Walk The Moon: From School Gyms to the MTV Music Awards

They’ve shared a stage with the Rolling Stones and can now claim to be the biggest band to ever come out of the Queen City. How did four guys with a predilection for face paint get so huge?

This is a story about planning to host a CD-release show at a Clifton coffee shop and five years later landing on stage alongside the Rolling Stones. It’s a Cincinnati story, about overplaying local bars to build a name and fan base, and eventually becoming the biggest rock group the city has ever produced. It’s a story about all the right stuff—timing and talent and luck and hard work. But perhaps what it’s mostly about is the marketing power of face paint.

Walk The Moon's teen-utopian rocket ship is virtually unstoppable.
Walk The Moon’s teen-utopian rocket ship is virtually unstoppable.

Illustration by Nigel Evan Dennis

What we’re talking about here is Walk The Moon, the band that refused to become a fluke. A band that established a Midwest foothold on its own and are now conquering the rest of the world with the help of a dedicated “team” of management, legal advisors, and record label support. The band’s managers, past and present, are the ones who tell the story. They can explain in plain terms how Walk The Moon made it from Point A (complete unknowns) to Point B (buzz band) to Point C (pop stars). They also offer a warning: No Cincinnati band should attempt to copy the same formula and expect the same result.

At the center of everything is Nicholas Petricca, the lead singer, keyboardist, and frontman of Walk The Moon. Petricca started the band eight years ago at Kenyon College and is the only remaining original member. His vision and drive have fueled Walk The Moon’s relentless onslaught of Top 40 teenage utopian pop-rock and generated the warm, welcoming vibes that pulsate through their breakthrough video “Anna Sun” and their ubiquitous radio cut “Shut Up and Dance.”

That song alone broke Walk The Moon with new audiences pretty much everywhere. In June, they hometown-headlined the Bunbury Festival. In July, they played a mid-afternoon set at Lollapalooza in Chicago that had the energy and audience draw of a headlining show; opened for the Stones in Detroit; and returned to Cincinnati to play at the Home Run Derby the day before the All-Star Game. In August, they performed at MTV’s Video Music Awards. “Shut Up and Dance” has gone platinum in countries as far-flung as Sweden, Australia, and Germany, not to mention the United States. Attention Earthlings: Resistance is futile.

Not too surprisingly, the weight and import of their pop cultural impact has not fully settled in. Petricca was on his way to Japan for the band’s first shows there when he picked up the phone and put up a bit of a fight against the notion that his is the biggest rock band to emerge from Cincinnati.

“The Isley Brothers?” he suggested. The answer is no. The Isleys were indeed from Lincoln Heights but they did not really establish themselves until relocating to Teaneck, New Jersey. Similarly, The National didn’t really become The National until the guys in the band transplanted to New York. The Afghan Whigs? Nope. The Whigs are a band beloved for making music in a particular intersection on the ’90s-alt rock Venn diagram, but their fans are dwarfed by the number of face-painted obsessives who fill amphitheaters when WTM comes to town.

“I guess you might be right,” he finally said. “We’ll take it.”

There is no fake modesty in Petricca’s response. There’s no genuine modesty, either, and no boast. It’s just a plainly spoken acceptance of fact. He works his ass off, and he has a humongous following to show for it.

“They’re working harder now than when they were driving themselves around in the van playing gymnasiums,” says Michael McDonald, who manages the band from his office in Brooklyn. McDonald has managed John Mayer and cofounded ATO Records. Which is to say: He’s worked with some genuine stars in the pop-rock firmament. Still, the work ethic of Petricca and his bandmates—Eli Maiman, guitar; Kevin Ray, bass; Sean Waugaman, drums—impresses him. “They are the hardest working band that I’ve worked with,” McDonald says. “They’re tireless in their dedication to their career.”

Petricca confirmed this, honestly and avidly. “It was never a question of whether or not to do the work and put in the effort,” he told me. “When we were on our own, I like to say that we were reckless. Recklessly booking shows, booking as many as possible in as many different places around town as possible, and as we started to grow, in as many different cities as we could. That wound up putting us in a lot of shitty gigs that we probably didn’t need to play. But it was all part of our growth that got us to the point that we met Michael and the other industry people who teamed up with us. Once we finally had guidance and people with experience directing us to the best possible outlets and interviews and gigs, it was great. We just ate it all up. We continue to work as hard as we can. Sometimes it’s too much. We’re definitely a ‘yes’ band. We say ‘yes’ to almost everything.”

From left: Sean Waugaman, Nicholas Petricca, Kevin Ray, and Eli Maiman of Walk The Moon
From left: Sean Waugaman, Nicholas Petricca, Kevin Ray, and Eli Maiman of Walk The Moon

If all of the above sounds like Petricca and company ripped a page right out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success—specifically, the one where the author invokes the 10,000-hours-of-practice-rule as the key to eventual success for such masters of our universe as Bill Gates and the Beatles—well, yeah. But it takes a mess of help to get to the top, too.

Katie Carlson was introduced to Walk The Moon’s music by a friend in 2009, when she was a high school senior in Columbus and they were an unsigned, relatively unknown band from the Queen City. She caught Petricca’s attention at a promotional show the band played at the Gap at Easton Town Center by standing up front and singing every word. The two talked afterwards and kept in touch. Carlson describes their relationship as one in which she became his “friend-ager”—friend + manager—lending a hand with management duties out of loyalty (read: gratis) when she enrolled at Butler University later that fall. That basically amounted to handing out burned CDs on campus and booking their gigs in Indianapolis, but it’s how she ended up at Petricca’s side in 2010 when they made the video that started the buzz. (Carlson now gets paid for her efforts; she works for McDonald and handles the band’s day-to-day obligations.)

The “Anna Sun” video ties everything together in the Walk The Moon origin story: the up-tempo catchiness of the tune, the gloss of positivity, the inclusive vibe, and the colorful face paint favored by both the band and its fans. Carlson says the face paint is inspired by a scene in the Robin Williams movie Hook, in which a food fight is imagined as a paint battle. The face paint has since turned into a semi-official thing. Fans show up to shows wearing it and band members have adopted their own individual looks, like a bunch of dance-pop Ace Frehleys. Carlson sees the paint as a potent ingredient in the band’s success.

“When Nick and the guys were out touring in a place they’d never been before, they would go into the audience with a plate full of paint, and he’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Nick. My band is playing here in 30 minutes. We’re called Walk The Moon, and part of our show ritual is we paint faces. Can we paint your face?’ ” she says. “In that way, people made a personal connection with the guys in the band and then they paid attention to the show, and it was a memorable experience. It was this community feeling, that feeling that we’re all in this together. My face is painted so I’m going to paint your face.”

Petricca’s stage banter, and presence, has been a key to building the band’s fan base. “He sort of stops and talks and tells a bit of a story” in the middle of their show, says McDonald. “He says, ‘For those of you that weren’t here before, welcome to the family, the place where we all like to be free and be ourselves and be dorks together and create positive energy.’ ” It sounds hokey, but it works.

Walk The Moon had finished both a new album and the “Anna Sun” video by the fall of 2010. All they had to do was pick a venue for the CD-release show. Petricca wanted to have it at Baba Budan’s, a now-closed coffee shop on West McMillan Street. Carlson wanted to aim bigger. She convinced Petricca to do it at the also-now-shuttered Mockbee, a large art/performance space in Brighton where “Anna Sun” was filmed and where Carlson and Petricca had seen a packed CD-release show and video debut by fellow Cincinnati band The Lions Rampant. It was a crazy thought, as far as Petricca was concerned: If only Walk The Moon could be as big as Lions Rampant and sell out a show at the Mockbee!

They went for it. And miracle upon miracles, it was bigger than the Lions Rampant show. The Mockbee was not the type of place to fall under the watchful eye of a fire marshal, so who knows how many people were there. Petricca guesses it was around 450. “It was completely busted out,” he recalled. “That top room, you couldn’t fit one more person in there. There were people squeezing through the doors. It was at that moment that we realized we had built something special at home and that’s all we needed to know that we could do it everywhere.”

That’s where the video comes in. Their manager McDonald feels that “Anna Sun” is better than 90 percent of major-label big budget videos. The blogosphere seemed to agree. It got picked up by the music-tastemaking blog Neon Gold in January 2011 on the same day that the band was in New York to play a show at the Lower East Side club Pianos. Neon Gold ended its Walk The Moon post by taunting the industry: “A&R’s who aspire to be good at their jobs might want to be in attendance.”

Brian Penick owns a Cincinnati artist-development company that worked with Walk The Moon at the time. His phone blew up the day after the Pianos show. “It’s what I like to call the quote-unquote freakout,” he says. “That’s not an industry term, but that’s when the industry freakout happened.”

Walk The Moon continued on its tour, planning to return to New York about a week later for another show, where they figured managers, booking agents, and record labels would be ready to pounce. But Michael McDonald did not want to wait a week. He hadn’t attended the show at Pianos, though people in his office had and came back buzzing about it. So, after getting the permission of his wife, he flew to Indianapolis where Walk The Moon was playing a dance marathon at Butler University.

“I referred to it as the worst rock and roll environment I’ve ever seen—a gym with all the lights on during a dance marathon where the arrival of pizza trumped the music for a large part of the audience,” McDonald remembers. “It was not vibey at all, but they went up there and played their hearts out like they were playing Madison Square Garden, and I said to myself, ‘If they can do that here, there’s no stopping them.’ So I really, really pushed hard.”

McDonald was in. When the band returned for the second show in New York, he and his wife were carrying the band’s gear and selling their merch, which likely showed his industry competition all it needed to see. Soon after signing with McDonald, the band landed a recording contract with RCA Records.

McDonald believes that coming out of Cincinnati gave the band a leg up. “There was no development necessary. They’ve continued to grow and mature and improve, but it wasn’t like I had to go send them to play 30 shows in tertiary markets to get their shit together. They came ready,” he says. “It’s places like Cincinnati where you have time to develop and mature. In larger cities and more expensive cities, you can’t afford to put a band together and pay for the rehearsal space and pay to rent a van and park the van. There are a lot of obstacles, and some of those are just financial.”

Walk The Moon had its share of roster turnover before settling into the current lineup, which has been intact since 2011. Carlson gives credit for the band’s success to all members past and present but especially Petricca. “He’s a super visionary,” she says. “He found the right people who shared that vision and were ready to take that on. Walk The Moon had such an established aesthetic. [They] did it with the ‘Anna Sun’ video. They had a look. They had a feel. In terms of the Cincinnati music scene at the time, a lot of the bands that were around were a little more punk, a little more hard rock or folk. I think they filled a void for a dance-pop band, which was helpful.”

Brian Penick warned me that there’s a lot of mythology connected to Walk The Moon’s early days in town, people who take credit for the band’s success who have nothing to do with it. I ran one story by him that a local musician told me: That after Petricca spent the early years of Walk The Moon failing to make waves, he told a friend, I’m going to stop making the music I like and start making music for money.

In other words, Petricca sold out.

Myth, says Penick. “No, that’s not Nick. Everything that Nick puts his hands on is still completely a part of what he wants to do. He wouldn’t do this if he didn’t fully believe in himself. Knowing Nick as well as I do, he’s his harshest critic, and he wouldn’t let anything come out through Walk The Moon, but more importantly with his name affixed to it, unless he absolutely was willing to sign off on it from a creative standpoint,” he says. “Nick would have sleepless nights fixating on a few sequences of notes.”

Maybe other Cincinnati musicians are jealous of Walk The Moon. Maybe they have reason to be. Carlson thinks the Walk The Moon story—that combo pack of work, talent, circumstance, and fully realized vision—is a one-time deal. “But that doesn’t mean some other band won’t have success,” she offers, consolingly. “It will just happen in a different way.”

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