Interview with Jon Schmidt of The Piano Guys
Posted on 05/24/2019
The Piano Guys became an internet sensation by way of their immensely successful series of strikingly original self-made music videos which have garnered over 1.6 billion YouTube views. Jon Schmidt (pianist, songwriter) joins us to chat about the group's September 10 show, including how the group formed and what goes into each of their videos.
Read the Transcribed Interview Below
with Bert and Kelly from All Access and special guest Jon Schmidt of The Piano Guys.
Bert: We are back on All Access with State Theatre New Jersey just added in upcoming events; Kelly and I are going to cover those coming up a little bit later on in the program. Kelly I have seen the piano played so many different ways over my lifetime and you’ve probably seen just as many if not more I’ve seen stride piano where it’s two people playing at once, I’ve seen Jerry Lee Louis kick out a bench and keep playing the piano, you have not seen a piano and what it can do until you’ve experienced The Piano Guys at State Theatre. Is that right?
Kelly: Oh I know! I’m so excited to see them September 10th coming to the State Theatre making their State Theatre debut and with us today is one of the Piano Guys Jon Schmidt, welcome Jon!
Jon: Thank you for having me I’m excited!
Kelly: Yes! John we’re excited too! Of course you guys became an internet sensation with your YouTube views and I think it’s just kind of sky rocketed from there right?
Jon: Yes, YouTube is weird it kind of gets you out into the world like no other. It’s like radio used to be limited to the country that the radio was originating from but YouTube is sort of like radio to the whole world so it’s pretty cool.
Bert: Yes a digital platform that knows no boundaries which has worked out obviously very well for the piano guys and when I look at what you guys do it’s almost like let’s take something that’s been for a long time and blow it up, let’s find a different way to do it! Eddie Van Halen found a new way to play a guitar, you guys are finding new things to do with a piano and its groundbreaking it’s really trailblazing what you guys are doing. Do you feel like you’re kind of reinventing the art of playing the piano?
Jon: Yeah we do some unique things in the show with that and people like to see the piano played by somebody laying on their back with their hands crossed and upside down. But we also do a lot of cool things with cellos too like Steve’s got this electric cello that hooks up to an effects pedal and a loop pedal and we try to reinvent the instruments that have been around for hundreds of years and do a lot of different things with them.
Kelly: Yes and you certainly do you kind of mash up some of today’s biggest hits and of course one of the big ones being "Titanium."
Jon: Yeah that one’s gotten I think almost over 50 million views and its cool because we mashed it up with Gabrielle Fare which you know she’s a classical composer and that’s something that we love to do because we both have classical backgrounds but I grew up in the 80’s when music was so inventive and very keyboard oriented and so creative. So it’s kind of like when a chef cooks they use all of the spices all of their favorite spices and I would say classical is one of our favorite ones that we like to throw in. One of my favorite artists that used to do that was Billy Joel, he used to throw in a lot of classical spice in the stuff that he wrote and he was a big influence in my life.
Kelly: Nice! Well growing up in the 80’s I expect to hear Howard Jones somewhere down the line!
Jon: Yes he was one of my favorites he’s a great artist really amazing!
Kelly: So when you guys are picking what song you’re going to do next, what’s the process?
Jon: Well, there are really four things we do. We write original tunes and we like to cover movie themes and we like to take old classical tunes like "Moonlight Sonata" and put a real modern treatment on it and modern textures and the other thing is that we will take current songs and put more of a classical spin on it. It’s really those four things that we like to do and we use the studio as a creative tool and we just try lots of different things because we own the studio. It’s nice because we don’t have to worry about the money so we can just try a bunch of different things.
Bert: When I think of the piano guys, John, and what you guys are doing, is it fair to say I think of you as a super group for this new particular arts and this new type of music that you guys are doing where its traditional things but everybody kind of brings a new perspective and a new look at things? You mentioned about the cello which arguably is the most beautiful sounding instrument in the world and I can’t wait to hear what’s going to happen on September 10th when you guys get a cello in your hands. It’s almost like everybody has a blank canvas and everybody sort of contributes or it’s a bonfire and all of the members of the band kind of throw big branches into the bonfire and take it from there. Is that kind of the process for you guys?
Jon: Yes, it’s really fun to write together and everybody has their own backgrounds. Al for example has a lot of experience with hip hop and textures along those lines. I love the 80’s and Steve is a little younger than me and everyone brings their background to the table and it’s cool because we have a really great feeling among us where we’re trying to take the best ideas and we’re not really too worried with who came up with the ideas.
Kelly: Nice! You know you mentioned the four of you, how did you guys all come together? It’s like a meeting of the minds like how did you guys form and decide this is what you wanted to get together and do?
Jon: We have a classic serendipity. One of us is more on the video side of things and that’s Paul and the other three of us are really into the music side of things, but its classic serendipity. In fact we tell the story we started out not thinking it would ever fly and once it started to really take hold and we were getting lots of views we were like “man let’s try to change our name to something that the public would respond better to” and it was too late we would have had to have lost like millions and millions of views at that point if we would have changed our name on our channel, so poor Steve our cellist has to be known as a piano guy; it’s so sad.
Bert: That’s alright I’m sure he’ll adjust to that, that’s fine. So you are in for such an incredible night of entertainment on Tuesday September 10th at 8pm when The Piano Guys take the stage at State Theatre New Jersey! Get some tickets now at stnj.org and I’m telling you you’re never going to look at piano and arrangements the same way again. The cello and what these guys do on stage are really just remarkable. Do you hear often from traditional or classical pianists that aren’t really that thrilled about what you guys are doing or do you get positive encouragement from other people in the music world that say hey we’re about knocking down walls and you guys are doing it too so keep it up?
Jon: (laughs) well it’s both you know but the answer I always give is Beethoven took a theme from another composer and did his spin on it and Mozart took a theme from somewhere else and did like 12 different spins on it so it’s something that even the old guys used to do amongst themselves and I was really complimented because I wrote this piano tune, an original tune and I’ve looked on YouTube and I’ve seen this guy covered it with a banjo and this other guy did a drum version, another guy did it with like seven different instrument and it was such a compliment to me to see somebody do that to a tune that I wrote and so I would hope that that would be something that I could say to someone who maybe has a negative response that you can’t take a tune by Beethoven and modernize it. I personally think that Beethoven would get a kick out of it.
Kelly: I do too, I agree for sure! Jhn, we talked about YouTube and all the millions of views that you guys have but the videos are just so very elaborate and there seems to be a lot of thought put into that. I’m assuming Paul starts with an idea and then you guys all contribute or how does that work? How do you decide what the video is going to be about?
Jon: Well the weakest link in that is me because I’m really good at coming up with dumb ideas that help everybody realize how good the good ideas are. I would say that Al, Steve, and Paul they just go crazy and they have really great video minds and really great ideas so they really you know between the three of them have a really cool synergy
Bert: That’s really awesome and much like your fans I’m sure they hear or they’ll see something from the piano guys and right away they want more, they want to hear more they want to see more. It’s probably constantly like okay what’s going to come next for The Piano Guys. Are you always sort of thinking about the future and looking at what the next project is or what direction you kind of want to go in with that because when I see something right away it’s like okay I can’t wait to see the next video on YouTube and what’s next and what’s after that and what have I missed from these previous years here. There’s a demand and a craving for more content and more music and more art. Do you guys always try to experiment and try to get something out there?
Jon: Yes I’ll tell you what is really gratifying is to read the comments when we put out videos and to hear people’s responses that come in in real time. Each video has thousands of comments and some of them are so impactful and it just gives us a passion to keep doing it because it’s a blast. It’s really cool to get an idea of how people are responding and that we can just put out something that seems to be a positive thing for people. It’s really fun I mean that for all the guys that’s the main driving passion is trying to give people something that makes them happy. It’s also artistically fulfilling too but I would say that supersedes it is just getting a feel from others responses. When we read the reviews from people that come to the concerts and stuff like that I don’t know how that ever gets old like I’ve gotten bored with making people happy I hope that never happens.
Kelly: Yes well I can tell you one of my favorites is the "Swan Lake/In My Blood" the Shawn Mendes song. Of course "Swan Lake" being Tchaikovsky and "In My Blood" being Shawn Mendes that’s like my two different worlds! I work for a performing arts center that presents Swan Lake every year almost and Shawn Mendes is like my guilty pleasure music and then you put those together. I’m one of those people that add the next level of that was great, awesome I love what you guys do and we very much look forward to seeing you guys.
Jon: See and that never gets old. Hearing that stuff is awesome we love it. We’re just like four dorky dads and that’s the main thing we relate to is we’re all dorky dads from Utah and we just feel like this was all kind of a surprise, we joke about it!
Bert: Well very cool. We certainly recommend that you do what I do and that is binge watch and binge listen. Don’t search dorky guys or dorky dads, look up The Piano Guys on YouTube and you will absolutely be blown away and then of course get your tickets and come see them live at State Theatre New Jersey on Tuesday, September 10th at 8 pm. Tickets right now and more information at stnj.org. Jon Schmidt what an honor, thank you so much for your time it was great speaking to you. See you in New Brunswick on September 10th with the rest of the piano guys, so thank you for the time today.
Jon: Thank you.