The Piano Guys, Kenwood House, Heritage Live Concerts
PUBLISHED: 17:05 25 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:05 25 March 2019
Four 'dorky' Mormon dads who became a YouTube sensation prepare to play the open air concerts on Hampstead Heath
The Piano Guys is a kind of serendipitous dream team of different creative talents, who came together to create an internet phenomenon.
When a Utah Piano store - called The Piano Guys - wanted to create a bit of marketing buzz, owner Paul Anderson asked pianist Jon Schmidt to post some tunes on the shop’s YouTube channel.
He brought in Steven Sharp Nelson on cello, and as the project snowballed, producer and sound engineer Al van der Beek came on board, while Anderson captured the whole thing with his videography skills.
Together they hit on a winning formula of mash-ups of classical and popular tunes, shot in elaborate locations from an ice cave to the Great Wall of China.
Whether it’s songs from Disney or The Greatest Showman, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven or One Direction the guys have garnered millions of hits.
Schmidt, 52, who lives in Salt Lake City, says they are united not just by creativity but by their Mormon faith: “We all feel like regular people, four Dads - or four dorky Dads - is how we present ourselves and that’s probably the thing that we most identify as. Being Dads we don’t have time to practice all day, to craft shows and albums, we can’t afford to make it the only thing in our life. A real aspect of the faith that brings us all together is we put family first. The career really comes after – which sets us apart from other artists where career is number one.”
The upside, he says, is a life balance that keeps things fresh and avoids burnout.
“We have things about us that are unique and when they work together they’re extraordinary. Paul’s video talent and his wanting to do crazy stuff over the years with pianos in different places, Al’s amazing abilities with songwriting and mixing and engineering. Having a studio we can use as a creative tool to not worry about the money and just try stuff.
“Al, Steve and I, have developed a lot of musical skills over the years. When we come together and write, the things that we bring to the table are magnified. It turns into something really special that people respond to.”
Schmidt was already a solo pianist and a friend of Anderson when he started posting videos of original works in 2010 to showcase the instruments in the store.
His interest in combining different music genres in an entertaining way had chimed with Nelson when they performed at the same concert, and they had started performing together.
“At first it was a favour for Paul to market his channel and store. Then we started getting views and it gave us the idea to put all our resources together for a video called ‘Michael meets Mozart’.
“Steve and I put a lot of effort into writing a brand new song, using the electric cello and trying to invent different textures by scratching the strings with a quarter, and hitting the end pin on concrete. It picked up lots of ambient sounds and we thought let’s put it out on this Piano Guys channel.
“It went well and started to transform from a favour, to a potentially cool thing in a different direction - in the video business rather than the piano business.”
The Guys are as renowned for hauling their instruments into seemingly impossible locations as for their joyful playing style.
“The thousand foot cliff was probably the trickiest,” says Schmidt. “We bought some cables, and figured out how to wrap it around the piano and tie it into a huge knot and connect it to the helicopter. Then a couple of guys on top of the cliff had to basically catch it as it was lowered, and try to set it down gently.
“We had one in the middle of sand dunes where we rolled the piano out of the back of a trailer onto a wood plank and put another plank in front of that, leapfrogging for about three football fields. We also had to lift the piano onto a crane to get it onto the Great Wall of China, then 30 guys carried it the length of a football field.”
They are looking forward to playing in the “picturesque surroundings” of Kenwood House at June’s Heritage concert series.
“This sounds so fun. Those atmospheres (outdoors) have been some of our most enjoyable shows, where people are just enjoying the beauty of the location. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of the concertgoers to imagine the experience they’re having, Playing live is very fulfilling, to think that you can bring a lot of happiness to people who are gathered together – that will never get old.”
As for the set he says they will plan it with the audience in mind.
“Honestly, what the audience most enjoy is what we most enjoy – even if there might be a song which musically we love, if the audience doesn’t enjoy it I’d rather just play it in my living room. I want every song to be what people are going to have the best response to.”
Although signed to a major label the ‘guys’ have retained control over their output and Schmidt says: “Artists are the most in touch with their art - especially artists who really care about their audience. What happens a lot with record labels is they have an idea of what should be done according to the industry, and then they place expectations on the artists and sometimes the artists can feel that it’s not in the best interest of their audience.
“It’s really important to us to retain that authenticity – to respond to what we think our audience would love.
“To inspire, uplift and have a positive impact on the listener’s life.”
The Piano guys play Kenwood House on June 14 For further information see heritagelive.net or for tickets go to ticketmaster.co.uk