It's a chilly night in Manhattan, but a diverse crowd of neon-clad fans has gathered outside Midtown's Terminal 5 dressed like they're headed off to a summer EDM festival. Bright face-paint complements their glow-in-the-dark accessories — it's a curious sight, since they're here to see a group that bills itself as an indie rock band.
Backstage, Walk the Moon's Nick Petricca, Eli Maiman, Kevin Ray and Sean Waugaman — all dressed even more colorfully than the fans — are discussing the peculiarities of their newfound fame. Earlier in the month, their Cincinnati hometown named April 1st "Walk the Moon Day," and a few weeks before that, they had an unexpected encounter with one of their favorite actresses. "We're huge fans of Emmy Rossum and the show Shameless," says Ray, the band's bassist. "As a joke, we've had her on our green room rider for some time. Somehow our tour manager pulled some strings and ended up getting her to come to a show and meet us backstage."
"I'm sure she thought it was a little creepy," adds lead singer Petricca. "Which it is."
When Walk the Moon debuted in 2012, they spray-painted the rock charts with the upbeat, house-party sound of single "Anna Sun." Not only did the song give the burgeoning band its first hit, the accompanying video (depicting an underground jazzercise rave) gave them a new identity. "The 'Anna Sun' video was really what set us on a course," recalls Petricca. "We were a party band and college band, a bar band. We definitely always wanted to make people dance, but after the 'Anna Sun' video was released at this big paint party that we had in Cincinnati — the first time we had face paint — we realized that there's this sense of childish wonder and of preserving the inner child that is central to Walk the Moon, down to the sort of Lost Boys in Peter Pan and Neverland face paint."
The clip went viral, but even before it received its 10 millionth view, the band began plotting how to top it. "We were hungry to go bigger and see how much further we could take the band for the next record," says Maiman. "I know there were a couple times while we were writing this record where we were like, 'This is "Anna Sun," part two! This is the one!' None of them were."
Three years later, Walk the Moon have finally outdone themselves: "Shut Up and Dance," a Killers-style update on Eighties pop hits like the Hooters' almost-forgotten "And We Danced," is now a radio staple. Their subsequent LP, Talking Is Hard, has become even more popular than their debut, and the lines outside their shows are growing both longer and more glittery.
To hone their new New Wave sound, the band took a long-anticipated break from touring and decompressed at a masonic lodge in northern Kentucky. There, the quartet found themselves surrounded by a small collective of creative types in a location Ray describes as "a super old building that kind of looks like an elementary school from the Twenties." Taxidermy and skeletons lined the walls, and a group of visual artists occupied the basement, creating graffiti and printing T-shirts. "We were not secluded in the Bon Iver, cabin-in-the-woods type of way," says Maiman.
After writing at the lodge, the band flew to L.A. to record their radiant batch of new songs. The result is a positive time capsule of pop-music quirkiness. "We pull from a lot of different eras but especially stuff that has a hint of weird, artists that are unafraid of being kooky," Petricca says, citing the Talking Heads, Prince and David Bowie. "We went into the record with the intention of being ambitious and seeing how far we could take Walk the Moon's sound. We wanted to go in uncharted territory."
That meant more than just a sonic shift. This time, the band paid particularly careful attention to their lyricism and aimed to empower fans feeling — to quote one of their song titles — "Down in the Dumps." "It's getting pretty gnarly out there," says Petricca. "From that initial inner child, we're taking a stand. It's in the song 'Different Colors': 'We know the kids are right.' A kid doesn't care if you're gay, black, white, green, whatever. It's not just tolerating people's differences — it's celebrating them."
"It's almost like we reverse-engineered a concept album," says Ray. "After the fact we looked back and saw that it's so connected. It really became part of our everyday life."
What empowers Walk the Moon? "Pizza," says Ray. Petricca, a little more serious, points to artists who use their fame to send pleas for change into the world. "I think it's cool when people recognize that they are on a platform," says the singer. "We're realizing that our platform is rising and our congregation is spreading and multiplying. We're just trying to be good with that."