happens next for The Sidekicks, Ciolek and the rest of the band look forward to getting back on the road and playing shows that reflect the bands increasingly varied back catalog. “Everything we’ve done in the past is still relevant for us,” says Ciolek. “It’s just weird to think about how something just becomes your life’s work, you know? It just happens without you even realizing it. Maybe that’s what some of these new songs are kind of about. You know, sometimes it’s scary to think about doing this when I’m 30 and I’ll have been doing this for fifteen years at that point. It’s wild. The Sidekicks could be a totally different kind of band by then, which is fine as long as we’re still having a good time.”