Tuesday, November 22, 2011

At Long Last… My Interview with Merton, the Piano Chat Improv Guy

It was more than a year ago when Merton, the improvisational piano player, became an Internet sensation when he first appeared on Chatroulette playing piano and serenading the strangers he'd meet on the video chat website. His videos have attracted over 25,000,000 views on YouTube and he has performed in London, Montréal, and he now has a live, interactive, webcam show that airs weekly on Wednesdays at 10:00 PM ET called The Merton Show.

Merton is a self-taught improvisational pianist who lives in the Colorado rockies. He's a quick-witted, friendly guy who conceals his true identity by wearing a green hoodie and fake horn-rimmed glasses. There had been some speculation that he was actually recording artist Ben Folds in disguise – especially with Ben Folds' Chatroulette Piano Ode to Merton video – but while the two have similarities in appearance and musical styles, they both disputed the claim in a recorded Public Service Announcement where they appeared together.

I met Merton last year at NewTeeVee Live where he spoke about his experience as a web celebrity and how he planned to further develop and evolve his improvisational social and musical style. Merton says that he's played piano and done improvisational music for a long time, but Chatroulette gave him the mass exposure to freestyle in real-time with random strangers and become a viral video phenomenon.
"What I'm into mostly is public piano playing. I like to set up a piano in a strange location where people are not expecting it, nontraditional, unorthodox audience situation. I like when somebody is just living their life thinking about "what groceries do I have to buy?" on the way home and all of a sudden here's a guy with a piano singing about them."
Chatroulette: The Dark and Lighter Side

Chatroulette was created by a 17-year-old high school student named Andrey Ternovskiy and launched in November 2009 as a social video website akin to speed dating, where random strangers from around the world could connect for webcam conversations. The media became obsessed with the site for its prevalence of inappropriate content (e.g. naked guys) and Jon Stewart  lampooned it on The Daily Show. Merton learned about Chatroulette from friends and while he knew about the objectionable content he still thought it would offer him a good opportunity to weave his musical talents with its unique interactions and random nature.
"On Chatroulette, I was always dealing with someone who had basically volunteered – they had a limited set of expectations, they knew they were logging onto this website, someone was going to show up on the other end – but in real life it's much more fun because they're not ready for it, they're not expecting it so I get a different king of interaction."
Merton's Improvisational Musical Style

Merton only plays real pianos. He's not interested in synthesizers or organs and he doesn't bring a piano anywhere. He looks for them in weird places, like the hospital waiting room where people don't expect to be entertained and improvisation is a big part of what Merton does.
"Improvisation for me means making it all up on the spot. There's a lot of different interpretations of improv. A jazz improvisation usually is a set song with a chord sequence, and then you keep using the same chords but you play different stuff over it. Acting improv usually has a format. If you go see Second City Live, or something like that, they'll say let's do the Star Trek sketch, but let's let the audience decide what we're going to talk about. But they still have a framework. I'm interested in absolute pure improv where I'll sit down and someone says, play that Bon Jovi song, I'll play the Bon Jovi. If a guy in a plaid short walks up, I'll play the song about the guy in the plaid shirt. So, I'm interested in really free improv, I think especially because I'm not good at preparing for stuff, and so I walk in with a clean slate, no prep and I get to go from there. So I'm lucky I've become an improv musician."
See Jeremy Scott's musical interview with Merton on Reel SEO for on his improvisational musical style: Reel Songs With Merton, PianoImprov Chatroulette Viral Video Star – Interview Conducted In Song.

PianoChatImprov = The Truman Show?

Merton says he loves to document and archive his experiences and is somewhat obsessive about it.
"I'm very nostalgic about personal memories. I love photos and videos of everything, and in all seriousness, as freakish as this sounds, if I could have a little camera running for every moment of my life I would definitely do that."
Especially, he says that when dealing with strangers, they're a big part of the content. He doesn't think the public is that interested in just seeing him sit down in a plain room perform and make things up off the top of his head.
"The interactive component of what I do and the other person is a huge factor, they're my co-stars."
He says when he's playing on the street or in a public context sometimes magic happens, he says, "and if the camera isn't running, it doesn't count. I don't get to show the results."

So when he's playing on the street he carries three cameras with him all the time and sets up three-point shooting.
"I love to capture the moment because I want to be able to watch it later and show it to people."

He says he doesn't actually like to be the center of attention but he does like to be a catalyst for making things happen. This has led him to several projects over the last year that took him to London and Montréal, where he worked with T-Mobile to play piano and sing to passengers at airports around the UK, and on streets of Montréal.

The Merton Show

Merton recently released his first solo piano music, called "The Montreal Song"available on iTunes: http://bit.ly/k1swwq and launched his weekly live, webcam show where fans can interact with him via chat and video. His advice to artists and performers looking to build their audience and expand their reach is to just do it.

"Video is huge and I don't know if I can say anything that hasn't already been said. But a picture is worth a thousand words but a video is worth a million pictures. If you think of a good friend who is no longer around or you get older and change, you have video of a moment of your life is worth so much. You know, you see the person, how they move, their mannerisms, how they speak and it's very different then looking at a photograph. 
And so as far as being a performer, without video and Internet in particular, obviously, for somebody like me, I would never got a record deal. I probably never would have walked into a record office and said, here's my demo tape, here's my photo… But because I was able to make this humble little 5 minute video and put it in a place where millions of people could watch it. I was able to insert myself in the mainstream that way. So, I would encourage anybody who is a performer or artist to just do what you do. Put it on film or take pictures, put it on the Internet and people can find it."

Merton's related websites: