June 26, 2014

Internet sensation Piano Guys a sensation at Gallo Center, too

Interview with Steven Sharp Nelson, the cellist for The Piano Guys.

Don’t be fooled: There is really only one piano guy in the Piano Guys.

While its name is a misnomer, there’s no mistaking the international popularity of the group known for its largely instrumental renditions of classical and popular music. The quartet of pianist Jon Schmidt, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, videographer Paul Anderson and producer Al van der Beek has racked up more than 430 million views of its clever, fanciful music videos.

Now the Guys are returning to Modesto on Saturday for two more sold-out shows. The Utah-based group sold out two shows a year ago at the Gallo Center for the Arts, and CEO Lynn Dickerson immediately wanted to bring it back for this season.

“I’m thrilled we got them again,” Dickerson said. “They have a huge YouTube subscriber base. They are LDS and strongly supported by the Mormon population. They put on a lovely, wholesome show that is both contemporary and classical. Their fan base loves them.”

Not too bad for a group of guys that just wanted to sell some pianos.

Nelson said the group never dreamed of becoming Internet sensations with rock-star followings. This group of self-described “middle-aged dads” began working together at first to promote Anderson’s piano store. Nelson and Schmidt had known each other since they were teenagers and played together for different projects. As adults, they met up again at first to help Anderson with his business.

“Paul had thought of advertising pianos in unusual ways. He said, ‘If I film you, maybe we can sell some pianos,’ ” Nelson said from his home in Utah. “So it began with intention to sell pianos, and 40 videos later, we haven’t sold one piano. Life surprises you.”

Anderson had a background in video production and van der Beek worked as a sound engineer. When they joined forces with musicians Nelson and Schmidt, the concept was created. The group produces sometimes elaborate, sometimes fanciful, always imaginative renditions of contemporary or classical favorites. The videos can include special effects or spectacular landscapes.

Some of their most popular offerings include versions of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” (33 million views), Coldplay’s “Paradise” (27 million views) and their take on the “Star Wars” score, “Cello Wars” (18 million views).

Picking which songs to use is an important step in the group’s success, Nelson said. All the members are fathers, so their families are always their first gauge of what to play.

“The four Piano Guys, between us we have 16 kids. We’re Mormons from Utah, we collect children,” Nelson joked. “We love family life, it’s where we draw our inspiration. We want something on YouTube parents and kids can enjoy together. First we ask if it would we be OK with (our children) seeing the original video or lyrics. If not, we throw it out.”

Nelson said they also poll their children for what’s popular. It helps that the men all have kids of different ages – ranging from 1 to their 20s. Recent videos have included “Let It Go” from the Disney hit “Frozen” and “Begin Again” by Taylor Swift.

Still, the group’s goal is always to offer a gateway to classical music.

“What I love to do is teach them the value and depth of classical music,” Nelson said. “It’s more about creating an invitation for them to this kind of music.”

Taking their act from the video screen to the live stage is another endeavor. In September 2012, the Piano Guys signed a record contract with Sony Masterworks. They have released three albums since then and have a fourth set to drop in the fall. The men have been touring behind their music as well. While the group can’t take the audience to the Great Wall of China or the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil (the Piano Guys are on a mission to play at all of the new Seven Wonders of the World), it can transport concertgoers in other ways.

“We’ve created sort of a multimedia experience,” Nelson said. “We use some video in the background. Or different versions of the videos and live feeds. We play some songs just the two of us. Then we bring Paul and Al in. We like to do comedy – Victor Borge, light-hearted, Smothers Brothers-type shtick. Our M.O. is we never take ourselves too seriously.”

Through it all, Nelson said, the men’s shared faith has helped them navigate the unexpected road to stardom. Before the Piano Guys took off, Nelson was working as a real estate developer and the others had day job, as well. They said that even today, as they sell out venues, it’s the love of the music and message that makes them the happiest.

“None of us set out to make this a multimillion-dollar enterprise,” he said. “For us, it was about being authentic and enjoying what we’re doing. The fact that it took off and did so well is a bonus. We’ve had a couple big blessings. We’re all united in faith. We’ve asked: How do we use music to glorify God with it and help others? So we’ve been able to stay above the rock-star crush. And we all have kids to tell us how not cool we are.”

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