I've wanted to interview Merton ever since his first Piano Improv Chatroulette video went supernova. Of course, everyone else wants to interview the viral star as well. The guy's probably had a hundred media requests a month since then.
Question: How do you get Merton's attention so that your interview request stands out from the rest? Answer: You make him an offer that no one else is making.
Question: What kind of pitch can you deliver for an interview that will be completely unique? Answer: You offer to interview the improv singing sensation… in song.
Question: How do you truly embarrass yourself? Answer: You actually go through with it.
That's right, I interviewed Merton in song. I'm not a singer, but I play one on the Internet so I hope you enjoy what might just be the world's first interview entirely conducted in song form (please know that, in true Merton style, there is some colorful language in this video):
Here are my favorite parts if you want to scrub thru:
- Merton sings about his favorite YouTube videos - 1:05
- Merton sings about how much work each of his videos takes to complete - 2:24
- Merton sings about Ben Folds uploading his own Merton-style videos - 4:36
- Merton talks a bit more about the Ben Folds experience - 6:04
- Merton sings about what he's got planned in the near future - 7:04
- Merton sings about the equipment he uses to make his videos - 9:21
- Merton sings about what he does to help market his videos online - 10:32
- Merton sings a bit of a U2 song by request - 11:35
The Merton Interview - Set-Up
My questions were in song form, and his answers were as well—he even picked up on my chord progressions and played the same music and melody back to me in his answers that I had used. Technically, my songs were not made up on the spot, as Merton traditionally operates. I tried. Trust me… I spent the weekend practicing and realized that I simply do not have it in me to spontaneously spit out anything coherent in song form off the top of my head. So, as a poor man's substitute, I hastily jotted down a few goofy songs-as-questions about an hour before our interview. They may not be improvisations, but I definitely made them up, to which their poor quality will attest.
Also, I made all kinds of mistakes from a production standpoint in the making of this video. Recording live over Skype, we had some lag which couldn't be helped, but I also struggled with the audio track. You can't miss the mouse-pointer on the screen either--classic idiot mistake. We'll have an entire post in the coming weeks detailing all the lessons I learned in the making of this video.
Takeaways From Merton
I tried to ask some questions that might actually be relevant and provide useful information for our readers, rather than just having a jam session. I thought I'd summarize in print my takeaways from this interview:
- I found Merton to be extremely talented in a musical sense, which surprised me a bit. He is a lot better than you think he is. Notice how he taps the keys while I'm singing a question to help him zero in on the key I'm in. Then, when it's his turn to answer, he instantly starts playing the same song I was. That's not easy to do unless you've had years of musical training or experience.
- He's also very quick-witted, as you might have guessed. Before the singing even began, he asked how my day was going. And I responded, "Well, how do you prepare to embarrass yourself on the Internet?” Without missing a beat he said, "I find that wearing a disguise helps.” (Merton is known for his trademark hooded-sweatshirt-and-glasses get up).
- He uses a real piano, not a keyboard, and will not ever use a digital piano. Interesting. A guy who is clearly willing to embrace technology—YouTube, MacBook Pro, Chatroullete, etc.—choosing to go old-school on his musical gear. Some people are purists for sound, and Merton seems to fall into this category.
- He's got to be in his 30's, or near it, which I say mostly because U2's Joshua Tree album was a formative one for him, which probably (but not definitely) puts him in my generation.
- He's an Apple devotee—not very surprising, actually, as a ton of successful music and video creators are Mac people.
- The recordings of his Chatroullete and Omeagle song sessions are made using Snaps Pro X, a screencasting software (I used Camtasia, a similar program, to record this interview). He then edits his videos with Final Cut Express and records a separate audio track for his videos using a Zoom H4n.
- He was not offended or annoyed when Ben Folds created his Ode To Merton, mostly because Folds reached out to Merton almost immediately to tell him how much he liked the original video. He even offered to help Merton get bookings or do a few appearances with him. Merton's gracious refusal of that offer was a very interesting choice to me, but makes complete sense. He didn't want to tie himself forever to an existing music star—essentially typecasting himself as "that guy who did stuff with Ben Folds”. Instead, he wanted to make it or not make it on his own merit… with his own persona. I kind of admire that, actually, and it shows a much more sophisticated way of thinking about online fame than I expected. Most overnight YouTube stars will just jump at the first opportunity they're given, without giving it the kind of analysis that Merton seems to have employed.
- He's going to be releasing more videos soon, some with new instruments—that sounds awesome, and I can only hope that one is an accordion, because accordions are inherently funny. He's also doing some live shows, which at this point is something I would honestly pay to see in person. I hope he starts touring comedy clubs.
- Like a lot of YouTube stars, he didn't do anything special to market the first video. It just took off on its own. Since then, however, he's put up a website, complete with social media accounts that help spread the word on new videos to his fans. He's also customized his YouTube Channel.
- He didn't abandon Chatroulette for Omeagle, as many speculated when his third video featured footage from both video chat sites—instead, he said Chatroulette was just having sound problems that night.
- He spends about 2 hours filming to get five minutes of good material. That sounds about right. Actually, I probably would have guessed it was more than that.
- He's got a silent partner who advises his decisions, which I found cryptic and interesting. And again, a smarter strategy at work here than I might have originally guessed.
- He can play U2 and Pearl Jam songs on a moment's notice, which just further illustrates his natural gift.
All in all, he seems like a great guy. After I struggled with the audio track for several days, Merton was even gracious enough to send me the audio from the recording he had made of our interview. Ultimately, he even contributed to video's final edit. Truly above and beyond.
He was very game to just jump in and do a musical interview, without really even a little bit of hesitation. Hopefully his humor and participation will help you overlook the fact that I posted a video online of myself singing—something I had promised myself (and several others) that I would never do. I pledge here and now to keep the singing to a minimum in the future. But I think Merton has the talent--and more than his fair share of business savvy--to continue making videos online for some time to come.
Please take some time and consider checking out Merton's personal website, where you can follow what he's up to with your social network of choice. Thanks for everything, Merton! We'll do it again sometime.