Petey doesn’t have a worldview.
At least that’s what he says. Or maybe, as he later notes from the patio of his spacious new rental in the hills of Silver Lake, his worldview changes from year to year. If this sounds confusing, it’s just a reflection of what many creators and artists are dealing with coming out of a global pandemic, forced to reevaluate and recontextualize everything they know about how their art exists in the world. When pressed, the Los Angeles-based indie rock upstart is able to nail down his own personal philosophy to a certain golden-ish rule: Do no harm.
“I think I’m trying hard,” he says, pausing to give a question about his personal ethos the consideration it deserves. “I was just about to say I’m trying really hard, and then I realized that I don’t know if I’m trying really hard. My goal is to like myself enough so that I can do as little damage to the people and world at large around me as possible.”
It’s the kind of self-reflection that comes with a burgeoning career. And over the past year-and-a-half, both in the music space and in a wildly successful comedic TikTok account, a career is exactly what Petey is finding. But the Midwestern native is determined not to lose sight of how he got to where he is, and not to let these wins come at the cost they often do.
“It was a scary realization,” he says. “Once you start signing contracts and getting teams together, it’s a deep breath, late-night anxiety moment to realize, ‘Damn. I might have to hurt some people’s feelings.’ That’s a really, really, really difficult thing for me to grapple with and do. I’ve avoided a lot to avoid that… So through these last couple years, it’s been can I pursue and be successful in this space? And can I live a fulfilling life while also doing the least amount of damage as possible to people in my surroundings?”
So far, the answer has been yes. It’s not bad for a guy who moved to California based on a love of The O.C. and little else, and who is announcing his debut full-length (Lean Into Life, due September 3 on Terrible Records) today. Born Peter Martin in suburban Detroit, Petey spent his formative years in Chicago, playing in bands and forming deep connections with “10 or so artists” that remain embedded in his own creative DNA. After attending college at Loyola in New Orleans, The O.C. remained a siren song for the rudderless young man. “I had no real ambitions of doing music stuff or even art stuff,” he remembers. “My only goal when I was 21 and moved out here was just to survive and be in California.” Petey still describes himself as lacking ambition, but in these early days, he was content just to survive, and avoided anxiety about the future by simply not worrying about it. Still, he also admits to knowing deep down that artistic pursuits were likely his calling, even if he didn’t want to admit it to himself at the time. He would work as a session and touring drummer while spending his days in a mailroom job with no upward mobility, the idea of leading his own creative pursuits hardly realistic or even desirable.
But it was during a session drumming gig at Tropico Beauty recording studio that things changed. Feeling comfortable in the surroundings, Petey popped a question to the recording engineer, Phil Hartunian, to see if he could book some studio time for himself, too. Like many people who now make up his circle, the pair hit off a quick connection, with Petey booking a day of recording and laying down “California” and “Apple TV Remote” in a single session (Hartunian would go on to co-produce Petey’s album). In the winter of 2019, Petey went home to Chicago for the holidays and played the pair of songs for a friend he’d often see when he returned to town, Will Crane, the kind of friend with whom you “talk about your dreams and fantasies.”
“He was like, ‘What do you want to do with these?’ Petey recalls. “I was like, ‘Put them on SoundCloud and fucking kill myself? I don’t know, nothing? I just like them.’ Then, I go back to LA and he calls me probably two weeks later just being like, ‘Hey! I’m here with our other friend William [Croghan].’ Can we help you, and can you not fuck this up?’ (Those two, known simply as The Wills, currently manage Petey, with Crane being the collaborator on his TikToks.)
Whether Petey fucks it up remains to be seen, but with a small team in place, he filmed a music video for “California” and then amassed a cool 60,000 streams on the follow-up, “Apple TV Remote.” With no interest in being just a home recording artist, Petey knew that a label deal was the next step. “I’m not a label guy,” he says. “I know nothing about them. but I do know that they give you money to make records. And that’s what I needed.” Having been told Terrible Records might be a good fit, Petey’s team reached out and a deal quickly fell into place. Petey seems both perplexed and amused when recounting this humble origin story, aware that there is almost a Forrest Gump quality of things falling into place cosmically, something that is underscored by his surprising foothold as a social media breakout.
With the pandemic hitting just as Petey was launching his music career, a secondary avenue appeared out of necessity. “The only reason why I started doing [TikTok] is because I signed this record deal, essentially starting me off on a new chapter, and then COVID happened and we couldn’t do it,” he says. “So we had to figure out something to do. I came up with a skit and we did it and it worked right away, like, super quick, almost to the point where I was like, ‘Does this just work for everyone?’ (It doesn’t.)
The TikTok content is another aspect of his personality, a little less emotionally vulnerable than his music, but in his words, “equally rooted in sadness.” Still, to the uninitiated, it feels like if the Safdie Brothers directed sketch comedy, with a number of Petey’s interacting with each other rapidly, with quick cuts and clever gags all set to the tone of absurdity. In a little over a year, he’s accumulated nearly a million followers and 100 million views, just bonkers numbers. He even managed to parlay some fake sponsored content into actual sponsored content, earning a modest living and garnering fans like Fred Durst along the way (who, no joke, did a pair of TikToks, one for each of their channels, together). “He wanted to make some funny shit. So, we did!” Petey says, referring to Durst as a “great dude” and a “sweet guy,” alluding to the possibility of future comedic collabs together.
The serendipity that has allowed Petey to record songs, build a TikTok audience, partner with like-minded people on the label and management side, and even pull in a few famous fans along the way is all predicated on the quality of his output. Citing Modest Mouse, Kanye West, Death Cab For Cutie, and Say Anything as influences, traces of each can be heard on the debut LP, which pairs a handful of previously released highlights with a spattering of new material. But the influences feel like a drop of ink in the jar of Petey, whose own idiosyncratic personality and precise taste level push the projects he works on into rare air, where humor sits comfortably next to insightful observations, and emotional, tuneful songcraft often gives way to big, cathartic climaxes. Petey’s early music is keen on keeping you aware of the details and also making sure the listener receives their due payoff.
Bits of his self pop up throughout the music, too. It’s hard not to think of his O.C.-indebted origins when he’s literally relaying the plot of the series on “Don’t Tell The Boys,” or even professing his love of his current home on “California,” which becomes surprisingly biographical when put into the context of his move here. “I’d rather be depressed in California / Oceans got the only blues I need,” he sings as the song trucks steadily forward, its internal momentum matching the artist’s personal journey.
On the title track — a highlight of the new material — Petey somehow showcases a four-on-the-floor beat, vocal manipulation, his beloved Brock-ian yelp, drug references, and reflective moments that hit on the carefree uncertainty of youth without cluttering the tune. “One night I had a thought / What if we all did anything we want / We quit our jobs, we went outside / No one can tell us how to live our lives,” he sings, deftly balancing humor and yearning. There’s an understanding of both the sanctity and futility of life throughout, all through a revelatory lens that feels like an entirely new perspective that might wear off once the druggy haze lifts.
Coming out of the pandemic, Petey will surely have to get out of his comfort zone — he notes that live shows still intimidate him — and make adjustments to evolving expectations. He quit drinking and smoking during Covid times, but notes with a chuckle that he’s currently back on both. He’s appreciated the time to hone his craft in relative solitude, but he’s also a social person that’s looking forward to reemerging in the world. Most importantly, his music and his comedy have to remain on his own terms. It’s the best-case scenario for an artist still perfecting his own voice and adjusting his worldview in real-time. Still, Petey knows to trust his own instincts, willing to see just how far they will take him.
“I think that I’m really strange,” he says, “I think that I’m really strange and a lot of people close to me tell me that I’m really strange. And I think that the music that I make is strange. Strange and not strange. And even the not strange, sometimes it’s strange how not strange it is. And with the TikTok too, because like I said, it’s just sort of all in the same bubble for me, I just sort of dive into what’s authentic about me, what I think makes me super weird. I realize how many people that resonates with and how many people are also super weird in the way that I think I’m super weird, which is why this is awesome and why this feels really good.”
Lean Into Life is due September 3 via Terrible Records. Get it here.
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