Petey appears in our 2023 summer issue, which you can buy here.
Who wouldn’t rather be depressed in California? For Petey, that decision was a no-brainer. From as early as he can remember, the Detroit-born, Chicago-raised emo-pop singer and TikTok star knew that his life was meant to be lived out West.
“I was obsessed with the idea of living in California since I was a kid,” he says. “I’m a huge nature guy, and I wanted to be near the water geographically and other cool environments.”
Now his home base for nearly a decade, and the catalyst for his dual music and TikTok career, the 31-year-old singer born Peter Martin couldn’t have been more right.
Currently sitting at half a million Instagram followers and 1.5 million TikTok followers, Petey has cracked the algorithmic code by creating his own world of cathartic abstract art, guided by self-confidence, kismet, and, above all, good vibes. And in doing so — through both his music and absurdist comedy videos — he’s connecting with fellow oddballs looking for a place to fit in while simultaneously finding comfort in their uniqueness.
Before Petey made the dream-pop-influenced emo music that he does now, he got his start as a drummer. Throughout high school and college, he lent himself to an array of local bands and as a session musician. He cites pop punk as a core influence on his music, as it served as a foundation for his learning how to drum. Specifically, he tried to emulate Travis Barker’s style by memorizing the rhythms of blink-182’s Enema of the State.
But even still, he feared just how sustainable a career in music could be, which deterred him from diving in for years. “I was super broke and trying to keep my head above water for so many years that I didn’t really feel like I could afford to figure it out. I didn’t know how to figure it out,” he says.
After following his intuition and moving to LA at 18, he found himself a bit lost and ended up building a peculiar, wide-spreading résumé. At the time, he lived out of a homemade tent in a friend’s yard and worked stints at a gourmet dog food kitchen, a sock printing press, and a mailroom in a talent agency. While he views this period as a necessary life experience, it began to feel even less sustainable than pursuing music.
Thanks to one “serendipitous” day in 2018, his dreams of pursuing music were back on track. After helping out on a friend’s record at the San Fernando Valley recording studio Tropico Beauty, he booked a session for himself — and ended up churning out what have become two of his most popular songs as Petey, “California” and “Apple TV Remote,” with the help of the studio’s engineer Phil Hartunian on production.
It wasn’t until several months later that he considered releasing them. On a car ride home from a meet-up around Christmastime in a suburban Chicago dive bar, he shared the tracks with his good friend Will Crane. Two weeks later, Crane — who eventually became his manager — suggested they come up with a plan to get the songs in front of more ears.
Dropping the singles in 2019, Petey introduced the world to his emo and electro-indie-pop sound, heavily influenced by bands who soundtracked his high school experience and formative music-listening years, like blink-182, New Found Glory, Modest Mouse, and Death Cab for Cutie. The unique blend of indie-driven guitar melodies, roiled pop-punk drums and new-wave-tinged synths created an often upbeat backdrop to lyricism that projected heavier themes of depression, heartbreak, and toxic masculinity.
A fateful DM to cult-loved indie label Terrible Records led to a record deal and the release of EP Car Practice in 2019, as well as his 2021 debut album, Lean Into Life, and following project Other Stuff. “I have gotten a lot more comfortable with everything over the past three years. I feel like it’s all a testament to working with the right people and definitely doing things at my own pace while feeling like I have a ton of autonomy over everything,” he says. “It’s been a pretty smooth, incrementally ascending road.”
While he insists he’s “not a very internet person,” it was the persistent suggestion of his manager that turned his lackadaisical attitude toward social media around to give TikTok a chance. The first time he attempted to make a TikTok was “like throwing spaghetti at the wall,” utilizing a friend’s unused screenplay meant to produce a short for a minute-long film festival. Nevertheless, the clip amassed an unexpected and rapid 2 million views.
What began as a way to make himself laugh has grown to a fanbase of 1.5 million who devoutly follow his quirky, nonsensical videos that play out like a Mad Libs-esque dialogue between a handful of distinctive characters, all played by himself. “I love doing TikTok. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” he says.
He explains that he sees TikTok a bit differently from his songwriting, saying, “one’s serious and one’s silly.” And he doesn’t plan to integrate them, either. “They totally balance each other out, and I rarely get overwhelmed. I take breaks from one or the other. When I’m on the road, I don’t do videos much. I’ve never really worried about losing anyone. I come back, post a video and pick up right where we left off,” he says.
[Photo by Will Crane]
Essentially, TikTok allows him to release skits that reflect a surreal reading of his outer surroundings, while his music remains an outlet for a deeper, introspective processing of his own lived experience. And they may be different, but a glance through his comment sections reveals just how organically his audience crosses from one platform to the other — his musical and comedy worlds providing digital rest stops for the idiosyncratic and out-of-the-box thinkers to feel welcomed, seen, and praised.
Now, Petey is getting ready to share his latest offering with his audiences, his upcoming album, USA (out Sept. 22 via Capitol Records). “I think it is really good that this [new album] all started at a time where I was at my most mature because being older really gave me confidence in how to trust my own gut,” he says. “There’s a lot of trust at this point based on instinct, which has been super beneficial for everything. At least to me, everything’s working out great.”
While prior works have leaned into the darker shades of life’s experiences, Petey’s latest delves into the brighter thematic tones. This change, he says, came heavily from the energy he felt during his two sold-out headlining tours. The experience of having fans sing every song back to him served as immersive therapy to break him away from his stage fright and into an enjoyable shared experience with his fanbase. “I’m in complete control over the vibe of my next record, so all of the songs are going to be fun to play. That was definitely the sonic motivator. I think I nailed it, and I’m really, really excited.”
He also finds no need to read into the changes that have occurred from his first records to now. “I loved the first record. It’s just so frantic and so sloppy. And that’s good! I’m so glad I came out with an album like that when I did, but I’m so glad that this one was different.” That shouldn’t deter longtime fans, though, he reassures. “If you’re a fan of my last record, I think you’re really gonna enjoy it.”
In the meantime, he plans to continue to enjoy the California sun and work on his mental health, and focus on his fans, as well. “I want them to know I try really hard to do a good job with this incredibly unique and cool opportunity I’ve been given. That brings me a lot of joy and peace.” You can count on his absurdist humor and cathartic emo-pop to offer you a sense of joy and peace, too.