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Growing up is weird. As it turns out, growing older can be even weirder. For musicians birthed in the fervently youth-centric world of punk rock, growing old gracefully is a largely foreign concept. Eventually most pop-punkers age out of their angry disaffection or creatively flame out whenever screamy break-up anthems start to seem tired, whenever you start to too closely resemble the very same people your younger, angrier self was rebelling against in the first place. In the case of The Sidekicks, the transition from high school hellions to erudite pop band has been a journey some twelve years and five full-lengths in the making. When considering the band’s continuing evolution, as evidenced by their new album, Happiness Hours, frontman Steve Ciolek is both happy and a little perplexed. “Every time we make a record I think about how strange and amazing it is that we’re still making records,” he laughs, “But at some point you have to stop worrying about what kind of record you’re supposed to be making and just make the kind of music that you yourself want to hear. I think it’s healthy to ask yourself, ‘What if this was the last thing we ever did? Would I be happy? If the band was forced to end tomorrow, is this the note we’d want to go out on?’ In the case of Happiness Hours, I think we all definitely would be.”
Not that the band shows any signs of stopping anytime soon. Formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 2006, The Sidekicks learned their chops via the old punk rock finishing school—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. This transition was fully realized on 2015’s Runners in the Nerved World, a Phil Ek-produced stunner that not only would showcase the band’s tightly honed pop sensibilities, but would keep them on the road for the better part of the next two years.
In order to help realize their vision, the band—Steve Ciolek (Vocals & Guitar), Matt Climer (Drums), Toby Reif (Guitar & Vocals), and Ryan Starinsky (Bass & Vocals)—enlisted veteran producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Jr, Kurt Vile) to produce, engineer, and mix the record. Agnello’s more hands-on approach, which involved prodding the band to constantly consider and question their choices, proved instrumental in helping the band push themselves in ways they might not have otherwise. “It was really about putting aside our emotions and looking towards a common goal,” says Ciolek. “It’s what I really like about being in a band, and what I always wanted when I was younger. You have these four people who are all really invested in the same thing and it wouldn’t be what it is were it not for all of our personalities being wrapped up in it. That’s what makes it so cool.”
The twelve tracks that eventually found a home on Happiness Hours show a band in full control of their powers. Each song presents its own little narrative microcosm and contained universe, all contributing to a record that, as Ciolek describes it, “feels like a potential collection of singles, every one of them a pop song, every one of them meant to make you feel good.” To that end, songs like “Other People’s Pets” “Medium in the Middle” and “Weed Tent” rank among some of the sunniest, most ebullient songs the band has ever recorded—all ringing guitars, charging drums, and soaring vocals meant for private bedroom dance parties and long, meandering drives. Still, the record’s beating heart is undoubtedly the title track, which Ciolek also cites as an emotional touchtone. “If someone was like, ‘What's the album about?’ I'd tell them to just listen to that song. Equal parts childhood nostalgia and critical self-examination, “Happiness Hours” explodes the notion of how we look at ourselves and compartmentalize memories: "If I rearrange the story/ Or magnify what I see/ Or execute a freeze phrame/ Moments can just be/ So if happiness comes in hours/ Well it looks like its that time again for me/ Gravestones deserve flowers/ Lovers deserve poetry". For Ciolek, the strength of the band’s new songs spring from the idea that these narratives—about lost loves and new loves and childhood friends—reach squarely towards a kind of universal experience. “They are relative to my life, but they aren’t just about me,” he says, “And that’s another thing about getting older. Unlike when you’re a kid, when every song has to be about falling in love or breaking up—about me, me, me—you get to a point when you really want your art to be inclusive. You want everyone to be able to locate themselves somehow in your songs.”
Just as your goals change as you get older, so does one’s expectations. For The Sidekicks, despite their storied pop-punk past, the band’s main hope is that people can always expect something new, songs filled not just with loud guitars, but also things like trumpets, pianos, flugelhorns, and the occasional tambourine. “I think the expectation with our records is that it's going to be something that you're going to have to sit with and it's going to be different than the last one and there's going to be new things there, “ says Ciolek. “The only real rule we had for ourselves, the most important question, was ‘Does this sound good?’ Cool. Let’s put it on the album then.”
Having spent the past three years not only writing songs, but also playing the occasional friend’s wedding, Ciolek and the band have adopted a kind of joyful looseness they hope will carry over into their forthcoming live shows as well. “We ended up learning 40 or so covers while we were trying to make this record,” he says, “It's like, at any point, like at the very end of our show, we could easily go into a whole medley of wedding songs, to play like Earth, Wind and Fire's ‘September’ and we've done that a few times. I hope people are ready.”