What If Nothing

In the months before Walk the Moon got together in Austin to begin the process of creating their upcoming fourth album, What If Nothing, the band members experienced several major life events, including a wedding, a potentially career-ending injury, and the death of parent. They also faced down the question of whether or not they would still exist as a band, which seems inconceivable given that the Cincinnati natives — singer/keyboardist Nicholas Petricca, guitarist Eli Maiman, bassist Kevin Ray, and drummer Shaun Waugaman — had just come off the most successful period of their career, thanks to scoring a game-changing hit with the soaring anthem “Shut Up and Dance.”

Released two months ahead of their third album, the now gold-certified, Talking Is Hard (which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart), “Shut Up and Dance” was a ubiquitous earworm that peaked at No. 1 on the Alternative, Hot AC, and AC charts and No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and went to No. 2 at Top 40 radio, racking up over six million downloads and 850 million streams in the process. The song earned Walk the Moon a slew of honors including winning two Billboard Music awards and nominations for Teen Choice, MTV Video Music, iHeart Radio, and Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice awards. They were also nominated for three American Music awards, including New Artist of the Year, and performed on the show in 2015. “That was a moment where everything felt very big,” says Ray. “You walk around on giant sets and there’s Kanye over here, Drake over there, and we were just like, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’”

Prior to this breakthrough, Walk the Moon had scored two Top 20 Alternative hits, 2010’s “Anna Sun” off their debut album i want! i want! and “Tightrope” off their 2012 self-titled album. They had been slogging it out on the road since 2008, building a grassroots following with their celebratory, cathartic live shows. Then “Shut Up and Dance” charted around the world, leading to an international tour that found the band visiting 25 countries across five continents over three months. Waugaman says it finally dawned on him how omnipresent the song was when they were in Japan. “We were out walking around in Kyoto and I wandered away from the others into a chopsticks shop,” he recalls. “They had 500 different types of chopsticks in there. I couldn’t find the band, but, in a place where nobody spoke English, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ was playing on the shop’s radio.”

“Every aspect of Walk the Moon was affected by ‘Shut Up and Dance,’” Ray says. “It didn’t just change the way we were perceived by radio, the touring also exploded and the crowds got bigger and bigger. It was very clear that for the first time, people very far removed from where Walk the Moon started had completely hopped on board with the song. It became part of culture and we were invited to do things we had only dreamed of.”

At the peak of all of this, Walk the Moon announced that they were canceling their “Work This Body” summer tour so that Petricca could go home and be with his father, who was in the final stages of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease after a 14-year illness. “It was getting a lot worse and my family needed me,” he says. “We canceled the tour, which I thought we’d never do. That’s not who we are.”

Needless to say, it was a very tough time. “We had spent six years doing something 300 days a year, then it all changes, so adapting was hard,” says Ray, who was also sidelined by a serious shoulder injury, with doctors telling him he may not be able to play bass again. “So I just kind of sat there with my dog for two months, thinking, ‘It’s all over.’ Depression set in. I was taking painkillers and it was getting weird.” “It’s not what we all signed up for,” Petricca says of the hiatus. “We wanted to take it to the finish line and I kind of forced the race to a close a little early.” Tensions among the band members began to surface, and communication dwindled. “Some people questioned whether the band would break up,” Ray says. “I never had that question. It was more like, ‘How are we going to do it after all of this?’”

“All of these what-ifs came into focus, like, ‘Where is all this heading if we’re not going to keep moving forward?’” Petricca says. “This phrase, ‘What if nothing,’ started coming up. ‘What if all of this vanishes?’ So it was an opportunity for us to step forward into the unknown. We could have remained in that shadow place and stayed estranged from one another, or we could come together with honesty and try to work it out.” Hence the title of their new album, What If Nothing. “We love it because it forces the listener to determine what the hell it means,” Petricca says. “’What if’ is like the beginning of all fears and also of all possibilities. ‘What if this is all for nothing?’ or ‘What if there’s nothing stopping me?’”

Last October, a few weeks after the band members reunited at Ray’s wedding, they met up at studio in Austin. “It was just an engineer and the four of us in a room,” Petricca said. “We hadn’t gotten together to write like that in years. It was fun. We were just stumbling around this little space making noise, but some really powerful stuff came out of it.” “It was like, ‘Oh, this thing is going to happen again,’” Ray says. “We’re still friends. We can still make music.’” “The studio was in this warehouse with light bulbs all over the place,” says Maiman. “It was definitely not a luxurious experience, but there was something grounding about being in a studio that shares a garage with an electronics company after having a worldwide hit. It was nice to be back in something grimy and unglamorous.”

The result of their effort is What If Nothing — an inspired, confident, and unapologetic showcase for all the ways Walk the Moon has grown and reclaimed who they are. Working with producers Mike Crossey (The 1975, Arctic Monkeys) and Mike Elizondo (Eminem/Dr. Dre), the band have augmented their gleaming blend of New Wave, indie-pop, and dance-rock with hip-hop, punk, psychedelic, and reggae influences, while Petricca pushes the melodic and rhythmic quality of his singing further than ever. Some of the album’s more unusual sonics were influenced by Petricca’s listening to Mura Masa and Photay. “I also reconnected with reggae through working with Wyclef and listening to Steel Pulse, Bob Marley, and Gregory Isaacs,” he says. “I love the way the music can express so much pain and sorrow and longing in the lyrics and yet still be chill and uplifting.”

The album’s first single, “One Foot,” is a supremely catchy song about walking into the unknown that Petricca says ties in to the album’s themes. “There’s no guarantee of any particular end and you’ve just got to keep moving forward. So it felt really relevant to my life, but also related to all the upheaval and unexpected turns our country has taken. It wasn’t too dissimilar from what we were experiencing as a band, like, ‘What’s all this coming to? Where are we going from here?’ This album is about owning the question and not having the answer.”

On “All I Want,” Petricca asks himself how he can makes sense of all the things he wants out of this life. “It’s about realizing that external validation isn’t really worth that much,” he says. “It has to come from within.” “Surrender” embraces vulnerability after a break-up. “Kamikaze” is a love song about the last night you spend with someone before you walk into the fire. “We’re definitely looking in the mirror on this album way more,” Ray says. “We’re more honest. Not that our last album wasn’t honest, but it was more about stuff happening around us. This one is about what’s going on with us. We went through a big emotional period. So a lot of lyrics come from inside.”

In February, Joe Petricca’s conditioned worsened. An upright piano was rolled into his room at the nursing home so Nicholas could sing him his favorite songs. “His energy perked back up and he stuck around for another week,” Petricca says. “It was a long goodbye, full of music. That was his biggest influence on my life, his pure love of music and his encouraging me to explore that passion.” Petricca’s family and friends from all over came to the funeral and wake. “There was a slideshow and every photo was of him making a goofy face,” Petricca says. “There was so much love in the room, it felt like a party — with a coffin in it. The band and their families were there. I am an only child and they just showed up so hard for me. It was an amazing experience to have alchemized all that sorrow into a sense of joy and freedom because he was no longer suffering. The party that ensued felt like a release, a catharsis.”

After Joe’s death, Walk the Moon returned to the studio with Mike Crossey, and the album is imbued with the joyful spirit that Petricca experienced. “That’s what the album is about — appreciating life amidst sorrow and pain and allowing that to deepen your appreciation because you understand the other side,” he says. “The shadow makes the night, we only know the sunlight because of its shadow.”

[July 2017]