Last year was a trying one for the Walk the Moon guys. Just when they were riding high on the success of their smash hit “Shut Up and Dance” and were ready to embark on their first-ever headlining tour in the summer — frontman Nicolas Petricca’s father’s Alzheimer’s worsened and the band knew it had to cancel the tour.
In addition, Petricca broke up with a longtime love and bassist Kevin Ray suffered a shoulder injury that was potentially career-ending. With all of the hardships and the canceled tour, the Walk the Moon members — Petricca, Ray, guitarist Eli Maiman, and drummer Sean Waugaman — suddenly found themselves drifting apart.
“When you’re on the road doing that daily arc where you get up and you kind of grind through things that you have to do to get to that glorious moment at the end of the day when you get to play in front of people,” Maiman explains to Billboard, “when you’re getting crushed every day like that, you don’t really have time to assess or level with each other about stuff that can be getting a little twisted.”
But when the guys reunited at Ray’s wedding in Austin, Texas, in October 2016, their memories of playing music together came rushing back, and Walk the Moon was back in the studio doing what they do best. “That was a magical week,” Petricca recalls. “We came together and made that conscious choice to move forward. I think it had to do with accepting that they weren’t gonna be the same, but that we could be better.”
The result was an eclectic 13-song album, What If Nothing, which finds the guys getting more raw and real than ever before. And because of that, Petricca insists that they’ve never been more proud or sure of anything before. Ahead of the album’s release on Friday (Nov. 10), Petricca and Maiman chatted with Billboard about their brief hiatus and how what they went through in the last year and a half created their most prideful work yet.
How long was the period when you were all doing your own things?
Maiman: I think, in total, it was five [months]? I think what ended up happening is we ended up losing sight over what had brought us together in the first place, which was just a drive for music and a pretty special connection musically. It’s not something that happens with everybody that you play with and it’s easy to take for granted when that’s all you’re seeing every day, 300 days a year. So after that time, we put ourselves in time out [Laughs]. Everyone was put in a corner and came back together.
When you guys did try making music together again, what was ultimately deciding factor for you to work on another album and continue Walk the Moon?
Petricca: We’re business partners, creative partners, roommates 90 percent of the year and dear friends, and we had to come together and connect on a deep level in order to make music again. There had been a lot of space that touring created between us and a lot of space for us to not have to talk. The time apart allowed us to sort of distill that life experience down just to understand each other again as brothers.
There’s a lyric in the song called “Sound of Awakening” that is “the distance and the difference between us is illusion.” A big part of what we went through was navigating the chasm that we’d created between each other, the space and the distance, and finding common ground and remembering that we share something really magical with one another.
Maiman: In October in Austin, it was just immediately evident that there was still something magical happening between these four musical voices and we still had more to say. And more importantly, we had things to ask. We came to grips with the fact that we didn’t have all the answers despite what the second record said. Talking Is Hard was about the power of love and love goes marching on. And here we were three years later, feeling confused and having questions and wanting to express that as a group, and that really became the driving push behind working on songs like “All I Want,” which kind of got the record moving.
Petricca: That week we came together was also the week that Donald Trump was elected. So this internal restart and looking forward into the unknown as a band was sort of oddly mirrored with the country. Regardless of what side or what your beliefs are, there was just a lot of confusion and a lot of like, “Wow, that — didn’t expect that.”
Oh wow, what timing. And actually, speaking of that — Nick, you’ve said that this album “is about owning the question and not having the answer.” I feel like that sentiment is so powerful.
Petricca: In a sense, on the last record, we felt like we had an edge on the world. We had a bit of the answer, we’re all one. And this one is so much more about owning that space. About really embodying that space of vulnerability and that’s where some of our favorite music lives, is in that place of vulnerability. And there’s a lot of power in that. The two can live simultaneously, vulnerability and power. [With] “All I Want,” there’s no answer. “How do I make sense of all these things that I want? How do I be happy? Maybe if I was straight, maybe if I was vegan, maybe if I had more of this, more of that.” There’s no answer.
Embodying vulnerability is an inspirational thing and hopefully fans can hear it in the music and be inspired to come out on top of any hardships that they’ve faced too.
Petricca: That’s what music has done for us. Whatever it is that we’re feeling, to feel it deeper. To see it more clearly or experience it more fully. And a record like this by Walk the Moon would not have been possible if we hadn’t experienced some dark shit. The world is not 100 percent sun-shiny place right now. A lot of people all over the world are going through a really tough time in a variety of really intense ways, and all we can do is write what we know and who we truly are. Having experienced some of the more painful experiences in our lives or more painful interactions that we’ve had as partners, out of that we can better understand and appreciate when it’s good and it’s different.
Despite the new headspace, was there ever concern about how to follow up “Shut Up and Dance”? When you have a hit like that relatively early in your career, I feel like the question naturally arises like, “Where are they going to go from here?”
Petricca: I think a big part of making this record was allowing a previous version of ourselves to die. It’s like shedding a snake skin. “Shut Up and Dance,” in its global massive success, was so amazing, but it confused us a little about our identity, because the identity of the band became so wrapped up in that one song. And this band is so much more than that, but we weren’t sure what to do with that. We didn’t necessarily fully take the reins to three-dimensionalize who we were. We felt like people weren’t able to see that in our last record. In this one, shedding the fears associated with that, shedding whatever trepidation and just fully owning, taking the opportunity to redefine who we are, reestablish who Walk the Moon.
The song “Kamikaze” — the two sides of that song that come up for me: one is being in love with someone and having to leave them behind, but on the other side there’s this full ownership of self. Being all-in. And that belief in yourself and that belief in something greater than yourself as well is un-fuck-with-able.
I do feel like this album is kind of like Walk the Moon 2.0.
Maiman: There was a moment early on [with] “Headphones,” one of the first songs we wrote. And we had a demo of it and the question comes up: Is this Walk the Moon or is this The Walk the Moon? And the answer for us on this record was, who fucking cares? This is what’s inside us and what’s out will follow that. And that was the inspiration.
Petricca: I feel like the whole record is like that. Each song is a very different character from the previous one. I picture David Bowie going, “This year, I’m going to be Thin White Duke, and this year I’m going to be Ziggy Stardust, and this year” etc. And he’s 100 percent himself, but embodying these different iterations and he isn’t afraid to go full commitment, 100 percent into that personality. That’s what we ended up doing. That’s where our instincts led us on this record.
I think the goal was to impress no one but ourselves and be as raw and real and true to ourselves as possible. And to not limit what that could look like. And I think the record reflects that.
Maiman: The record is a collection of really, really diverse songs. Now, we’re setting our sights fully on making it a live experience, and [figuring out] how it gels with the last record. We’re looking forward to finally getting back to the stage and sharing a whole lot of new music.