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Rising Rocker Petey Talks Major Label Debut, Being Loved by Mark Hoppus & More

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Despite pursuing music early on — playing in a high school emo band (at the same Chicago suburban high school this writer attended) and releasing alternative-pop music in college, by his late 20s, the artist now known as Petey found himself feeling stuck in a minimum wage job without any upward mobility. “I was really confused on what direction to go in,” he recalls of 2019. “So I just decided to write and record a couple songs as an avenue or a way out of the spot that I was in. And it’s kind of crazy that that ended up being the thing, the only thing, that worked.”

He quickly scored a record deal with the independent label Terrible Records and, as he puts it, “kept trucking” through the pandemic, largely thanks to his comedic TikTok skits that helped him gain a massive following of 1.5 million. In 2021 he released his debut album, the DIY and impassioned Lean Into Life (which boasts standout track “Don’t Tell The Boys”), and now, having signed with Capitol Records earlier this year, released his major label debut USA in September. The album debuted at No. 66 on Billboard’s Top Current Album Sales chart while Petey himself appears on this week’s Emerging Artists tally at No. 30.

“Before Lean Into Life, there was nothing. So it was just like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna throw music into the void and try and win over the entire internet,’” says the artist born Peter Martin, 31. “And then afterwards I had basically two years of people really responding positively to the album. I went on tour for the first time. All the shows we played supporting the album were sold out. So I really got to see who the fans were [and that] really informed how I was gonna start writing this album. It alleviated pressure.”

As did the luxury of time — and redos. While recording Lean Into Life, if he made a mistake he’d end up sticking with it: “Maybe that sort of challenge yielded some pretty endearing results in the last record, but this one it was really nice to be like, ‘You know what, we f–ked up today. Let’s go back and try again tomorrow,’” says Petey. “And to have the resources available to be able to make those mistakes and then take our time to figure out how to solve them…there was just so much care put into this record.” 

FOUNDATION

Every year on Christmas Eve, Petey and his hometown friends gather at a local bar in the Chicago suburbs. In 2018, on the drive home with longtime friend Will Crane (whose birthday also happens to land on the holiday), Petey played two songs he had recently recorded. He really liked them,” the artist says. “He dropped me off and then three weeks later, he sent me a text like, ‘Check your email, I just kind of wrote you a little plan that I think would be really fun.’”

Crane was about to move to Los Angeles himself, where Petey was already living, and suggested he help formalize a career path for his friend. “He was basically like, ‘Let’s give this the best shot that we can. Let’s at least try,’” recalls Petey. “It started with a music video. Looking back, it was so funny how seriously we took that process. But it gave us something to focus on and distract us from how ultimately stupid an endeavor like pursuing music is — because it’s just such a risky not-a-lot-of money situation.” Through the process, Crane not only became Petey’s manager but also his director – a two-for-one that became especially essential through the pandemic. 

DISCOVERY

Petey says he and Crane started making TikTok videos out of boredom — and because they couldn’t tour through the pandemic. In the comedic clips, Petey plays multiple different characters of all different ages without ever really changing his look, and all of whom are navigating subtly absurd situations — from meeting with a lawyer who only uses a potato as a phone to being attacked by cats because a sniper is following him around. But the humor has had a serious impact.

Not only did the videos help Petey create a built-in following for his music, they also helped the major labels who eventually came calling understand his vision and approach — especially Capitol. “Everyone knew what was up and got the vibes,” says Petey. “I think a lot of the focus with the label is, ‘How can we help facilitate the transition of fans between just knowing the comedy stuff to knowing the comedy stuff and the music stuff.’ Capitol is just shining a light on what we’ve already been doing.”

The best example of exactly that is the music video for the album’s focus single, “Family of Six,” which Crane directed. “Even with all the major label stuff, we’re still getting scrappy,” says Petey. “We got to shoot [the video] ourselves and barely spend any money and just kind of like, run around doing funny, ridiculous stuff.” He adds he’s particularly proud of the song for the way it winds through his biggest influences while still sounding cohesive, which he credits to co-producers John DeBold and Aidan Spiro. “We had such insane chemistry,” he says. “[The album] was the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done.”

FUTURE

To celebrate the release of USA, Petey threw the first pitch at a hometown Chicago Cubs game (“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better situation – and it would have been the same dream as when I was a 6-year-old boy,” he says). Come November, he’ll hit the road for his Tour of the USA, playing 1,200-capacity rooms across the country. Unlike Lean Into Life, which he recorded with a lot of electronic elements then transformed into a rock heavy set with a full band, USA was made to be more “rock forward” from the jump. “I have the most fun when I’m going to see a pop-punk band that I fell in love with when I was 15,” he says. “Bands like Say Anything, Motion City Soundtrack … I just love the energy that it brings out of the audience. I love how it looks on stage. So I try to bring that feel to the live set.”

As it turns out, a member of one of the defining pop-punk bands is a major Petey fan. Blink-182 bassist and co-lead vocalist Mark Hoppus discovered Petey soon after Lean Into Life and has made his fandom known, even sending regular direct messages on Instagram. “Whenever he’s doing Instagram Lives backstage at the Blink shows, he’s playing Lean into Life,” laughs Petey. “He loves the [title track], which is hilarious because I have so much Blink inspired pop-punk leaning shit in my music, none of which is in that song at all.”

Looking ahead, Petey isn’t one for goals — he’s already played at festivals including Lollapalooza and Outside Lands. He does, however, have one sincere hope: “to keep this thing going. I really love this life. It gives me so much autonomy and freedom to do what I want and be where I want and spend a lot of time with people that I really care about … So if milestones like playing Coachella at a certain time slot or whatever, if that’s an indicator of my career going well and being able to keep doing this, then that’s great. I would love to be able to do this for another 10 years.”

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