Grown men can wear face paint too you know, and Cincinnati foursome, WALK THE MOON, have their face paint game nailed down. If you’ve ever caught them live, you’ll be familiar with the sugar-rush, probably-drank-too-much-Red Bull, hyped up stage persona of Nick Petricca, Eli Maiman, Kevin Ray, and Sean Waugaman. As for the face-paint tradition—what started off on their bodies is now frequently daubed all over their audience.
Since the band’s 2010 independently released LP I Want! I Want!, WTM’s status has gone from little-known, but locally loved, to playing in the UK, US, and beyond, opening for Weezer, Grouplove, and Young The Giant. And of course now they’re headlining their own shows. The catalyst? The band’s infectious, dance-pop gem “Anna Sun”—10 million hits and counting—which appeared on I Want! I Want!, only to be later re-recorded on for their eponymous 2012 follow-up.
Of their latest album TALKING IS HARD, released last December, WTM have taken a more subdued approach. Although their most recent single, “Shut Up And Dance,” is another super catchy, super dancey pop hit, it doesn’t reflect the vibe of the record as a whole. The collection boasts an 80s lean, but the dance-pop gems are slotted in alongside dreamy instrumentals, and experimentation is higher on the agenda.
“The music is more ferocious at some points, more romantic in others, and the lyrics dig deeper into self-empowerment and some world issues, like equality and our environment,” explains lead singer Nick Petricca. Typed out this sounds terribly dry and earnest, but fully realized, WTM still sound like a good time.
Nick and Eli took some time to flip through their old photo albums to chart the band’s trajectory and talk “robbing” an Austrian laundromat, finding a magical sneaker tree, and moving away from neon colors and tank tops.
Nick: This was one of our old Christmas parties right after we released I Want! I Want! which we made in a friend’s garage. It’s the record that ended up getting us signed. Here are our two friends working merch and behind them are these murals that we had people who came to the show paint them with their hands. This was sort of the start of everything. I realize looking back that what we were trying to do was create a show where everyone was involved in the atmosphere, performance, and the vibe. It wasn’t just a spectator sport, it wasn’t people just showing up and watching the band. So, this is a cool, little snapshot of that.
Nick: Here’s our drummer, Sean, with paint all across his face. This is at one of our earlier shows when we started doing face paint. This was a part of the music video for “Anna Sun,” which we made with a bunch of friends and had this Peter Pan and the Lost Boys vibe. After the music video came out, people started coming to the shows dressed up like people in the music video, so we took that and ran with it. It became our tradition. “Anna Sun” really led to our discovery. That’s what got the attention of the industry.
Eli: I think we were playing at the Bat Bar at SXSW. It was a couple months after the “Anna Sun” video came out and things had started to accelerate for us. We went quickly from being this Cincinnati bar band to playing these SXSW showcases that were packed with suits. I think we did seven shows in that trip, which was very exhausting, but also very fun. You can kind of see in the picture, there’s handwriting on it, which was really indicative of how we were creative back then and still today. We left a lot up to chance, and we took a lot of inspiration from randomness. We had a lot of people sign our drums or draw little pictures and embrace that and let it become a part of our aesthetic.
Nick: This is a picture of us back in the van days. We’re in the van and we were chasing around the big, cool kids Young The Giant in the bus. We found ourselves driving around in Arizona in the desert and we see something in the distance that looks like a tree covered in shoes. As we get closer, we realize that’s exactly what it is. We told Blake our tour manager to pull off the road and run across the highway in our pajamas basically to visit this amazing, old, desert tree that has sneakers tied together from who knows how many years of travelers. So, we signed a pair of shoes and threw them up in the tree. It was this really magical moment where we realized we we’re in this adventure together.
Eli: This is a photo of Nick and Kevin in Maze Studio in Atlanta in August 2011. We were a very young band when things started moving for us. By June or July, we were signed to RCA and shortly thereafter we went into the studio with Ben Allen to make our first record. There was a lot of growing and learning about each other that had to happen while we were in the studio. This was one of those moments. A lot of the songs that we put on the self-titled record were already written when we went down to make the album. There was one song that we wanted to do called “Anywayican,” which needed to be hashed out in a band format. Here we’re working on the arrangement of “Anywayican,” which took us a long time. We crawled and crawled and made very little progress. It came together very quickly once we found our angle on it.
Eli: This photo is taken from a café in London where we were playing at a venue called Water Rats. In a lot of interviews, people will ask us, “Do you feel like you’ve made it?” The answer is always making it is always a moving target. Success is a carrot on a stick. This is our first trip to London, and it was after we’d started playing some sold-out shows in the US. It was an eye-opening experience of being a small fish again and having to play every show like your life depended on it. This was a moment where we realized how much work there is to be done and how big the scope is.
Nick: Sean is pounding on a spinning machine here, which is the second step in a three-step laundry process in Vienna. This is one of our favorite stories. We were on tour with fun. playing these big venues, meeting tons of people and having the time of our lives. Again, we’re in the van chasing the bus, so we have very little time for any luxury. So, Sean is desperately trying to do his laundry before our 6 AM departure time. He put his stuff into the spinning machine, which would not open. It was like R2-D2 would not cooperate. His entire wardrobe was in this spinning machine and wouldn’t open. I’m sure there’s lovely security footage of us trying to break into it. Our Welsh thug driver had a crowbar and come six there’s no success. We had to leave with Sean’s clothes stuck in a laundry machine. Over the next six weeks, he proceeds to wear one outfit, which is his shirt and Kevin’s pair of pants. Meanwhile, he’s in a very angry email conversation with the Austrian Laundromat owner, who refuses to send his clothes. He eventually did get his clothes back about a month and a half later.
Eli: So, I would be OK if this photo didn’t exist, but we’ll celebrate it. This was taken after a show at the Showbox in Seattle. This is one of the biggest shows that we’d ever sold out. It was a venue we had played on tour with Fitz & The Tantrums early on and it felt really intimidating. It’s a great feeling to have done it ourselves. It was kind of a sign of us moving up in the world and hitting our stride as a live band.
Nick: Sean is the star of this photo gallery. This is back in Columbus, OH. We’re back home and are about to start the biggest headline tour we’ve done yet. We’re really getting our production going for the first time. You can see our tree house backdrop, ferns, and foliage. We had these epic electric, light-up trees. It was one of the first times we were starting to feel like a real-ass band. We were starting to look the part and could do this on a really competitive level. Nick: This was taken in Madison WI on Halloween at the end of that tour that started with the Sean photo in front of the tree house. We came out for the encore dressed as DEVO. We did a rousing and probably terrible rendition of “Whip It,” for which I forgot all of the words. To my horror, the crowd was singing along, so they definitely knew I forgot all of the words. It’s a great way to cap off three years on the road, which we would funnel magically into writing the sophomore record.
Eli: In June 2013, we got enormously lucky and found an incredible rehearsal space that was set up in an old Masonic Lodge, just across the river from Cincinnati in Northern Kentucky. Some artists had recently purchased the building and converted it into an art commune of sorts, with graffiti artists, screen printers, and musicians in residence. The big heads were welcoming gifts from the owners. Here, in the loving embrace of what we dubbed the Mason Jar, we wrote the majority of our new record, Talking Is Hard.
Photo by Anna Lee. Nick: This is a picture of me in the studio in North Hollywood at our producer Tim Pagnotta's little hideout. Behind me is the board where we listed every song we were considering for the record. We had written about 50 songs and had to cut that down to 14, and that down to 12, which was heartbreaking, but a really good problem to have. We were able to pick and choose what the new WALK THE MOON would say and sound like. For the most part we knew what we wanted: go further, get fiercer and nastier, get cleaner and dreamier, more pop, more weird all at once. So that's what we did! Nick: You may recognize this as the photo shoot for our album cover. In this moment, we didn't actually know this was going to be the cover—we were just improvising with the photographer, having fun exploring a totally new look for us that was, for once, not all wild colors and tank tops and Peter Pan. The whole year was like this, really, going out on a limb, unknown territory, not knowing what we would find until we got there. That's kind of what the record is about: expressing yourself, it's risky. You've gotta do your best to shed the bullshit and go after the important stuff —not waste time with the negative; live positively.
Ilana Kaplan is a writer living in BK and she’s on Twitter.