Go behind the music with Nick Petricca '09 of Walk the Moon, which launched at Kenyon.
Story by Elizabeth Weinstein | Photography by Anna Lee
One of the world's biggest pop stars, Taylor Swift, was in the midst of her popular “1989 World Tour” in the summer of 2015. At each stop, she brought out a surprise guest to perform with her, and her show at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, was no exception.
Before inviting that evening’s guest onstage, Swift exclaimed to the audience:
“There is this one song in particular, that, the first time I heard it I just sat up and went, ‘I have to buy it! I have to have it. I have to play it on repeat. I have to know every single word to this song. I have to jump around in my bedroom to this song.’ ”
The opening notes of “Shut Up and Dance” then filled the packed stadium, and the band Walk the Moon emerged from backstage. Wearing matching green-sequined jackets, lead singer Nick Petricca ’09 and Swift led 60,000 fans in a giant sing-along dance party:
A backless dress and some beat up sneaks
My discotheque Juliet teenage dream
I felt it in my chest as she looked at me
I knew we were bound to be together
Swift wasn’t the only person obsessing over the lead single of Walk the Moon’s second major label album, “Talking Is Hard.” The song peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year and sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. alone. Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran even proclaimed “Shut Up and Dance” the song of the summer of 2015.
It was official: After half a decade of relentless touring, recording, false starts and lineup changes, Walk the Moon (stylized WALK THE MOON by the band), whose origins can be traced back to Kenyon’s residence halls and performance spaces, had finally landed.
Petricca grew up in Cincinnati, in a home where music was ever-present in the background of his daily life. He attended concerts with his parents, who were avid music fans, took piano lessons and played with the school jazz band. Writing his own music didn’t become a primary passion, however, until his senior year of high school, as he was preparing to start college at Kenyon, where he recalled immediately feeling at home, “in that fairytale college way.”
As a first-year, he started a rock band, The Expert, for which he played keyboards and sang vocals alongside guitarist and fellow vocalist Nick Lerangis ’09. Before long, his passion for music exploded. “I like to say that music just ate me. It swallowed me whole,” he said. “I became obsessed with writing songs, playing gigs and making rock music.”
A music major, he thrived in his music theory classes with Professor of Music Ted Buehrer ’91, as well as in electives like “Jazz Theory and Arranging” and “Intro to Music Technology.” Studying with Buehrer, he said, was “an important part of my music expansion and growth.”
Buehrer remembers first meeting Petricca when he was a prospective Kenyon student and chatting about his burgeoning interest in writing pop songs. As a student, Petricca was “smart, inquisitive and hard-working, but also caring and kind,” Buehrer recalled, noting that “along the way, (Petricca) wrote some memorable music for class projects.”
Every year for one of his music theory classes, Buehrer asks students to create a final composition about Kenyon, and one option is to write in a pop-song style. “I still share Nick’s song, ‘We Are Like Kokosing,’ with my current students as a model of what a strong project could look and sound like,” he said. Several years ago, Buehrer rearranged an instrumental piece titled “Naiweh,” which Petricca had created as a student in his music technology class, and performed it with the Kenyon Jazz Ensemble.
Outside of the classroom, a parallel music education began to take shape for Petricca during late-night listening and jam sessions. He realized that in spite of his parents’ best intentions, his formative pop and rock education contained some glaring gaps.
“My girlfriend at the time and my new friends began introducing me to all these acts that I’d never heard of or dug into before,” he explained. “I’d never really listened to The Beatles, for instance. I had never heard of the Talking Heads or Tears for Fears, and I had never listened to David Bowie. Suddenly, my music mind and heart just completely broke open and expanded. There was a vast universe of music that I had never listened to before, and I began to change quickly.”
“Suddenly, my music mind and heart just completely broke open and expanded. There was a vast universe of music that I had never listened to before, and I began to change quickly.”
Nick Petricca '09, on gaining an informal pop and rock education at Kenyon
Petricca and The Expert performed in battle of the bands events at the Horn Gallery and booked performances wherever they could — from the campus coffee shop to parties in the basement of Old Kenyon. “Kenyon kids are, if anything, brilliant and strange,” he said, laughing. “It was a breeding ground for creativity.”
During the summer after his first year at Kenyon, Petricca formed a second band, Wicked in the Mix, with a few friends from Cincinnati and Kenyon classmate Adam Reifsnyder ’08. During the next two years, Wicked in the Mix and The Expert melded into a hybrid band. But the lineup kept shifting until, at one point, only Petricca and Reifsnyder remained as members. Eventually, they brought on a new drummer, Adrian Galvin ’12, and guitarist/vocalist Lerangis from The Expert.
With new members and a fresh focus, the group decided it was time to rebrand.
“We had gotten mixed feedback to the name Wicked in the Mix and it didn’t really mean a whole lot to us, but we liked abbreviating our name as ‘WM,’” Reifsnyder explained, “so it was in the back of our minds that it would be really cool if we could keep (those initials).”
The band’s influences included The Police — they loved their song “Walking on the Moon” — and Michael Jackson, whose signature dance move was the “moonwalk.” So they adopted a new name, Walk the Moon, as an homage to these musical icons.
On campus, Walk the Moon’s star began to rise.
“Kenyon was a little crucible for all our big dreams. It was a platform for us to explore and make mistakes without any real negative repercussions,” Galvin said of the early days of the band, which included opening for hip-hop duo Clipse during Kenyon’s annual end-of-year concert, Summer Sendoff.
Life post-Kenyon, however, proved more challenging as Petricca, Reifsnyder and Lerangis moved to Cincinnati together with the goal of making music professionally (as the youngest member, Galvin played with the band during breaks from school). After “many months of intense rehearsing and gigging” with the band, Lerangis, who had been working odd jobs and living with Petricca’s and Reifsnyder’s parents, decided to leave the group to pursue other career options in his hometown of New York City. Soon after, Reifsnyder and Galvin also left to chase other jobs and dreams.
Suddenly, Petricca was the only remaining member of Walk the Moon. He weighed his options: He could close that chapter of his life and do something else — something unrelated to music. Or he could keep going. “I faced the void. I faced what could have been failure and decided, ‘No, I’m going to book a bunch of gigs with no band and go figure it out,’ ” he said.
Two years later, Walk the Moon had three new members, a hit single, “Anna Sun,” and a recording contract with RCA Records. “We were on our way,” Petricca said.
Before the original members of Walk the Moon went their separate ways, they independently recorded and released “i want! i want!” in 2010. The album featured a song, “Anna Sun,” that they had written specifically about their college experiences.
Though none of the band members were close to Anna Sun, an associate professor of sociology and Asian studies at Kenyon, they thought her melodic name made for a catchy hook. Radio listeners agreed — the song became a sleeper hit on alternative stations in 2011.
Sun, who will never forget the first time she heard the song on the radio — during a lunch meeting at a restaurant in Chicago — has a theory about why the musicians chose her name for the song: because it goes well with Walk the Moon, both in sound and in meaning (sun and moon). Whatever the reason, she counts herself a fan.
“I do think the song is on its way to becoming a true classic, if it hasn’t already arrived at classic status,” she said. “I am honored to be associated with it, if only accidentally.”
The success of “Anna Sun” helped the newest iteration of Walk the Moon (Petricca, Kevin Ray, Sean Waugaman and Eli Maiman) land a contract with RCA Records in 2012, and the song became the first single off their self-titled major label debut, which peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Alternative chart.
Introducing a performance of the song by Walk the Moon on his late-night show, music lover Jimmy Fallon declared that the band was “poised for a breakout.”
In December 2014, after years of nonstop touring, Walk the Moon released its second album through RCA, “Talking is Hard.” The first single, party anthem “Shut Up and Dance,” was an instant hit.
Ironically, the inspiration for the tune was a bad case of writer’s block. “‘Shut Up and Dance’ is based on a true story,” Petricca told Radio. com in an interview. “We hit a roadblock writing the song; we didn’t have the chorus. We went out to blow off some steam at this awesome dance club and there was a girl there with a backless dress and beat-up red Chucks who actually told me to shut up and dance with her.”
While writing that song, and others since, Petricca said he has experienced “whoa moments,” as in “whoa, this could be a frickin’ smash!’” But those moments, he acknowledged, can be risky.
“As soon as you recognize a song for having that potential, you have to be careful because then you can become really precious, like, ‘Now we have to write it like it’s going to be a smash,’” he said. “If you become too aware, you can mess it up.”
As Walk the Moon’s catchy, danceable hooks and beats made their way around the globe, fans started emulating the band’s distinctive look, which originated during the filming of the video for “Anna Sun.” In the video, Petricca and the dancers have stripes of bright paint smeared on their faces.
“The heart of Walk the Moon was born out of this love of being young forever,” Petricca said. “The face paint was kind of a way to get people out of their heads and invite them to be a kid, regard-less of their age.”
Petricca’s personal style has evolved alongside his spiritual and life practice, he explained. Lately, his platinum blond (and sometimes rainbow-streaked) hair falls in a cross between a mohawk and a mullet, and his clothing choices range from plain white v-necks and skinny jeans to animal-print leotards with faux-fur jackets.
“I’ve identified more and more with a sense of being a warrior,” he said. And he tries to look the part.
In April 2016, at the height of Walk the Moon’s fame, Petricca and his bandmates surprised their fans, and the media, when they announced that they were canceling their “Work This Body” tour and stepping away from the spotlight for a while. In a note posted on their website, they shared news about Petricca’s dad, who had been suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“Unfortunately, it’s reached a point where he needs to come home and focus on his family,” they wrote about Petricca, who left California to return to Cincinnati.
During this time, friends, former Walk the Moon bandmates and members of the Kenyon community, including Buehrer, recon-nected with Petricca and offered support.
“Celebrity may have come upon him, but he was the same person he was as an undergraduate: still interested in writing catchy and creative music; grateful for the education he received at Kenyon that forced him to analyze and to think critically about his music; still the caring and down-to-earth person I remembered,” Buehrer said.
Joseph Petricca died on Feb. 4 at age 63. Through his social media feeds that day, Petricca dedicated a song he had recently produced for musician Wyclef Jean, “Holding on the Edge,” to “my beautiful dad, Big Joe.”
The following spring, Walk the Moon holed up in a studio in Los Angeles to write and record a new album, “What If Nothing,” which debuted at number six on the iTunes charts. From the get-go, Petricca said, the whole process felt different from creating the band’s previous albums.
“We were coming into this writing process after almost five years straight of being on the road. We were exhausted and needed a huge break. My dad was passing away and it was a bit of a dark time,” he said. “Coming out of that and alchemizing all of that energy, fatigue, sadness and confusion into the music was very transformative, and it transformed our sound as well.”
The band’s changing sound was noted in a Rolling Stone review, which called “What If Nothing” a return to Walk the Moon’s “rock roots.” The first single off the album, “One Foot,” is about moving forward with uncertainty, which seems symbolic of where Petricca is headed.
“We can’t step into the old shoes,” he said. “We have to step into new ones and become something bigger and better.”
The band’s breakout single was inspired by memories of Kenyon.
A month after graduating from Kenyon, Nick Petricca ’09 was writing in the basement of his home in Cincinnati when he received a text from his ex-girlfriend, who was visiting campus. “[The text] was something about ‘setting off fireworks in one of the quads and that it felt like a ghost town’ in the summer. That just felt so real and true to me,” said Petricca, who started crying and writing the lyrics that would become the verse and the bridge of the song.
Firecrackers in the east my car parked south
Your hands on my cheeks your shoulder in my mouth I was up against the wall on the west mezzanine We rattle this town, we rattle this scene
It didn’t become “Anna Sun,” though, until the end, when Petricca and then-bandmate Nick Lerangis ’09 were playing around with
“this little musical connector between the verse and the chorus that had this beautiful rising melody.” They were joking about Kenyon when Lerangis started singing the name of their sociology professor. It clicked.
O, Anna Sun
O, Anna Sun
“She’s a wonderful professor and was always such a bright, shining person on campus, as was her husband, Professor Yang Xiao, whom I had for philosophy,” Petricca said. “It’s not so much that the song is about Anna Sun, but that she has this beautiful name that seemed to represent the bright people who were there and the wisp of inspi-ration that could be anywhere at any time on campus.”
Though Petricca’s sound has evolved since writing that song, he says that perform-ing it live “just feels awesome.” “You write something that is real for a moment, and then as soon as it is written and that moment has passed, it’s not necessarily who you are anymore,” he said. “You are growing and changing and evolving every minute, every second. But because it was real for that one moment, it’s real forever.”