Merton the Piano Improv Guy Skips Chatroulette for the Streets

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The piano man with the giant headphones and hoodie is back, but if you’ll pardon the Doobie Brothers reference, he’s now takin’ it to the streets. Merton the Chatroulette Piano Improv Guy, whose improvised piano ditties went viral last March, just released a new video filmed on the streets of Denver, where he played live to passersby.


When we interviewed the anonymous Merton in March, he said, “I haven’t decided if Merton needs to always stay in this little box [the Chatroulette screen] or if it would be fun to see Merton on the swing set in the park or in the grocery store singing at random strangers.” However, one of the problems he mentioned with taking the act live was the inability to haul his piano around with him.

Fortunately, the city of Denver solved that problem for him. The video posted represents just one August night in Denver’s 16th St. Mall, where the Downtown Denver Partnership installed several public pianos this summer. During the three hours he played, he took requests, improv-ed songs on command and collaborated with the band Alma Desnuda.

According to Merton (via email), he was recognized frequently by passersby: “I actually played on the street in Denver six or seven nights this summer, and always accumulated a crowd of fans and strangers. Most of the people in that video approached me because they knew who I was, including [Alma Desnuda].”

The difference between Chatroulette and the real world, Merton said, was much more continuous. “People who go on [Chatroulette] all have one thing in common: They have positioned themselves in front of a computer and navigated to one specific website with a limited set of expectations as to what might happen. On the street, I’m dealing with people who are just in the middle of their life… And the interaction is much more continuous (from my perspective) because people come and go but my frame of reference stays the same as one continuous flow. Whereas on [Chatroulette] I’m starting from zero every few minutes, every time I click Next.”

His anonymity remained intact — though while his signature glasses and hooded sweatshirt kept him from being identified, “I certainly would have made a better choice of costumes if I knew I’d be playing outside in the heat of summer all the time. We were seriously considering having Merton at Burning Man, but the idea of wearing that stupid hoodie in the desert was my main obstacle.”

Street Piano has gotten almost 33,000 views since being uploaded on Sept. 9 since going public on Sept. 13, which is low compared to the original Chatroulette videos: Currently, Chat Roulette Piano Improv #1 has 6.4 million views, while the second has 4.5 million.

Merton plans to release other Denver street piano videos in the future, potentially even going international. “My dream would be to travel to cities all over the world and film similar piano interactions on the street,” he said. “I’m very interested in what will happen if a highly receptive and reactive musician is inserted into different real-life contexts, and I think each city has its own flavor and energy. But I think I have to keep it guerrilla-style. Doing a pre-arranged and publicly-sanctioned performance would probably kill a lot of the random possibilities.”

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