Posted January 25, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

The Sidekicks Keep Running

The Sidekicks
The Sidekicks

On their new album, Runners in the Nerved World, the Sidekicks sound more like the indie act Built to Spill than the punk band Green Day. The band, which originally started out as a straight-up punk band nearly ten years ago, trades in snooty vocals and aggressive guitars for mid-tempo melodies. In a recent phone interview, singer-guitarist Steve Ciolek talked about recording the album with Phil Ek and what a dream it was for the band to work with the producer responsible for albums from Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, Built to Spill and the Shins, to name a few.

How did the band first come together? Was it really ten years ago?
We started about ten years ago when I was a freshman and learning to play guitar with my friends at Padua High School. I went to a Catholic high school. [That’s when] I met Matt, who still plays drums in the band. It started through our mutual liking of punk rock and wanting to learn covers and write the pseudo-political songs you write when you’re 15 and just starting to go against what your parents teach you. That was us having fun and learning to play together. It started to become a semblance of what the band is today in 2007 when we started working on our first full-length, So Long, Soggy Dog. We realized more people than just our friends liked it. That made us want to keep doing it. I was moving to Columbus, and it was a turning point. There were a couple of turning points, actually. There have been several lineup changes and artistic directional changes. The name is almost arbitrary. It wasn’t that we hated what we were doing musically. It was just that the name was a dinosaur of our skateboarding past.

How did the band catch the attention of Epitaph Records?
People there had known who we were. I play in Saintseneca and our record came out on Anti-, which is connected to Epitaph. I met several of the people who work there and talked to them a little about the Sidekicks. They were into the Sidekicks. We had a relationship with a few of the people. We had never tried to made records. We just put records out with our friend Toby, who runs Red Scare. With this record, we wanted to work with a producer. We didn’t want to make it big. But after working with Anti- on Saintseneca, I realized they were the real deal. In my experience, it’s one of the last few real label operations. There’s a radio branch and marketing teams. Not that the smaller labels are better. It’s just a sign of the times. To me, they have great resources and to us it was the best option by far. I think they heard the last record we did, Awkward Breeds, and we talked to them, saying that we were getting ready to look for a label. They expressed interest before we sent them a demo. Then we sent them a demo and they thought it was awesome.

Anti- is home to some great acts, like Tom Waits and Neko Case.
I think that’s why they started the label, to separate it from Pennywise and the metalcore stuff that Epitaph started getting into. The main selling point was that they showed us around the office and we talked about what we wanted to do and then Brett, who owns Epitaph, asked what producer we wanted to work with. I wanted to do it with Phil Ek but I didn’t think it was doable. He said maybe we could do it. The guy doesn’t do anything with people other than bands he knows. Brett hit up Phil and sent him demos and he ended up being into it. That was the main selling point for us. We wanted to do new things with recording and make a record that sounded good.

Talk about the recording process for this album?
We were up there for 23 days of tracking and then another 10 or so of mixing. There were days off lumped in there. It was awesome to spend so much time on it. We had usually been on such a time crunch. This gave us the ability to make sure every single thing sounded great. For the first time, it wasn’t just us at the driver’s seat. We just played our parts. Phil worried about capturing it. It was stressful from the standpoint that he’s a demanding person in terms of the quality level. Our record sounded the way it did after we tracked it. It’s not like he doctored it up. It’s more of an old-school approach. You have to take more time.

Did Phil Ek have any good stories about any of the bands he’s produced?
He was telling us these stories. He told us about a band who kept vaping and he could hear it in his voice. He told him he had to stop. After a few more takes, he called the manager and sent the guy to voice lessons. They halted the recording and then he nailed the vocals. This was before I did my vocals. I went in the booth and it was late at night. I warmed up and was feeling pretty good. He asked me if I was feeling okay. That night, I was so stressed out. Everyone else was hanging out watching movies. I think it worked. He played a mind game with me and there was no way I could have sang the way I did without that. That was the main thing I learned from him.

Your job as a producer is to be the quality control. If you have something you want to put your name on, you have to say something. It has to get there. I was motivated by that.

You sound more like Built to Spill than Green Day. Do you even think of your music as punk rock?
No. With this record, we thought we were making a pop record. We’re more aggressive live. I think of it as the way Elvis Costello or the Buzzcocks sounded on record. I never saw them live but they play the songs twice as fast. That’s where they become a punk band. I love those records. I love Elvis Costello records. Even the Ramones sound bubbly and poppy in the studio. You see them and they look mean. We’re more like indie rock of the ‘90s. They were pulling from the same pool of influences that we pull from, just ‘70s pop rock records like the Replacements and Big Star.

What inspired the album’s title?
Initially it was going to be Runners, but I wanted it to be longer. The “runners” thing is because the record is about movement and the inertia that occurs after experiencing a lot new things and growing up. Then, at least for me, you hit this point where the new things stop happening and you fall into a routine. People begin looking in other places for the stimulation of movement, whether that is going out to the bar or sitting on the internet or meeting new people. It’s about trying to find that fix. It’s totally in your head. I wanted to bring it back to the physical or biological connection. I also feel like in all those characters, they end up back where they started. It’s a circular sort of thing.

Are you able to quit your day job?
I haven’t had a job for the past year. I toured with Saintseneca. I’m probably as financially stable as I was when I was working at the pizza shop. It got to the point where I couldn’t keep a job because I had to leave for three weeks and then be home for a week. It’s just out of necessity. I didn’t want to quit the band to work at a coffee shop. It just seemed silly. If I wanted to play music, I wanted to do it as much as I could.

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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].