HomeInterviewsQ&A – Singer/Songwriter Pete Muller

Q&A – Singer/Songwriter Pete Muller

Pete Muller is a pianist and singer/songwriter, among other interesting things. His sixth studio album, More Time, will be released May 17. It’s soulful and bluesy, as well as hooky and fun, and he’s collaborated with a number of gifted artists on the recording.

More Time is an unbuttoned collection of rock and soul songs that’s less pasteurized than some of Pete’s previous work, but still highlights his forthright and thoughtful songwriting. He recorded in Memphis with producer/engineer Matt Ross-Spang who’s worked with a ton of great Americana roots artists, including Jason Isbell and Margo Price. Together with Ross-Spang, Pete assembled a stalwart band for the sessions, including bassist Dave Smith (Al Green, Wilson Pickett), Texas guitarist Will Sexton (Joe Ely, Roky Erickson), Memphis organist Rick Steff (Lucero, Cat Power), founding Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, and a host of local Memphis legends on horns and backing vocals.

Not only a musician, Pete Muller is a mathematician, a Wall Street legend, a semi-professional poker player, and a crossword-puzzle author. He also notably partnered with the Berklee School of Music to save the legendary Power Station recording studio in New York City.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the entire interview at the end of this article.

360°Sound: You’ve got a lot of great things happening in your life, starting with your wife Jillian and your two kids. What is it about music that keeps drawing you back to writing, recording, and performing? 

Pete Muller: I started writing when my heart was broken. I realized it was this great thing to figure out what I’m feeling inside. And that’s still the case. My life is pretty good right now. But there’s still hidden stuff, hidden emotions, and to express those emotions through music is amazing. To be able to create something where people connect with it and go, ‘Yeah, I feel that way too.’ That, to me, is what writing and performing is all about.

The thing that’s so beautiful about the music is that it’s visceral. So there’s an intellectual part, that’s like, ‘OK, how do I construct this? And how do I set up the storytelling so that it emerges in the right way?’ There’s a lot of puzzle-fitting. But when you’re actually playing, it’s purely visceral. And that heart part, that’s the reason.

Thinking about some of your earlier material, like “God and Democracy” and “San Diego (When You Coming Home),” what strikes me is that you’re not afraid to tell a story. You’re not afraid to make a statement. Where do you draw inspiration for your lyrics?

“San Diego” was an interesting one. You mentioned my wife before. That song is actually from the perspective of someone that’s married to a singer/songwriter that’s been on the road, who she loves very much, but doesn’t quite know how to express it when she is frustrated that he’s gone. Any resemblance between this person and my wife is purely coincidental. The band was in New Orleans, and getting ready to play during Jazz Fest. We were writing a song; she called up and she was upset, and unfortunately she said a few things. And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna write this down, because this could be useful for the song.’ I came back home and I said, ‘I tried to write a song from your perspective.’ And she said, ‘Well, you got some things right,’ which I took as high praise.

Your new album, More Time, has a little bit more grit, a little more grind, than your past stuff. The single that you’ve released, “Run Out of Love,” is a kind of down-tempo blues grinder, and it’s extremely well crafted. How did that track come together?

Thanks. I think it actually came from a therapy session where I was talking to a therapist and saying, ‘I have this feeling that if I give in a relationship and I don’t get it back, I’m gonna get depleted.’ The message back was, ‘Why don’t you practice giving as well as you can. If it doesn’t work, you’ll just be better at giving the next time.’ I translated that to ‘you can’t run out of love,’ which is really true, right? So many of us feel that, ‘Oh, wait, that person’s kind of not doing this thing. So I’m going to withhold.’ It’s a very natural human thing. It never actually serves you or the relationship. I mean, you can communicate that, ‘Hey, that really hurt me when you did that.’ That’s healthy. But if you just shut down, that doesn’t actually help anything. So the way I think about that is – you can’t run out of love, you know? In a relationship, I’m just gonna be like, ‘Hey, that bothered me, but I’m gonna stay open.’

I’m so glad to hear Lisa Loeb on your record. It’s inspiring to hear artists that I’ve loved through the years continuing to create at a high level. What what was it like working with Lisa?

We did five dates opening up for Lisa Loeb this past summer. I asked if she would do a duet with me on the song, and she said, ‘Cool.’ So I went down there and recorded in the studio that’s near her house, with her longtime engineer. She just came in and we kind of figured out how to split it up. I had already recorded the whole thing myself in Memphis, and we just figured out how to split up the verses in a really cool way that she came up with. Then the harmonies on the chorus worked. The singer in my band, Missy Saltero, had recorded a version, so it [also] has some of her really soulful, bluesy thing that you can hear in the background.

And it wasn’t just Lisa, you worked with so many great people. How did that all come together? What was it like, gelling with these great players?

It was it was a lot of fun. The last two records, I worked with [producer] Rob Mathes, who works a lot with Sting and Springsteen. Rob has a certain [meticulous] way of approaching making a record. Matt is completely different. I was like, ‘Matt, are we gonna do a click [track]?’ He goes, ‘No, you guys got good time. Just play it.’ I don’t think Matt gave me a comment on lyrics, but he had the most amazing ears for what worked. The vibe was really cool.

One of the songs, “See You Shine,” the tempo varies quite a bit. I listened to it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s all over the place.’ And then he played me, I think it was it was a Stones song, “Honky Tonk Women.” And if you listen to “Honky Tonk Women,” it increases [speed] by 25 beats per minute during the course of the song. And he was like, ‘If I didn’t tell you that, would you have ever noticed?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ Then he goes, ‘You know, it’s just about feel.’ So it was a completely different approach. It was really fun being down there. I think I took three or four trips to Memphis to make the record.

It was fun hanging out with these guys, just being part of the Memphis scene. When I was growing up in New Jersey, I loved Springsteen and Southside Johnny, and that horn sound, that full sound with a band. It was really great to make a record that sounded a little bit more like that.

You’ve got some shows coming up to support More Time. I noticed you’re playing one of my favorite joints, the Continental Club in Austin. So what can folks expect from a Pete Muller live experience?

I’ve been touring with with a new configuration of the Kindred Souls – we’re doing a trio. We’ve got Andy Mack on drums, and he also plays guitar. And Martha McDonnell, who I’ve played with for a very long time, on fiddle. They both sing really, really well, so you got three-part harmony. And Martha will take on Lisa Loeb’s parts on the vocals. We just have a lot of fun on stage. Andy’s a really talented drummer and I have my jazz training, so we’ll break it down and have a bunch of fun, and tell stories about the songs. People will leave uplifted. That’s been our experience. It’s been really fun.

Keep up with Pete Muller on petemuller.com


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