With the new album What If Nothing, Walk The Moon haven’t just returned from an extended gap between albums–the band members have come back with a whole new level of understanding about why they’re in the band, the kind of music they want to make at this point in their careers and what being part of Walk The Moon means to them.
It’s all the result of a period of considerable uncertainty that began in the summer of 2016, when the group canceled a tour so singer/guitarist Nicholas Petricca could be with his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
According to bassist Kevin Ray, the unplanned shutdown came at a bad time, career-wise. “Shut Up and Dance,” the single from the second Walk The Moon album, Talking Is Hard, had spent seven weeks in summer 2015 in the top five on Billboard magazine’s all-genre Hot 100 chart on its way to becoming a triple-platinum hit. Pulling the plug on the tour, as necessary as it might have been, meant the band wouldn’t be able to build on the momentum that had been generated by their breakout hit.
“For me personally, it was a strain, because I saw what we had built with ‘Shut Up and Dance’ just sort of lingering in limbo and not capitalizing on it,” Ray said. “It was tough. It was really, really tough.”
What started as a canceled tour soon grew into a hiatus. For Petricca, as he watched his father slip away and then die–the unavoidable outcome of Alzheimer’s disease–he wrestled not only with his loss, but some personal issues. Ray, meanwhile, had the happier experience of getting married, but also dealt with rehabbing an injured shoulder.
For all four band members–Petricca, Ray, guitarist Eli Maiman and drummer Shaun Waugaman–the chance to take a step away from music prompted them to face some important questions that had been hanging over the band unanswered up to then. Those questions needed to be answered, Ray said, if Walk The Moon was to continue and the relationships within the group were to be healthy going forward. One overriding question that needed to be addressed involved a key issue in how any group operates.
“I think trust is a big part of it, trust that each member of the group is focused on making the same thing for the same reasons, or at least the right thing for the right reasons,” Ray said. “You spend so long on this daily basis with each other that if you talk about all these deep, emotional things, it’s so draining. So you spend a lot of time in, like, a casual relationship with each other because you can’t get away from each other and you don’t address those things, and not just the issues, but just being able to talk deeply and emotionally about what we’re doing here and what it means to us and exploring ourselves. We spent so many years not discussing just what the band meant to each other because we were just on the road every day playing shows.
“So we had to rebuild trust–not that we don’t trust each other, just that we need to know what we all really think,” said the bassist, noting he feared asking questions because he might not get the answers he wanted. “That could rock my whole foundation of what I’m doing here and what it means, if it’s a different answer.”
But ask they did, and as the talking continued, the band members found they still had plenty of common ground and a shared sense of purpose.
“I think discovering that we all still had a lot of the same intentions was so comforting,” Ray said.
They also agreed they wanted to shake things up some, musically, with the album that would become What If Nothing.
“We were all ready to make a rock album, man,” Ray said. “There was a consensus about we wanted to be as loud as we always wanted to and as angry as we wanted to and as dramatic as we wanted to or whatever, not that it’s a super-angry, dramatic record.”
Another goal was to write an honest album that addressed some of the serious issues that had surfaced during Walk The Moon’s downtime. Ray said the band felt this approach would also help show that the group wasn’t just about carefree pop songs like “Shut Up and Dance.”
“There was nothing wrong with the way ‘Shut Up and Dance’ portrayed us as a band,” Ray said. “We’re never going to regret that song in any way and we’re never going to be upset about what it did for us. But I think with any band that has a song that kind of blows up like that, it’s going to define a lot about you. And what’s nice about what it defined is that we are the catchy rock band, which is great. I don’t hate that at all. But it definitely, and I think this just comes with the territory with that situation, it ignores a lot of the, or it gives people the opportunity to ignore a lot of, like, the deeper, darker sides of a group. And maybe that slightly influenced how we approached this next record because we wanted to highlight that stuff. But also, it was just what was going on in our lives personally that brought up a lot of these darker, serious, dramatic vibes.”
Actually, the group–which was started by Petricca in 2006 in Cincinnati and notched a top-10 alternative rock hit with the song “Anna Sun” from the band’s 2012 self-titled major label debut album–had already shown some lyrical depth on Talking Is Hard. Several songs on that 2015 album (“Up 2 U,” “Spend Your $$$” and “Different Colors”) examined issues affecting the lives of everyday people, but with What If Nothing, there’s a shift inward, which makes sense, given the soul-searching that preceded the making of the album.
“The last record, I think we were trying to deal with a lot of stuff outside of ourselves,” Ray said. “We were trying to answer a lot of questions about the world and the environment and politics or whatever. And now we just sort of wrote what we know, looked inside and just asked questions that we had.”
The more serious lyrical content, though, doesn’t keep Walk The Moon from sounding plenty upbeat musically on What If Nothing. The band makes good on bringing more of a rock edge to the proceedings with songs like “Headphones” (a rare pop song to feature guitars) and an overall anthemic feel to the album. But fans don’t have to worry that Walk The Moon has lost its pop chops. Hooks abound throughout, and songs like the bouncy “One Foot” and the hip-hop-flavored “Kamikaze” should please the “Shut Up and Dance” crowd.
That sort of upbeat atmosphere will carry over to the group’s concerts, Ray said. The band hopes that as touring behind What If Nothing continues, venues will grow bigger and so will the visual production the group can employ in each show.
“The [first] tour isn’t a massive, these aren’t massive venues,” Ray said. “We’re going to squeeze what [visual bells and whistles] we can into those, but we have the future in mind and we have the biggest possible version of ourselves in mind and we’re working toward that. It’s finally going to be time for us to have our party the way we’ve wanted to. That’s what we’re most excited about.”