By Nicholas Jason Lopez
Finally with a chance to show the world what he can do under a solo banner after a decade of creating hundreds of songs for other independent artists, alt-rock/pop artist Peter Duff recently debuted the music video for his first single “The To-Do List,” which dives into his real-life struggles with self-doubt, depression and perfectionism.
As the owner/operator of The Grey Brick Recording Studio in San Diego from 2014-2020, Duff molded various musicians to successes, like the grand prize from The John Lennon Songwriting Competition. In addition to those duties, he also played and toured with pop-punk outfit Hard To Hit, who were signed to Manic Kat Records.
The Music Bugle had the chance to speak with the California-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and audio engineer about “The To-Do List” and more.
Music Bugle – What excites you the most about your style of music?
Peter Duff – The most exciting thing about the music I’m making now is the amount of freedom I have with it. In my studio work, I have worked on a ton of different kinds of music and each one often has a kind of sound/mix that is expected. For example, if I work with a singer-songwriter, the goal is normally to have a really natural sound. If I work with a metal band, the guitars should sound distorted and heavy. Of course, not everything should or does sound exactly the same, but there’s kinda an established range of sounds/tones that you shoot for. Don’t get me wrong, I love working on those kinds of projects, but it sort of limits the amount of experimenting and out-of-the-box kinda stuff you can do. With the music I’m making now, indie-rock/pop kinda stuff, I feel like I can make sounds be whatever I want them to be and use whatever instruments I want because I’m not shooting for any sort of sound in particular and since I’m making this by myself, I’m not worried about making my clients or bandmates happy. I just feel a lot more freedom to do weird shit.
Music Bugle – What directly inspired your new single “The To-Do List”?
Peter Duff – The main thing was just feeling like I really needed to make and release something entirely on my own. I’ve made hundreds of songs for other people, but all of my own stuff always ends up on the to-do list because I’m too busy with other projects, or because I don’t like writing lyrics, or because I fall into thinking, “Eh, no one is ever gonna listen to this or care anyway, so why bother.” So, I decided to use those feelings as the topic. There’s a video on my YouTube channel where I talk about the lyrics and idea behind them in more detail. Musically, the initial inspiration for it was “Are We Ready?” and the whole ‘Gameshow’ album by Two Door Cinema Club because I think that album is infectiously happy and energetic. I was also inspired by Dan Croll because he has a lot of really interesting production on his songs.
Music Bugle – How have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Peter Duff – The biggest way Covid has affected me was forcing me to close down my recording studio, which was my full-time job for about six years. My studio was small and in my home, so there was really no safe way to keep having sessions. I’ve been doing remote mixing and production and miscellaneous audio jobs, but it’s been a slow year and pretty discouraging, to be honest. I also got Covid, or at least I’m 99 percent sure. I had my first symptoms on March 3rd last year before things were even closed down and at that point, it wasn’t even possible for me to get a test because you could only get a test if you had traveled to China, but I had basically all the symptoms and it was the most sick I think I’ve ever felt. That affected me a lot because I had/have lingering symptoms, mainly chronic fatigue and that’s made it a lot harder to start over with my work.
Music Bugle – How would you say 2021 has treated you so far?
Peter Duff – Hard to say. I’m doing fine, but kinda just feel like I’m slogging through everything still. I’ve struggled with depression for years and being alone and mostly unemployed hasn’t helped. I recently started a YouTube channel – about music, production and mental health – and that, along with this song, has given me big projects to focus on, which is helpful.
Music Bugle – What advice would you give to younger musicians just starting out?
Peter Duff – Don’t. Just kidding. Mostly. One, do whatever you can to make sure music stays fun. Two, only try to do music professionally if there’s nothing else you can think of that you would be happy doing. Three, if you decide to pursue music professionally, be honest with yourself about the challenges. You will probably never feel like you’re “good enough.” Someone else will always be better. Expect to be overworked and undervalued. If you’re lucky enough to tour, know that sleeping in a van sucks and you’re probably going to play in some empty rooms. It can be hard. Something like 70 percent of musicians experience depression and are about four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than the rest of the population, so you need to be ready to deal with those things.
Music Bugle – Where do you go when you need an escape?
Peter Duff – Now? Nowhere, really. Except maybe Xbox-Land. Right now, I’m living in a boring suburb of Sacramento to save money while things are shut down, but when I lived in San Diego, my favorite place was the south part of Imperial Beach, basically the farthest you can go on the beach before you get to Mexico. It turns into a nature preserve and there are rarely many other people there, so it’s a rare quiet beach that’s really unique in Southern California.
Music Bugle – What are three of your favorite all-time albums?
Peter Duff – ‘Never Take Friendship Personal’ by Anberlin, The Beatles’ ‘1967-1970’ – if a compilation isn’t cheating – and ‘Narrow Stairs’ by Death Cab For Cutie.
Music Bugle – What’s a quote that motivates you to keep doing what you do?
Peter Duff – On a personal level, after I closed my studio, a mentor of mine, Brian Schuble, an engineer who has worked with everyone from Stevie Nicks to Elton John, told me, “I really hope you’re still working on music… you have the touch!” To have someone of that caliber who has worked at the highest levels of the industry believe in me is very affirming. However, as far as something other musicians could more easily identify with, I don’t have an exact quote, but Dave Pensado, a top mixing engineer, has talked about the emotional cycle he often goes through while working on a mix. Something like, “I think it’s okay in the morning, then I think it’s awesome in the afternoon and then I think it sucks at the end of the day, then in the morning, it’s okay…” and on and on. I’ve struggled a lot with self-doubt and when I heard him describing that same uncertainty and frustration, it made me realize that if one of the best mixers deals with this stuff too, then maybe I can accept that we’re all always going to deal with that and that voice in your head is probably lying to you most the time.
Music Bugle – Does social media help or hurt musicians?
Peter Duff – This is a great question and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I think what social media has become is complete bullshit and probably hurts everyone. It’s just giant companies stealing our attention and selling it to advertisers in exchange for little addicting dopamine hits. It’s so frustrating because the power of connection has so much potential for good and it provides a way to share your music without the traditional gatekeepers, but now, the gatekeepers are mysterious algorithms that often reward low-quality meaningless content with millions of views, while people making really cool music get, like, 10 likes on these things they’ve invested tons of time, emotion and money into. Like, cool, thanks. None of that is good for anyone’s mental health, but we’re stuck with it, because how else is anyone going to hear our music? Something needs to change.
Music Bugle – What has been your biggest challenge lately?
Peter Duff – Same thing my biggest challenge has been for years – How do I make progress towards my goals while my existential and nihilistic depression sucks all the joy out of music, robs me of my energy and makes me question why I even have these pointless goals? Apparently, my other challenge is, “How do I answer these questions without being such a bummer?” (Laughs)