Guitarist Eli Maiman discusses how the band’s sophomore album, Talking Is Hard, differs from their debut, what attracts them to the ‘80s, and why they pride themselves on their live show.
I was able to catch the show last week at the Palladium and thought it was a great way to kick off the tour. How has this first week been for you guys?
First week of tour was pretty awesome. This is the first opportunity we’ve had to unleash a lot of these songs from Talking Is Hard upon bigger audiences. It feels really satisfying, the response and the excitement from the fans. It feels really good.
Yeah, it seemed like on all the new songs everyone knew them and was super into it, which was cool.
Yeah, it’s cool for them to blend into the old songs. It’s cool for people to be singing along to the words just as much as they’re singing along to stuff that they’ve been listening to for three years.
I was a little bit further in the back, so I couldn’t see, but are you still doing the face paint?
You know, the face paint is not mandatory for being onstage. It’s become when we feel moved to do it, which is Nicholas most nights, and I’ve been rocking it this tour as well. What we’re really impressed by is the fans showing up in face paint every single night. They’re maintaining that symbol of a community we have, both as an artist and fans.
You’re doing a cover of the Killers on this tour, which is pretty awesome. How did you arrive at picking that song?
We’ve admired the Killers for a really long time and really been into everything Brandon Flowers has done over the course of his career. That’s kind of an old favorite of ours. We had the great opportunity to perform it at a Grammy function a few weeks ago, which was to benefit the Grammy Foundation, which is basically a charity that supports music education, a cause that is near and dear to all of our hearts.
We were really excited to get the opportunity to play the show with Willy Nelson and Aloe Blacc. One of the songs that we prepared for the show was “All These Things That I’ve Done.” It just felt so good that we decided we wanted to do it every night for this “Talking Is Hard Tour.”
Since the Panic! tour, you’ve been posting clips of various covers online. How did that come together and how long does it usually take to do one of those songs?
The Instagram covers were just an idea that we had to generate more fun content. We’re always looking to connect with fans in new and creative ways. It turned out that people really liked seeing little 15-second clips of us covering tunes. It’s become one of our favorite things to do on the road. Every few days we learn another new song, or some small portion of it, and get it down.
You would be surprised how long it takes us to get 15 seconds of music recorded. To learn the tune, to figure out where we want to shoot it and then add some dramatic flair, these things can range anywhere from taking five minutes to sometimes we’ve worked on them for a half hour. It just depends.
What cover has been the toughest for you to get down?
We did Bon Iver’s “Woods” real early on, which has a lot of really intense vocal harmonies. We actually used it as a warm-up that day, learning the tune. That was definitely one of the tougher ones, although we obviously love the song and had fun with it.
All four of you in the band can sing and sing well, which is such an added luxury that allows you to do so many cool things. Can you talk a little about that and how important that is?
The beginnings of the band were kind of steeped in a cappella performances and influenced by a cappella arrangements that were then integrated into these rock songs. That’s been something that we’ve kept with us throughout the years.
Things we feel like are really important to the Walk the Moon sound are an abundance of vocals, lots of human voices, as well as a focus on having fun. Even when we’re dealing with heavier topics, which was something we wanted to do on this new record, we still want to keep it focused on having fun and being a positive, empowering listening experience.
I wanted to ask about “Shut Up and Dance” real quick. That song was soft released last summer before the Panic! tour, and you played it on that tour, but then it didn’t get officially pushed until the fall after the tour was over. I’m kind of curious as to what was the reasoning behind that. Was that just because the album wasn’t done yet?
The timing in putting out a record is really tricky and there are a lot of pieces at play. Basically, we had this song that we really liked and thought had a lot of potential. I remember the first time we played it was at a university in St. Louis. We kind of had the arrangement down, we kind of had it figured out, so we just thought, whatever. We’ll just go for it tonight.
By the end of the first chorus, everyone was singing along to the words. There was an obvious energy and a clear reaction. That was the start of us getting really, really excited about the song, so much so that we wanted to play it every single night on the Panic! at the Disco tour last year. Then we started pushing it properly once the record came out.
And that certainly has paid big dividends.
Yeah, it’s going great. It’s pretty wild seeing it hit No. 1 on the Alt chart. Now it’s popping up with little bits of life in these places that we never thought we’d see it. It’s really fun to see a song take on a life of its own. It’s definitely been a good reaction there.
I think one of you mentioned on the tour recently how it kind of seemed “Anna Sun” would do that at first, and I definitely thought that song had that crossover potential as well, but then it kind of stalled out halfway there. “Shut Up and Dance” sort of looked like it was going to go that way as well at first, but then was finally able to break through. I’m sure it must be really exciting finally seeing a song take off like that.
Yeah. I think we understand, like I was saying before, the timing a little bit better this time around. We put out a record. This isn’t our first rodeo, so to speak, and I think things are just coming together. The stars are aligning for us.
Like you were mentioning with “Shut Up and Dance,” you were able to work a lot of these songs out live. I remember seeing two or three of them back in 2013, like “Spend Your $$$” and “Different Colors,” that you’ve been playing for a while. How much of a key element was that on this record, being able to test these songs out on the road before recording them?
There were definitely a few songs we got to road test before hitting the studio, but a lot of it changed once we got in with Tim Pagnotta, who produced the record. A big focus on the first record was recreating the live sound. The way we achieved that was by putting the four of us in a room and performing together, and then adding to that as we needed to. So, that was one sound.
This record we approached more like we wanted to capture the essence of the live show, as opposed to wanting to totally actually recreate it, if that makes sense. I think we were a little more daring on the production side this time. I actually think it’s more effective. You get more of the spirit of the live show from the new record than you did from the last one.
The problem was for me when it came to figuring out the arrangements for the live performance, we weren’t necessarily totally prepared for that. For the first couple months of this year, we really dug into a studio in Cincinnati and practiced a lot on how to play these new songs and how to get the same idea across live, even if the arrangement wasn’t exactly the same. It’s been really fun and audiences have been really embracing the new sound.
You mentioned working with Tim and I thought his production on this record was perfect. He just knocked it out of the park. What was it like working with him? Were you fans of Sugarcult growing up?
Yeah, absolutely. Actually, Walk the Moon opened for Sugarcult a few years ago, so it was funny for our paths to cross again in such a different environment. We were big fans of Tim’s production on some of the Neon Trees stuff, and we know him as being a great writer. He was definitely a massive asset in the studio and was able to bring a real sense of joy to the recording process to the sessions that I think translates onto the record. You can hear it in our performances.
Did you record out in L.A.?
We did. We did the record in Los Angeles in Tim’s teeny tiny storage space of a studio in North Hollywood, which could not be more different than how we did the first record. But, it was fun. It was almost like doing a record in a tour bus. You’re in close quarters, the fridge is not large, and the place smells like burritos all the time.
Your last record was a little different, being that half of the songs were from I Want! I Want! and half were all new stuff written after that. Did this album feel more like a complete body of work, being that it was more or less written together around the same time?
I think it ended up feeling that way. We really got to focus on writing during the summer of 2013, and that’s where the bulk of the record came from. We also had two or three year’s worth of ideas that we had on voice memos or marked down a little bit on a computer. We ended up with 60 songs for this record, so it really took a lot of slashing and burning our way through the wild song forest to get to the meat of what we wanted to do.
It was about three-quarters of the way through the record that we noticed this theme of empowerment and positivity that had naturally coalesced around this recording. Even if it comes across as a more cohesive body of work, it was natural. It’s not like we went in with a Pink Floyd idea of a concept album. It’s something that naturally happened to us, probably because of what we were thinking about and our state of mind.
A couple of those songs that didn’t make the record you have played live, like “Boyfriend” and “Tiger Teeth.” Are those going to see the light of day at some point?
Yeah, absolutely. To be completely honest, my favorite song didn’t make the record [laughs].
Which one was that?
Well, there are some hidden gems. “Tiger Teeth” is definitely one of them. There’s another song called “Eat Your Heart Out” that just didn’t even make it to the recording sessions. We’re all super excited and proud of this record, and we are looking forward to the future. We feel like we’ve got artillery.
Do you think you might release another EP like you did with Tightrope?
We might. Right now the focus is entirely on Talking Is Hard. For people who really love “Boyfriend,” it’s going to be on the U.K. version of the record. I’m sure people will be able to dig that up if they want to. But for now, the focus is entirely on pushing this record.
There’s one song I wanted to particularly ask about, and I think it is the best song you’ve written so far, and that’s “Aquaman.” I love how ‘80s it is and the extended outro you’ve added for the live version. Can you talk about how that song came together?
“Aquaman” was a super special moment in the studio. It was the last day of recording and we hadn’t gotten to “Aquaman,” which is a song we all loved. We just didn’t quite get there. At about six o’clock that night, we decided that instead of having a big celebratory dinner we would just eat real fast and go back to the studio, track it and get it down.
We ended up recording until 7 or 8 in the morning, and pretty much what you hear on the record is what we tracked in those last 12 hours of recording for the record. It’s definitely one of our favorite pieces, if not the general favorite. We’re really, really proud of that moment.
Do you think there’s a chance it will get released as a single at some point?
There’s a chance that any of them will be released as a single. We’re unsure. We’re taking it day by day, taking it step by step, and not taking any of this for granted.
I thought “Aquaman,” along with the two songs before, those last three songs really showed your growth from the first album to the second album and what you are capable of. Can you talk about what you strived to do on this record that maybe you weren’t able to do on the first one?
With this record we really just wanted to expand the sound as much as we could while keeping the heart of Walk the Moon intact. We were really interested in playing with influences. How can we incorporate this particular sound from an ‘80s record, but still make it Walk the Moon?
What I think we ended up doing is we really expanded the sound. We’ve really blown out the ends. There’s heavy, ferocious moments, like “Up 2 U,” that we wouldn’t have reached for before, and then there are more tender, vulnerable moments, like “Aquaman.” That was really the result of the sound. We wanted to expand in all directions.
Additionally, we’ve been asked a whole lot about pressure on this record. Did we feel pressure? Were we putting pressure on ourselves? I really think the main thing we wanted to do was not take our opportunity to say something for granted. We understood that probably some people would hear this record, and we wanted to say something positive with this chance we had.
So we took the opportunity to dive into some heavier topics, whether it be about interpersonal relationships or larger scale relationships, like ours with the planet. We didn’t want to shy away from those things. I think it’s a different record in that way.
Did you use any more 12-string guitar on this record?
Yeah, there’s a 12-string on a couple tracks, this weird, early 2000s Fender Electric 12 Strat. I think it’s actually strung up wrong. The octave strings are on the wrong side of the regular strings, so it hits the pickups in an unusual way and kind of sounds like a synth. I really enjoy playing it and got some weird sounds on the record. I appreciate you asking about the 12-string [laughs].
Yeah, I interviewed you right before the last record came out and I remember you talking about the 12-string on that one.
Right. It’s so interesting what we thought the record was going to be going in and then what the record ends up being once it comes out. It must be like having a baby. You’re imagining what the child could be, and then it comes out and is something different but wonderful that you didn’t expect. I’m sure when I talked to you last I thought I had an idea of what it was going to be like, but it turns out I didn’t know shit [laughs].
If I remember correctly as well you were doing some guitar lessons on the side back then. Have you still been able to do any of those in your free time?
No, I haven’t been teaching or learning lately.
Is that something that you miss?
It is. I went to school for jazz. I went to school and played guitar for 6-8 hours a day. Sometimes I miss being able to focus on something for that period of time and really see a lot of growth, even in just a few days or a week. But when we’re on tour, you’re lucky to get an hour to yourself, and when you do get an hour you probably want to take a nap. It is something that I miss, but I wouldn’t trade it. I prefer this. This is pretty good.
Was your jazz school experience anything at all like Whiplash?
Absolutely. Whiplash gave me serious flashbacks to school. I didn’t have any professor quite as intense as J.K. Simmons, but still it resonated.
As you’ve talked about, you have more pronounced ‘80s influences on this record and that sound certainly seems to be very prevalent in pop music these days, from Taylor Swift to Bleachers to M83. Why do you think that is resonating so much with people today?
I can’t tell you why it’s resonating with others. What really attracts us to those sounds is that element of weirdness that I think is absent from a lot of the music today. We really like writing big hooks and big choruses, but we always want to make sure there’s some kind of weird left turn in the song, something that’s strange from the past that makes it unique and unusual.
That’s what we love about Prince or the Talking Heads or ELO. There will be a big hook that’s stuck in your head for days, but there’s also something totally weird that happens. That’s really what draws us to it.
Do you have any idea why that’s also catching on so much with music listeners these days?
I think there is a lot of cookie cutter music being made, despite the fact that we have opportunities to create some of the weirdest music in history right now. Computers and the internet and Spotify, all this information, really gives you an opportunity to have really unique influences in your music.
I think we’re just beginning to tap into that. I think it’s going to cause a diversification of music that is partly in reaction to the internet and partly in reaction to the staleness of pop music today.
So what do you think the future holds for Walk the Moon? How do you try to capitalize on the success of “Shut Up and Dance” and this tour, so as not to become a flash in the pan but instead make it last?
What we have really worked hard to do over the past five years is build a strong fan base through touring and make a name for ourselves as a live band. We don’t use any tracks onstage. We are playing or triggering every noise that you hear live in front of you.
I think it makes a difference to people. They can sense the energy and the possibility of total failure. I think that makes our concerts a special experience and that’s really what we pride ourselves on is the live show.
So, we’re just going to keep pushing it. We’re going to tour this record a whole lot this year. Hopefully, take it to some new territories we’ve never been to. We’re hoping to see Asia sometime this year. That’s the plan for the foreseeable future.
Will you be doing another U.S. summer tour, or not until the fall?
[Pause] We’ll be on tour. We won’t be at home, is what I’ll tell you right now [laughs].
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk