NAPA — The latest project from Walk Off the Earth—well, besides July’s new album Meet You There, the sixth from the Ontario, Canada pop band—came about after it found itself losing online popularity to a hungry child.
It wasn’t just any child but 4-year-old Romeo, who just happened to be one of three children of Walk Off the Earth multi-instrumentalists Gianni “Luminati” Nicassio and Sarah Blackwood. The couple realized as soon as Romeo started eating real food that he would eat literally anything they placed in front of him. It’s something he probably got from his adventurous father, who has never appeared on “Bizarre Foods” but has never passed up an opportunity to try something out of the ordinary.
“We started filming that for our Instagram stories, and it blew up,” Nicassio said during a conversation at BottleRock Napa Valley, where Walk Off the Earth, which also includes long-time percussionist Joel Cassady and newer members Adam Michael and David “Tokyo” Speirs, had just played an impassioned set in front of hundreds of baking attendees. “Our stories would get three times as much engagement. … As he got older, he started getting so charismatic with it. He loved food so much. People wrote to us, saying, ‘This is not normal. This kid is special. His palate is next-level.’”
That’s how Nicassio, Blackwood and Cassady, the core members, came up with an idea, after finishing Meet You There, to turn the video clips into a YouTube series. Romeo, for his part, was very enthusiastic about “going to work” with his parents, Blackwood and Nicassio said. Over a year and a half, they filmed 22 episodes about the boy trying new and unusual foods. Walk Off the Earth wrote and recorded all the background music, as well as an album’s worth of original children’s songs used in the show. The first episode, starring Romeo and a spiky, stinky durian fruit, premiered the same day the band played BottleRock. An album of the children’s songs from the show will be released on Sept. 24.
“The whole goal is to create something like ‘The Muppet Show’ back in the day, where kids really love it, but grownups love it, too,” Blackwood said, adding that she is over her children watching random YouTube videos to pass the time without adults around. “We can bring a show that both kids and parents can watch … the music is actually good, and it’s not ‘Baby Shark’ over and over and over again. … There’s so much crap on YouTube.”
Walk Off the Earth is well-positioned to make such a show. The group found success over the decade through multiple successes online, both with original songs and unique covers of hits recorded in unusual ways, using unusual instruments—and sometimes all of the members playing a single instrument at once. Its previous album, 2019’s HERE WE GO!, debuted at No. 1 on Nielsen’s Pop Albums chart and was most successful in the U.S.
The band has also grown through near constant worldwide touring, which of course came to a sudden stop at the outset of the pandemic. Without shows to play, the members looked inward, and for the first time, started prioritizing their own and their families’ mental and physical wellness. For Nicassio, that manifested in, among other ways, cactus botany.
“I grow cactuses now. They’re very delicate. They need a lot of love, and not a lot of water, but you have to talk to them,” he said, only partly joking. “That’s something I never thought I would be doing.”
Blackwood and Nicassio also renovated their home during the pandemic’s early days, and Blackwood realized that she had a passion for home renovation shows. Someday, she wants one of her own.
“I really think I could be really good at it. I’m gonna start my own company, and it’s gonna be called Blackwood Renovations,” she said. “I would decorate the [tour] bus. I would go to Ikea the first day of a tour, or Target or whatever, buy twinkle lights, fresh throw pillows.”
The other thing she realized (like many parents did) was that she was not meant to homeschool children—“I really hope I don’t have to do that again.”
Having the time—albeit forced—to ground themselves again, and reconnect to what mattered for them outside of the band, Walk Off the Earth used that to fuel Meet You There. Rather than trying to fit songwriting in on bus rides and hotel rooms, they had time at home to take a deep dive into their relationships and lives, which of course were also squeezed in by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nicassio said the new album had an extra focus that the band’s others didn’t have. The songs each had time to develop and grow naturally, he said.
“These things may be obvious and sound cliche, but honestly, when you’re in a touring band and have a team that’s always trying to get you to the next thing … having a base of some sort and actually knowing what tomorrow is gonna bring—some sense of a routine—is something I have not taken for granted,” Cassady added. “The pandemic was a really big moment for us to realize the importance of … not being so transitory all the time, being able to stay calm and actually being able to have a routine for the first time in 10 years. … I hope, as the world starts to reopen, we can keep that same semblance as we move forward.”
Reconnection is a major theme on the album’s 11 songs, which includes single “Love You Right” (a riff on standard “Auld Lang Syne” featuring duo Lukas Graham), as well as 2020 gnash collaboration “Nicknames” and up-tempo danceable tunes like “Oh What A Feeling” and “Farther We Go.”
Nicassio said that by reconnecting with themselves, their families and their friends, the band was able to find positives in a horrible situation. Taking a break played to the band’s strength of interacting with fans online, while Cassady said he and the others realized that maybe they’d been spending too much time on tour over the last few years.
“It’s true to the moment of the pandemic,” Cassady said. “You’ve got one life. This is it. Make the time count. Songs like ‘Farther We Go’ [are about] getting a chance to reflect … tie back to valuing your time on this planet, making the most of every moment and celebrating those all around you.”
Playing a festival like BottleRock was still incredible to the band. Once Walk Off the Earth took the stage, the musicians were again excited to share music with people. Blackwood said she felt like crying from happiness at one point.
“Today was incredible. But it was amazing to be able to reprioritize that in addition to our families, and our wellness and our health,” Cassady said.
Following the release of the album, Walk Off the Earth, true to its custom of trying new things, aired a performance in August that the band had recorded high above Toronto’s skyline from the top of CN Tower—with Nicassio and Blackwood singing outside while tethered to the tower’s famed tourist thrill experience, EdgeWalk.
While Tony Bennett, Spiritualized and others performed in the observation deck in the past, this was different. Blackwood said the band’s motto has always been to come up with ideas others have not, whether that’s in a viral video or live performance. That doesn’t mean it was easy, however.
For starters, even getting the performance approved involved red tape for Cassady, who was the one who worked with CN Tower management on everything from permits to safety and COVID-19 protocols. Then, one of the drone operators filming the performance crashed his drone.
“The whole time we were up there was terrifying, but we just kept thinking in our minds, ‘It’s all about the shot. It’s going to look amazing. Suck it up and do it,’” Blackwood said of performing nearly 1,200 feet up on a see-through platform.
Blackwood was braver than her partner, who is scared of heights.
“You should see Gianni climb a ladder,” Blackwood said. “It’s like watching a 110-year-old man trying to get up a step.”
While Cassady performed inside the tower with the rest of the band, he went on a walk outside with a tour.
“These guys got off a little easy,” he said of his bandmates. “When you go out there on a separate tour, they make you lean over. Leaning backwards is all chill, but at one point, they make you lean forward and put your entire weight on the cable. I’m not scared of heights, but my whole life flashed before my eyes. It was horrifying.”
Blackwood, the mother of three, gets the last word, however.
“My life flashes before my eyes many times per day,” she said.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.