It’s been a wild decade since Cincinnati’s Walk the Moon became the world’s Walk the Moon.
The band, formed by Nicholas Petricca at Kenyon College in 2006, was already on an upward trajectory after the 2011 success of the single “Anna Sun.” Esquire magazine touted it among the “30 Summer Songs Every Man Should Listen To,” MTV and Seventeen magazine cited it as the song of the summer, and the Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. remixed it. RCA Records came calling and Walk the Moon signed on the dotted line.
Fast forward to late summer 2014. Walk the Moon appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers to debut “Shut Up and Dance,” the first single from their third album, Talking is Hard. As credits rolled and Meyers did the show’s outro, Petricca grabbed the host and humped his leg like a hormonal macaque. The song became a global phenomenon, reaching the top 5 of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in the United States and the top 10 in countries around the world.
The last time Walk the Moon was home for a show dates back to their MidPoint Music Festival appearance at the Taft Theatre after the release of 2017’s What If Nothing. The band’s gig was notable for the arrival of the fire department during rehearsal.
“Our lighting guy set off the fog early that day before they shut off the smoke detectors,” guitarist Eli Maiman tells CityBeat. “The fire engines came rolling in. It was a bad start to that day.”
Things should go more smoothly when Walk the Moon returns home for two shows at Bogart’s in Cincinnati on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, on the eve of the Nov. 12 release of their fifth album, Heights. [Walk the Moon canceled its Oct. 3 show two days before, saying tickets for Oct. 3 would be honored at the Oct. 2 show.]
The band has leaked several tracks ahead of Heights‘ release, and the best of them may be “Can You Handle My Love,” a song bristling with Walk the Moon’s patented anthemic energy, in the vein of “Shut Up and Dance,” “Different Colors” and “One Foot.” Coincidentally, the song helped shape the rest of Heights.
“I think ‘Can You Handle My Love’ has been the boss bitch of the record,” Petricca says.
“It’s been the alpha dog, the one calling the shots,” Maiman concurs. “The aesthetic of the record has radiated out from ‘Can You Handle My Love.’”
By their account, Walk the Moon began preparatory work on Heights as early as 2017, which continued into the following year.
“We write a lot of songs for our records,” says Petricca. “It’s not always clear when we begin recording what’s going to feel right for the album. We’re always pulling songs from different eras of our vault.”
The band was recording late in 2019 when they began hearing reports of a potent new flu strain that was sweeping through Asia and Europe. Like most Americans, they were unaware of how the following year would be affected.
“We were in the studio in L.A. in early March with Paul Meany of Mutemath working on a song called ‘I’m Good,’” Maiman says. “These stories started filtering in about COVID-19 and maybe if you drank water it would wash the virus out of your throat and you wouldn’t get it. That’s how long ago we were working on this record. This really weird vibe started to creep into the room from this thing outside. When I flew home from that session, little did I know that would be the last time I would travel for, like, 18 months.”
When lockdown went from eventuality to reality, Walk the Moon decided the only way forward was to develop their individual home studio capabilities and continue working on Heights. They and their tech team spent a fair amount of 2020 creating or enhancing recording environments in their living spaces which allowed them the freedom to remain connected to each other, share musical input and create songs remotely.
“We had all these songs that we felt passionately about and really wanted to record,” says Maiman. “Everybody committed to hunkering down and building out our home studios in a way that we could complete this album from home. Half the songs on this record came from tones and sounds collected from our homes. The guitar sound is from a little five-watt amplifier in my closet, and through the mastery of these wizard producers, Mike Crossey and Paul Meany, they’ve become these huge sounds on the record.”
Perhaps the biggest sounds on any Walk the Moon album are the tribal beats of drummer Sean Waugaman, who designed a drum laboratory in his home for Heights. In describing his setup, he sounds like he might be in favor of keeping elements of his drum studio as a major component to the Walk the Moon methodology.
“When we started, we would have a Zoom session and livestream the whole thing, but we got more comfortable doing it on our own,” Waugaman says. “It was nice to get on a conference call, discuss what’s going down on a song and then turn in a bunch of takes later in the day. Being able to record at home has been a great experience, learning about recording and being able to control everything yourself.”
With the success and satisfaction the band found in their home-recording experiments, it might seem as though Walk the Moon is headed for a self-production future, but they’re quick to point out that they definitely enjoy the input they’ve gotten from all of their producers over the past decade — not to mention the work they take off their hands.
“There were days when I would wake up and Sean had dumped, like, gigabytes of percussion takes into our shared Dropbox,” Maiman says. “As grateful as I was for that, I was thankful that somebody else was going to comb through it and find the dopest bits, and that wasn’t going to be my job for the day.”
“Every song has a different approach, and there are a lot of self-produced elements,” Waugaman adds. “We just have a lot of elements, so it helps to have somebody help us get it all together.”
And ambient noise definitely was welcome.
“Sean has this main room downstairs and there’s a bedroom or two off that room, and he has mics in those rooms with the door open so you get the ‘next room’ sounds,” Petricca says. “We had the Bed Bath and Beyond mic at one point. Like, the classic Led Zeppelin ‘mic-down-the-stairwell.’ This is Sean’s version.”
Based on the leaked tracks, the overall tone of Heights is a varied sonic cocktail; the lyrics of some would seem to indicate a measure of emotional distress along the way. Petricca admits there was a “dramatic/traumatic break-up situation” in his personal life and that it provided a good deal of grist for his songwriting mill, but it didn’t steer the songs in a downward direction.
“I find that our records are a little schizophrenic in terms of style and content. Maybe it’s schizophrenic, maybe it’s just human,” Petricca says. “I feel like our records cover the spectrum of our personal experience, and so it doesn’t sound like just one lane. There’s something about this record where we feel like we’re returning to the first album, like we’re chasing our destinies in the summer on the road and the origins of what Walk the Moon is all about and the ‘Anna Sun’ days, and that feels like home to us. And there’s the inner confidence that’s gained from 10 years of getting to know ourselves and owning whatever it is that we are.”
There is an old trope among creatives that misery is the catalyst for great art. It certainly can be, but artists don’t need to remain in a state of perpetual unhappiness in order to access those inspirational emotions. Petricca understands the misery paradigm as well as anyone.
“My father passed away a few years ago. We had a long journey with Alzheimer’s Disease,” he says. “I would never wish that experience on anyone, but I feel simultaneously indebted to that time and to my dad for deepening me as a person and therefore as an artist. The love songs that I can write now are deepened by the places I went during that time. I don’t believe you have to be in a certain state to write about a certain state, but I definitely believe I can tap into my past experiences, forever.”
One of Petricca’s proudest moments on Heights is the just-leaked track “Fire in Your House,” a collaboration with the late South African legend Johnny Clegg — whose band Juluka was the first bi-racial musical group in the country’s apartheid period — and Clegg’s son, Jesse. Petricca discovered Clegg’s music through a friend, who had played Walk the Moon for a co-worker who commented, “They must listen to a lot of Johnny Clegg.” The co-worker gave a Johnny Clegg disc to the friend who passed it on to Petricca.
“The last couple of years before his death, I got to know him and his family, and he and his son and I wrote ‘Fire in Your House’ together,” Petricca says of Clegg, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2019. “In 2017, I wrote a note to myself on New Year’s Day, and I was, like, ‘This year, I want to work with my heroes,’ and Johnny Clegg was on the top of that list. I reached out to him and got a response. He introduced me to his son, who was playing a gig in L.A., we sent some music back and forth, and when he came through L.A., we booked some studio time. This song is his last studio session and the last musical project he ever did.”
The obvious elephant on the Moon is the December 2020 dismissal of longtime bassist Kevin Ray for conduct “out of alignment of our values,” according to Petricca’s Instagram post. The functional result is a major gap in Walk the Moon’s rhythm section, but the video for “Can You Handle My Love” shows Maiman in the four-stringer role, which is how the band proceeded in the recording process. And, as he notes, he was no stranger to the position.
“I was really excited to stretch my mind in a different direction,” he says. “When I first started playing with Nic in Walk the Moon in 2010, I played fretless Jazz bass, which is completely inappropriate for the band. Nic very subtly moved me over to guitar, but it was nice to return to the bass role. It’s such a visceral experience having the bass against your body and the vibrations. It’s so fun, but people keep asking me to play guitar. I’ll take it as a compliment to my guitar playing.”
On Walk the Moon’s upcoming tour, longtime friend of the band Lachlan “Lucky” West will occupy the bass slot. He and the band became friends when Walk the Moon and West’s band, the Griswolds, toured together several years ago and ultimately became a utility player on subsequent Walk the Moon tours.
“Lucky stepped up and started playing guitar and keys in our band, and now he’s playing bass,” Maiman says. “He was the drummer for the Griswolds. He’s obviously a very talented individual.”
“Maybe that’s an ‘us’ problem, that we can’t find a setlist that works every time,” he says. “We’ve definitely done that in the past, like, ‘Oh, this is hometown. It’s Cincinnati or it’s Columbus, we should amp it up.’ I wonder if there’s something from I Want! I Want! that we should learn.”
Walk the Moon plays Bogart’s in Cincinnati (2621 Vine St., Corryville) Oct. 2. Tickets start at $43. All concertgoers must be vaccinated or have received a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event. More info: bogarts.com.
This article originally ran in LEO Weekly’s sister publication, CityBeat.