It’s quite alright if you’ve never heard of The Sidekicks until now. Once Runners in the Nerved World, the band’s infectious fourth album, drops later this month, they’re all you will be talking about in 2015. But it’s no fault of The Sidekicks that they’ve flown deep under the radar of Columbus audiences, as they’ve been a “band” in the truest sense—endless tours, a rich discography, ample pedigree—since Steve Ciolek and Matt Climer found a bond at a Cleveland high school in 2005.
But changes were imminent. Though the idea of The Sidekicks may have sprung from a teenage dalliance, what they represent now is evolution—growing up without growing up, or merely doing a switcheroo on punk-pop. Compare Runners with their teeth-cutting debut, So Long Soggy Dog, and you’d be hard-pressed to attach the “punk” to the latter. You’d be hard-pressed to even call them the same band.
“Now we’re more concerned about our art,” says Ciolek about the big change in The Sidekicks’ sound. “Back then we were only concerned with hanging out and playing together. Learning how to be a band. Now that we know that, we have to think more about what we are trying to say and what we are trying to do.”
“Stepping stones” is how drummer Matt Climer describes the upward trajectory of Sidekicks in the last few years. First it was sleeping on floors during house-show tours, gaining a devoted crowd the old-fashioned way, then it was opening for bands like the Gaslight Anthem and Against Me! in Newport-sized clubs; now, they’re strategizing how to crisscross America as headliners signed to the fabled Epitaph Records.
While still putting out new records for punk heavyweights like Bad Religion and Rancid, Epitaph have, in the last few years, shifted with the times, culminating in releases by bands more in tune with the do-it-yourself pop wave of kids who grew up ingesting everything from NOFX to Built to Spill. Runners in the Nerved World, The Sidekicks’ first album for the label, is emblematic of Epitaph’s newfound glory.
Songs like “Deer” and “Jesus Christ Supermalls” are buoyant, melodic anthems, rich with harmonies and elongated hooks, but the once omnipresent sarcasm and thrifty ethos of “punk” are embedded under the surface. It still, above all, retains the bouncy immediacy of their past.
“We’ve played a lot of punk shows and toured with punk bands for so long. I found myself so jaded with the trends in punk,” says Ciolek of Runners’ obvious progression toward pop songs. “I want us to be a band that you can go see at a house show and then take home a record that’s really poppy.”
Indeed, these days The Sidekicks have more in common with Saintseneca (who Ciolek has spent the last year playing with) than something that might play to a Bernie’s crowd on a Tuesday night. Much of that increased fidelity and those giant riffs are thanks to the hands of famed producer Phil Ek, who recorded Runners during a six-week stint at his studio in Seattle earlier this year. It was another perk of their fruitful relationship with Epitaph. The demanding Ek has engineered heralded records by the likes of The Shins and Fleet Foxes, and his work with the Sidekicks was no different, pushing the band through endless takes to bring out the best performance. To call it grueling would be an understatement, but the rewards are as expansive as Ciolek’s theory on what Runners represents in his own artistic transmutations.
“The record is sort of about the inertia of post-growing up and those experiences you gather along the way. It’s about trying to keep moving through that in some way,” says Ciolek of the album’s overarching themes. “I feel like a lot of the songs are about trying to simulate that movement, but eventually ending up where you began. There are references to drinking and maybe trying to chemically enhance your brain, but when you wake up in the morning you’re in the same spot. It’s about being aware of your mortality. Time is going to keep going.”