Nobody tells you what life after college will be like. You know there aren’t any more required reading lists, term paper all-nighters, or reality-TV-themed frat parties. You can’t play wine pong and be productive the next day—this you know, albeit reluctantly. But no one’s really prepared for the freedom: freedom from a set schedule, from planning out your life in semesters, from a simple understanding of what success looks like.
That freedom hit Nicholas Petricca hard when he graduated from Ohio’s Kenyon College in 2009. His band, Walk the Moon, was writing its first album, and what may or may not lie ahead became a central theme of their eponymous, major-label debut. Fortunately, Walk the Moon set Petricca and bandmates Kevin Ray, Eli Maiman, and Sean Waugaman on a well-lit course through the unchartered territory. The Cincinnati quartet’s first single, “Anna Sun,” spun in heavy rotation on alternative rock stations across the country last year and was touted as the “song of the summer” by MTV and Seventeen magazine. The band also played Lollapalooza’s mainstage and toured with fellow indie rockers Fun through 2012. Ahead of Walk the Moon’s pair of shows at 9:30 Club this weekend, Petricca gave us some insight into what it’s like a year after such riotous success.
You played the 9:30 Club in January. Are you looking forward to coming back to DC?
The 9:30 Club is actually one of my favorite venues in the country. It’s probably in my top three. It’s a great room, and I always love the people who come there. The crowd is always just, I don’t know, ravenous or something.
Your shows are always so energetic. Do you and the band have any pre-show rituals to get pumped up?
We do have a secret huddle that happens, which I can’t really tell you about. We don’t let people film it or anything. Besides that, we try to be pretty serious about warming up vocally, because vocals are a big part of what we do. We even had a band visit to our ENT, our ear, nose, and throat doctor, and he gave us some pointers. It was pretty cute, all four of us in a tiny little doctor’s office.
Your songs have this nostalgia for youth. DC is often characterized as a young person’s city. Do you have a specific type of listener in mind when you write, and have you ever been surprised by the fans who come out to see you?
That’s an interesting question. I guess the listener in mind, sometimes, is me. We wrote the last record right after college, and so a lot of what I was writing about was this enormous experience I just had, and the abyss of the unknown adulthood ahead, you know? So I was kind of writing for the young, reluctant, or adventurous adult. But to answer your second question, we’ve totally been surprised by who comes to concerts. We’ve been really fortunate to find that the age limit has no bounds. But that doesn’t really change the writing. If I was just writing to try to be honest with myself, and it affected people of many different age groups, then it would be silly to try and change that.
You mentioned writing from your college experience. “Anna Sun” is named for one of your former professors. Why did you decide to name it after her?
Like many things in the band, it was kind of by accident. The entire song was written, and it was all about this college thing. But then it had this part in the song that was just like [sings melody of “Anna Sun”]. And we didn’t know what was gonna go there. And my buddy [Nick Lerangis], who was in the band at the time, just started singing her name. She has this beautiful name, and she was one of our favorite personalities on campus. And it just worked perfectly. So the song isn’t about her, but it is about college, and she was one of the more inspiring professors at college and has a very cool name.
Have you told her that the song is named after her?
Yeah, a couple years ago we sent her an e-mail and said, “Hey, professor, we’ve got this song, and we just wanted your blessing.” And she was like, “Oh, that’s great. Would you send me the lyrics?” And we’re like, “Sure, why not?” And she wrote us back, saying, “I love the song, but some of these lyrics are a little too suggestive. Would you please change this and this?” And she gave some suggestions. And we’re like “Okay, professor, we’ll get right on it.” And we just never really did. [laughs]
Face paint at shows—for both the band and the audience—is one of your trademarks. What do you hope that brings to the experience?
Mainly, it’s just feeding more into this idea of letting loose and letting your inner animal come out, and feeling like you don’t have to be this reserved person that you’re expected to be at work or school. Part of the magic of the accident that is the face paint is that you find kids, 13- and 14-year-olds, that have face paint, and then you see a dude in a suit and tie decked out in face paint. And everyone is part of the same community for a couple of hours.
So what’s up next for the band? Is a new album in the works?
Yeah, we spent all summer back in Cincinnati writing. We spent about six or seven weeks at home, which is the longest amount of time we’ve spent at home in, like, three years. We spent it just the four of us in a room hashing it out. We actually rented this old Freemasons lodge, which has been repurposed by some art folks. So we spent all summer in this weird, haunted building writing this record. We have more than enough songs. The tough part is gonna be choosing which ones. We’ve just gotta get in and record it.
When do you anticipate that will come out?
God willing—I’m knocking on wood—by this time next year. I hope sooner than that, spring or early summer, but you never know. We really want to get it out as quickly as possible, but these things always take more time than you think they do.
What’s the vibe of the new record? Is it a departure from what you’ve been doing, or an evolution?
All of the above. We’ve been pretty serious about trying to emulate the artists we’ve grown up listening to who’ve had longevity. The thing that connects all of them, in my eyes, is [that] they come out of the gate doing something awesome, but then they aren’t afraid to change and grow, and evolve over the course of their career. We’ve tried to be unafraid of the weird stuff, or the hard stuff, or the really slow tracks. We try to write whatever we’re feeling. But we have had the old record in mind, and I think we’d be very remiss not to have some sense of the former Walk the Moon in there. But with Eli’s guitar-playing and my voice and Sean’s drumming and Kevin’s bass-playing—I think that alone will carry us through.
“Anna Sun” was heralded as the song of the summer in 2012. Do you ever feel pressure to recreate that kind of buzz with your upcoming work?
Yes, absolutely. It’s totally scary. As awesome as it is for “Anna Sun” to have done so well, it’s really annoying because now we have to do something really good. I’m sitting there writing and trying to remember, ‘Did I have a feeling that “Anna Sun” was gonna be successful when I was writing it? Or was it just gonna be another song?’ Because all these songs just feel like more songs. I’m, like, trying to take the song’s temperature, you know? And it hasn’t even been performed yet. The whole writing the sophomore album thing is really weird and scary and exciting. I grew up being like, “I’m never gonna be one of those bands with a shitty sophomore album.” And now we have to write it.
Do you ever read reviews of your work?
Sure. We get a little pop-up on our e-mail whenever there’s a review. Mostly it’s just fun. The bad stuff especially is really fun.
You never get weighed down by it?
No. There’s no use in taking it seriously, unless it’s something really specific, like, “The mix on this song with the guitars is too loud and I can’t hear the vocal,” or something. [Then I would say] “Oh, shit, maybe we should remix that.” But usually it’s more fun than it is heartbreaking. Fortunately, more often than not it’s positive stuff. And the shows are all that really counts anyway. How the audience reacts is more important to me than how the odd critic reacts.
Walk the Moon play the 9:30 Club this Thursday and Friday, September 26 and 27. Tickets are sold out.