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MUSIC MECCA | Wall Street To Telluride: Pete Muller Discusses New Album ‘Spaces’ & More

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

This phrase is often told to those who need to diversify their interests and pursuits in life, and with Pete Muller, it looks like he took that phrase to heart.

Muller is a renowned hedge fund manager, having been featured in Forbes and Business Insider among other publications, as he has fostered a successful career founding PDT (Process Driven Trading) inside Morgan Stanley. Aside from this little detail of his life, he’s also a songwriter, semi-professional poker player, board member of Live Music Society, and even authors crosswords for the New York Times and Washington Post. It seems there’s nothing he doesn’t do- and can’t do.

The son of immigrants and an alumni of Princeton University, Muller has forged a most unique path most could only dream about.

He has performed at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival, the Jazz Open, and the Telluride Jazz Festival, along with a handful of records to his name over the years.

Most recently, he released his new album, Spaces.

We had the opportunity to to ask him about his business background, new album, and much more.

You’re not the average songwriter and musician. You’ve experienced monumental success in the business world, played semi-professional poker, authored crossword puzzles for NYT and the WaPo, and more. Has your love of writing/making music always been there, or did that come later?

I’ve always been passionate about music, math, and puzzles.

I played in a jazz band in college and spent a year or so after graduating writing pieces to accompany rhythmic gymnasts. One of the women I played for was trying out for the Olympic team, and if she had come first, I would have been the Olympic pianist. She came fourth, so it didn’t happen.

I’ve stayed with the piano all this time, but I didn’t start songwriting and singing until the early 2000’s. I put out my first record in 2001.

How do the worlds of business/trading and music-making intersect and overlap for you? Do you see parallels in certain aspects?

There are quite a few parallels. Both worlds involve deep creativity and being very aware of one’s own and other people’s emotions.

Coming up with a solution to a tough problem or writing a great song can take a really long time, or it can happen quickly. In my experience, being in an open, curious, aware but unattached state gives you the best chance of having it happen sooner.

While I was intensely building my business, I played music less often, and that eventually left me feeling unfulfilled. But if I only did music and didn’t challenge myself intellectually, I think I’d be just as unfulfilled. The two passions are complementary, not conflicting.

I see you recently dropped your newest album, Spaces. What were your primary influences and inspirations behind this collection of songs?

The title cut, Spaces, is about a longing to have more free, unstructured time, in particular to spend with my (now) teenage son.

Lazy Day similarly is an ode to enjoying doing nothing (a bit aspirational in my case, since I typically get energy from doing as opposed to not doing).

I Still Burn is for lack of a better description, my Tangled Up in Blue, a cryptic story of my life so far, tagged with the ever-present sentiment that “I’m not done yet!”

There are a few that are about longing for connection – to others, to one’s deepest self (Light Up the Night, Lost and Lonely, Hard to Hold On To). And there are some songs inspired by the challenges of romantic relationships – commitment vs freedom, being seen, acceptance (Afraid of Love, Gone, The Other Side, When She Gives Her Love to Me, and Ready to Go).

Finally, there’s Tin Palace, a true story about a secret place that makes me smile (and hopefully the listener too!).

What was the toughest part or parts of writing/recording this album?

Probably the toughest was deciding which songs to release. We recorded 15 and had to cut three. While those three will be available later in the year, it was hard to let go of some of our work.

How might this album differ from your previous album, Dissolve?

I’ve continued to evolve as a writer and performer, and I think this record represents my most powerful work to date. Once again I worked with Rob Mathes (who produced Dissolve), and this time around our collaboration flowed even better, as we had gained understanding from working together on the last record.

Rob writes amazing string and horn charts and will only use real instruments.

He’s a big fan of Abbey Road Studios, where we recorded the strings for the last album, but this time the pandemic restricted travel and we went to Capitol Records instead.

What messages or feelings might you be trying to convey to the listener in Spaces?

I hope my listeners approach the album without any expectations and see how listening makes them feel. The songs all came from deep places in me, and I hope it touches deep places in them.

I see you’re also on the board for Live Music Society. Can you talk about this initiative and what it has achieved since its inception in the Fall of 2020?

When I started seriously pursuing music later in my life, I was exposed to the constellation of small music clubs that serve a vital role of our country’s musical eco-system.

I was fortunate enough to visit 50 of such venues with my band in 2019, while opening for singer-songwriters Stephen Kellogg and Brendan James. Through that experience, we developed a deep appreciation for these beloved spaces and their owners – true music-lovers who were tirelessly devoted to their community, their staff, and their artists.

In return for their efforts, many of these venue owners are faced with dwindling profits and little recognition or appreciation for their work, which seems unfair given how much value they add not only to the communities they serve, but to the larger musical universe. Without small music clubs, so many of our most promising artists wouldn’t have a place to share their work, hone their craft, and build their audiences. With the help of some talented friends, I decided to start a charity that would offer small venues the support they need to thrive – extending financial and technical assistance in areas like audience outreach, sound design, fundraising, etc.

We had no idea how timely this effort would be when a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the live music industry. Many of these clubs were, and still are, fighting to keep their doors open.

The focus of Live Music Society shifted to making sure these wonderful spaces stay solvent and independent. It is time to acknowledge and support the great efforts that these venues have made to keep our communities connected and vibrant through the gift of live music.

And how do you go about choosing which venues get grants if many do in fact meet the eligibility requirements?

Our Executive Director, Cat Henry, selects a panel of industry people (artists, promoters, club owners) to vet the applications. That panel recommends grants to our Board of Directors, and the Board confirms the final list of grantees.

As a jack of all trades, how do you keep deciding what you want to do next? And is there anything entirely new you want to explore?

I follow my nose, and my heart. Actually, what I really do is what I learned from a couple of whitewater kayaking friends. In the river they said, you follow the energy, and that’s a great way to approach life. Do more of the things that give you energy, and do less of what drains you.

What advice might you have for both entrepreneurs and creatives who could only hope to have a similar career path as yours?

I would say a few things.

Make sure you listen to your deepest longings and choose to focus on things you really enjoy getting better at. When you choose to do something, throw yourself into it fully, not for the rewards (money, fame, etc.), but for the thrill of getting better and growing. The rewards show up when they show up, and that’s out of your control. But continuing to grow and learn is something within your control, and it will eventually bring the rewards.

Inspire people to work with you and join your mission by building trust and letting them know that you are committed to helping them grow. I couldn’t have accomplished any of the things I’ve done without devoted, smart people working with me in an environment of trust and caring.

Always spend time working out your brain and your body – I do both daily and I don’t miss a day… puzzles, yoga, and cardio workouts. Spending time doing this will make you much more able to make good decisions under stress.

What else might you have in store this summer, and the rest of the year for that matter?

The band is currently on tour (July) and we have another fun tour planned for September. Later in the year we’ll release a single or two from our new cover album. I’ll also be taking some vacation time in August with my family, and I’m looking forward to that!

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