Walk the Moon lit up the pop world in 2014 with "Shut Up and Dance," a giddy love song that's become a staple of baseball-stadium dance-cam breaks and sweaty parties thanks to its anthemic, commanding chorus and jittery, Eighties-inflected feel. With their new record What If Nothing, the Cincinnati-based band is ready to show fans what else it can do.
"Obviously ["Shut Up And Dance"] spread us around the globe, but it also created an interesting… luxury problem for us," says frontman Nicholas Petricca via phone from Los Angeles. "We were faced with this opportunity to redefine and reestablish ourselves as a rock & roll band, and as being more than what that song puts forth."
What If Nothing, the group's third album (out Nov. 10th), came after a period of tumult. After calling off their summer 2016 tour in the wake of Petricca's father falling ill, they took a break for the first time in years.
"It was a complicated time," Petricca tells Rolling Stone. "We had a lot of mixed feelings about canceling the tour, because that's something we never, ever wanted to do. But with my dad's illness, it just wasn't an option for me to be out any longer. The time we took apart was really the first time we had done that in years – we'd been together on the road almost 300 days a year, every year.
"In our time apart, we realized there had been some tensions between us. There was a lot to navigate before we could really come back together and make music," he continues.
Walk the Moon reconvened last October at a recording studio in Austin, and their creative process was chaotic. "The approach was just making noise, getting back to our roots of being a rock & roll band and just playing our instruments and letting the sound bounce off the walls."
That clamor shines through in particular on the What If Nothing track "Headphones," which opens with a blast of noise before segueing into high-energy, hooky rock. "That was the very first song that we wrote when we got back together in Austin," says Petricca. "it just came out of us, this angry-boy energy."
What If Nothing's first single, "One Foot," marries the big-tent vibe of "Shut Up And Dance" to a slinky rhythm and Petricca's strident vocals. Petricca notes that it's a thematically appropriate introduction to where Walk the Moon is at in 2017: "'One Foot' really sums up the theme of the whole record: Staring out into the unknown, being faced with uncertainty and what could be certain failure, but deciding to move forward and take that first step anyway," he says. "The song is partly inspired by the journey that I've been through just in my love life, but it's mirrored with the relationship with my band members and just that we've decided to keep moving forward in the face of the unknown."
While What If Nothing finds Walk The Moon reaching for bigger sounds, the band dug in deep while crafting its lyrics. "Sonically, we're reaching for taller, wider, and more vast, more epic sounds," says Petricca. "But the lyrics are kind of the opposite. They're much more personal and are very close to the heart, very raw."
While most of the LP's tracks were written over the last year, a few chestnuts from the band's archives will be there. "We had a voice memo of a song that we started six years ago in my parents' basement," recounts Petricca. "We had just this terrible voice memo recording and we went back and found it and were like, 'Man, we have to turn this into something.' That song is from a total past-life Walk the Moon and it's been totally reimagined." (Voice memos figure into other aspects of the album as well: The album title came out of Petricca "spilling out his feelings" to his bandmates in one.)
Producers Mike Crossey (The 1975, Arctic Monkeys) and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) worked with Walk the Moon in the studio, with their different approaches helping the band translate the high energy of their live show to the record. "We'd bring in a two-dimensional sketch of a song, and they were able to take that idea and put it into three-dimensional, or even full 4-D reality," says Petricca. "They'd bring out all the details and the nuances of our energy as a live band. We are a live force to be reckoned with, and that's difficult, sometimes, to capture as a recording."
The approach to making What If Nothing has also inspired the band to raise its live game. "We've had this mad-scientist energy of really experimenting and not being afraid to incorporate [new] sounds – hip-hop elements, [as well as] electronic landscapes that interact with the live instrumentation," says Petricca. "It's a new world for us, to incorporate more of those electronic elements. It's fun, because it's challenging each of us to get more nerdy about our gear."
While the path to What If Nothing was, at times, a hard one for the group, they're pleased with the end result – and with where they've wound up as a band. "This happens, I think, in every recording process – there's a moment where you're like, 'Oh shit. This is all wrong.' You're forced to surrender to the process, and just trust that it's going to turn out okay," says Petricca. "There's this feeling where everything is like a bad haircut, and everything feels unfinished. That moment of getting the record beyond the point of discomfort, until the record is to the point of, 'Oh. What a relief. This feels amazing,' is a major lesson in trust – you really are just faced with having to trust yourself and your collaborators and the producer that this deformed laboratory monster is going to, eventually, grow wings and become something really beautiful."