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Fame Roulette - An Interview with Merton, ChatRoulette's Piano Improvisor

Posted by Ben Collins, Today's Soundtrack  March 31, 2010 04:09 PM

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Itís only been three weeks since Merton effectively charmed the entire Internet.

Three weeks ago, at least, is when he posted a video on Youtube of the two nights he spent serenading Backwards-Hat Guy and Reclining Dude in a White Tank-Top, among others, on ChatRoulette, a random video chat service.

Charming the entire Internet may seem impossible, but Merton may have done it.

Merton received almost universally positive feedback. His five-minute video quickly became one of the most-watched Youtube videos of all time in about a week. Ben Folds -- who many wrongly assumed was playing ďMertonĒ -- dispelled these rumors by impersonating the Youtube-star in a concert in North Carolina. He posted it on Youtube under the title, ďOde to Merton.Ē

And, now, a sentence with the name ďBackwards-Hat GuyĒ is complete without any explanation.

Three weeks later, Merton has a publicist (a company that also represents everyone from Dinosaur Jr. to Richie Havens to Keller Williams). ChatRoulette has since jumped past Al-Qaeda as public enemy no. 1 on local newscasts across the country. Even news organizations like The Boston Globe and New York Times are capitalizing on ChatRouletteís success. And Merton has a second video thatís as well-regarded as his first.

Merton (who spoke on condition of anonymity) took some time out with Todayís Soundtrack to discuss how life is different now, his accidental headphone afro, and what heís going to do with his hundreds of marriage proposals.

Todayís Soundtrack: Lead me through a day in your life about 3 weeks ago, and a day in your life now.

Merton: Itís very similar. Three weeks ago, Iíd just barely heard of ChatRoulette. Now, I still donít go on that often, but I really go for it when I do. I spend four hours in a night when I go on. But I donít do it every day.

Note: The videos in this post do contain some swearing.

TS: Is there any tangible difference in your day-to-day life, though? I mean, youíre the first person to ever have a publicist three weeks after posting a Youtube video.

M: (Laughs.) Yes, thatís what they tell me.

There really isnít. Thereís really two worlds. Thereís my inner-orbit of my daily life. Because of how anonymous the videos are, I donít have photographers following me down the street or anything like that.

Then, on the Internet, everyone tells me Iím famous. Itís kind of strange. It only feels half-real.

TS: The anonymity -- is that a conscious choice on your part?

M: Itís conscious only because I want to protect my private life. Itís not a publicity tactic. Thereís no desire to create a mystique about myself. Itís because Iím posting songs on the Internet with pretty stupid lyrics that Iíve made up. It started out because I wanted to be on Chatroulette, but I didnít want my face posted all over Youtube. Since, it has kind of made sense to continue that. Itís really nice to have that (separation).

TS: I know youíre a self-taught improvisational pianist? Is this your dayjob?

M: I do it as a hobby, but itís a deep hobby. I do spend my whole day waiting to play piano. Iíd say itís a little bit more than a hobby.

TS: Is it something that you think could spawn into a dayjob?

M: I have no idea. I donít really think itís something that I could travel around and do night-in-and-night-out. Donít think itís that type of phenomenon. I donít know if itís possible to make a career.

TS: The whole thing typifies the power and concept of Youtube. Youíre a guy whoís doing something that is very hard to monetize or even explain, but everyone knows that it has to exist.

M: Yeah, I might typify it a little bit too much. It would be nice if I found a way to make some money doing it. Itís harder and harder freelance work. It kind of puts me in an awkward position. I focus a lot of my energy on this, discussing it and thinking about it. So much time goes into creating these, editing what parts to put in.

Itís a lot of fun. When I finish a video and put it up, itís just amazing to see how much people like it. Itís a really good feeling.

TS: There seemed to be a real hole in the Internet for this sort of thing, and Iím not sure anyone really knew it was there beforehand. I canít imagine a Youtube without some guy joking around with people on ChatRoulette, you know?

M: Itís not something that I recognized the need ahead of time. It might be some phenomenon that needed a space.

TS: If you watch the video, there seems like a concerted effort not to get too personal, not make fun of anyoneís looks. Is that a conscious effort on your part?

M: In some interviews Iíve said that itís conscious, but I think itís my instinct. Iíll make fun of somebody whoís an a******e, somebody whoís mean. But I donít ever want to make fun of somebody for natural circumstances because somebody can just as easily make fun of me for that. But there are a lot of mean people on the Internet, and Iíll go head-to-head with somebody if I have to.

So itís not a conscious effort. I mean, if somebodyís smiling and laughing at my songs, why would I want to cut them down at all? If theyíre on my side. Iím on their side.

TS: It must have been very flattering when Ben Folds put up his ode to you on Youtube about a week later.

M: It was several different things. It was definitely flattering. I would like to differentiate myself from him, though. I donít want people, in a year, to look back and say, ďHey, remember that guy Merton who is sort of Ben Folds?Ē

I was happy when that happened. He jumped into it just to have fun with it, dressed up just like my character.

Heís a great guy. Heís very talented. I just donít want to increase that angle of the story very much. I wouldnít ever try to ride on his coattails. That seems like the obvious thing to do. I donít want to do that, ďAm I Ben Folds? Iím not Ben FoldsĒ thing just to capitalize on his success.

TS: Itís funny that you refer to Merton as a character. I never really viewed him that way, which kind of leads me to the next question. That outfit that youíre wearing -- is that just a collection of whatever you could find in your closet?

M: It was exactly that. A friend came over and said, ďWe should go on Chatroulette.Ē So he brought over all these props. There were bunny ears, frames with no lenses -- thatís what Iím wearing, by the way, frames without lenses -- a captainís hat. We were going to have this constantly rotating wardrobe.

What I settled on, I put on these very huge headphones. And thatís the trick about doing anything musical on ChatRoulette: You have to have headphones on so you can hear people on the other end.

TS: Itís good to know those are headphones. Iíd come to the conclusion that you had an impressive afro.

M: We were going to go through all of these different characters for different videos, but I was like, ďNo, I think this guy is a keeper.Ē He has, kind of, this half-muppet look about him.

TS: What are some of your influences? This is Todayís Soundtrack, anyway.

M: I listen to this pianist named Chilly Gonzalez a lot. Heís a Canadian pianist. You probably wonít be able to see that Iím derivative of his style. I listen to a lot of Radiohead, and Iím really into Devandra Banhardt recently. Thereís Elliot Smith, too. I donít listen to a lot of funny music. I tend to like more melancholy kinds of music.

My favorite album of all-time is Keith Jarrett The KŲln Concert. It doesnít have traditional songs, per se, just three very long pieces of music. Thatís the album Iíd take to a desert island if I had to pick one.

TS: Anything else you want people to know?

M: I really appreciate all the support I have. Iíve never had anything like that happen. I want to say I really appreciate all the sweet comments. I never anticipated that Iíd be able to communicate with so many humans at one time.

I guess Iím going to have to start working my through all these marriage proposals now.

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About the author

Ben Collins can't help but search beyond Feist for the zeitgeist of Today's Soundtrack, his pick of a song or songs capturing the mood or events of the moment. His musical tastes vary from Strawberry Fields to The Magnetic Fields, from Low to Skee-Lo. A North Shore native, Ben has worked at The Boston Globe and Spin and is an Emerson grad. Make your own nominations to him at ben.t.collins@comcast.net or on Twitter @globesoundtrack. More »

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