Artists dream of hits like Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.” Since its 2014 release, the song spent a whopping 27 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart, sold more than 3 million copies, and, as of Monday, had been streamed more than 472 million times on Spotify alone.
The inevitable next step after such a blockbuster is: How do you follow it? For the Cincinnati-spawned alt-rock band, the answer was simply to do what they want. The band’s new album, “What If Nothing,” finds them going deeper personally and lyrically than ever before, inspired by both questions of social consciousness and the hardships frontman Nicholas Petricca faced in dealing with his father’s death after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Petricca and guitarist Eli Maiman spoke about the new album, opening up lyrically, and how “Shut Up And Dance” threatened to eclipse the band.
When did you start writing this album?
Nicholas Petrrica: When we got back together it was during the election [season], and our very last day was, I think, Election Day. So we’re waking up and going into a black day: Donald Trump was president. I think that, as much as anything, put a spin on the record of being like, “Well, we thought we knew what was going to happen but clearly we were wrong and what the hell do we do with that information?” And while that’s happening in America, a lot of people are going through a tough time or just an uncertain time all over the world. So it kind of set a tone for those songs. Owning the unknown and owning the steps that follow next, which are what? Either give up or just keep going, right?
As a musician you spend your whole life building and working towards having a giant hit song, which you accomplished with “Shut Up and Dance.”
Eli Maiman: It was obviously an incredible moment for us, but at the same time we felt a little boxed in by its success, because the song really became bigger than the band. The band’s identity is very wrapped up in the style of that song — which is true to us, but is not the entirety. There was a lot of diversity on the record that kind of went under the radar.
For every artist, a new album is like a little bit of a creative rebirth. Is that something you embraced with this one?
Maiman: It’s interesting that you used that word, rebirth — that’s a theme that came up for us after writing and conceptualizing this record and who we wanted to be next on this album. We took that idea of rebirth and ran with it, along with the idea of the death of an old self. We’re taking this opportunity to wipe the slate clean, for ourselves anyway.
Petricca: People were asking a lot, “How do you follow [‘Shut Up and Dance’]?” And if you ask that question enough times, you start to internalize it as an actual question. The way we got there was just by doing the same thing we’ve always done, which is follow our heart and listen to a ton of music and make sh– that excites us. And at the end of the day that’s the only direction that we were going to feel good about. If we tried to recreate that hit, I don’t even know what that would sound like.
What did you listen to that excited you while you were writing or before the process began?
Maiman: It’s hard to really absorb a lot of music while you’re on tour because primarily you’re in the venue and listening to your own set for the 300th time, although on that tour I got obsessed with Father John Misty’s [2012 album] “I Love You Honey Bear.” But when we finally took a break and were at home, we allowed ourselves to be music fans again. I found myself listening to Against Me! every day going into the studio — that had an energy that I wanted to connect with and bring to my performance.
Petricca: I became completely obsessed with reggae. I had spent some time collaborating with Life Goes On and really felt connected to him and to his condition in the process. And just started digging into Steel Pulse and Gregory Isaacs and Marley, of course. Those songs have so much longing and yet the music is so relaxed, and there’s this mantra of, No matter what happens I’m all good. I was going through a really intense time with my family and my dad’s illness all that.
Were there artists you looked to as role models in terms of how they moved forward?
Petricca: Someone whose music I fell in love with and actually got to know a little is Johnny Clegg, a South African artist who was active in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. His passion is mixing cultures, Zulu culture and his own English and Celtic heritage, combinations of African chants and pop music. He was part of the genre that led to Paul Simon’s [1986 album] “Graceland” — that album came out and Johnny Clegg had been doing it for 10 years. Getting to know him a little, hearing a little bit about his story and how authentic he remained to himself when American managers and labels would want to mold him into whatever was happening at the time. He’s remained true to himself and he’s had a long career — that is really inspiring.