Columbus act's second record for Epitaph — its best yet — gives off summery vibes amid waves of nostalgia
About a year ago, the Sidekicks played a show at Cafe Bourbon Street, excitedly performing the songs from the band's next record, which the Columbus foursome was about to go record.
But just after the show, the original producer canceled and recording sessions were scrapped. So the band found itself with some time on its hands while it rescheduled with new producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.), who listened to demos and began emailing ideas to the musicians. In the end, the delay was welcome.
“We were ready to go to the studio in May, and then we had a long time to tinker with the songs. It was good to have a second and step away and try new things,” said singer/guitarist Steve Ciolek, seated outside a Clintonville coffee shop on a sunny weekday morning alongside bandmates Matt Climer (drums), Toby Reif (guitar/vocals) and Ryan Starinsky (bass/vocals).
The band was also more prepared to go into the studio with a big-name producer this time around. Even though most of the Sidekicks' members have been making music together since their days as high school punk rockers in Cleveland in the mid-2000s (Reif joined up more recently), the bandmates point to recording sessions with producer Phil Ek for 2015 breakout album Runners in the Nerved World (Epitaph) as a watershed moment.
“After going to Phil, he kind of whipped us into shape,” Ciolek said.
The Sidekicks had a more comfortable experience while making new album Happiness Hours, which the band will celebrate with a release show at Ace of Cups on Saturday, May 19. The relaxed atmosphere was no doubt helped by Agnello's laid-back approach and the fact that the band tracked most of the songs together, live, in four days of initial sessions at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“John is a vibe-y producer,” Climer said. “I think it captured the essence of our band — the brightness of our band, the liveliness of it.”
From the outset, the Sidekicks wanted Happiness Hours to reflect the band's fun, positive side.“Before every record there's this refocusing: ‘What can we do different?'” Starinsky said. “This one, I feel like we went from dark to light.”
“Sometimes you put a record on that's a bummer and people get annoyed. They're like, ‘Aw, why'd you put on Elliott Smith?'” Ciolek said. “Runners in the Nerved World was a better record to listen to in isolation, by yourself. It's more of an internal experience. This one, I wanted to make a record that would feel good to put on when you're with friends hanging out or just driving in your car. It was supposed to come out in the summer. That was the goal from the start.”
Throughout Happiness Hours, Ciolek excavates his past like it's a dusty cardboard box overflowing with drugstore envelopes of disposable camera prints tucked away in the corner of an attic. As he sifts through the photos, reckoning with past and present versions of himself, a ray of sunlight streams in and illuminates certain images over others.
On “Twin's Twist,” one of the first songs written for the record, someone in cowboy boots makes boozy strawberry lemonade. In “Win Affection,” a daily drive to the Park of Roses can't heal the singer's heartbreak. And on the title track, Ciolek lets the listener know these are just standalone moments that, even with the larger context removed, are still worthy of a closer look. “If I rearrange the story, or magnify what I see, or execute a freeze-frame, moments can just be,” he sings over piano and lazily strummed guitars, stretching out “be” until the word itself becomes a moment.
Even though the record lends itself to warm, weekend drives with lowered windows and high volumes, the subject matter isn't all sunny. In “Elegy for Tim,” Ciolek employs a celestial falsetto to recall the time he took his friend's cat to be euthanized.
“As I was driving the cat to the vet I started humming this melody,” Ciolek said. “The cat kept crying, and when I started humming the melody the cat stopped crying. Tim is the cat. That was how it started, and then I eventually wrote lyrics to it.”
“I didn't know that. That makes ‘Other People's Pets' way darker,” Reif chimed in, referring to the album's leadoff track, which includes a lyrical callout to “Elegy for Tim.”
Ciolek also took the melody and some of the lyrics from “Elegy for Tim” — “Letting it lock into my cranium” — and repurposed it for another track, “Mix for a Rainy Day.” “Lyrically, the connection is that both songs are about memories, and the storing of memories and that nostalgia,” Ciolek said.
Happiness Hours also reflects the closeness of the friendships within the Sidekicks. The writing process was the band's most collaborative yet, with each member weighing in on parts and both Starinsky and Reif contributing vocals to the record.
“The album sets the tone for how we all feel about this band. We have fun playing in this band and being with each other,” Climer said. “I remember getting done with the record and thinking, ‘This feels right. This feels like us.'”