For four self-described “goofy dads” from Utah, The Piano Guys enjoy quite the online following.
Their videos — which depict cellist Steven Sharp Nelson and pianist Jon Schmidt performing in such unlikely spots as the Great Wall of China and the cliffs of southwestern Utah— have garnered more than 636 million views on YouTube. Their YouTube channel currently has 3.8 million subscribers.
Together with producer/videographer Paul Anderson and music producer Al van der Beek, the two instrumentalists specialize in musical mash-ups that merge classical music, pop favorites and film scores, among other influences.
“We create a music that’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time,” said Nelson, whose group performs next week in San Luis Obispo. “It’s (all) about transcending genre lines.” A Salt Lake City native, Nelson has been playing cello since age 8.
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“My dad gave me two choices. He said, ‘You can practice cello and eat, or not,’ ” the cellist joked.
Although he holds a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Utah, Nelson didn’t enter the entertainment industry right away. Instead, he worked in the venture capitalism and nonprofit management fields, earning master’s degrees in public administration and urban planning.
“I ended up always wanting to do (music) on the side,” Nelson said. He often teamed up with Schmidt, a successful solo pianist.
In early 2011, Schimdt was approached by Anderson, who was searching for a way to market his St. George, Utah, piano store via social media. Anderson proposed creating a series of videos promoting Schmidt’s music and the store, called The Piano Guys, in the hopes that one would go viral.
Schmidt recruited Nelson, who in turn brought aboard his songwriting partner, van der Beek. (The three share songwriting duties in the Piano Guys.)
“That was the whole impetus in the beginning, to sell pianos,” Nelson explained. “The whole beautiful irony is, we still haven’t sold a piano.”
From the start, the cellist said, The Piano Guys focused on “this family-friendly, nutritional classical vibe, with some pop culture mixed in.”
“We were writing music that our families could enjoy and making videos that our families could enjoy,” he said. As it turned out, other families enjoyed that music too.
Their hits include nods to “Batman” and “Star Wars” as well as covers of chart-topping pop tunes such as Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.” Their most recent video, “I Want You Bach,” pairs Johann Sebastian Bach and The Jackson 5.
To bring the music to life, the Piano Guys head out on location.
For instance, they shot a video combining Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and “Let It Go” from “Frozen” at a Utah ice castle.
For a video featuring the theme from the film “The Mission” and the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” the Piano Guys filmed in front of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil.
They headed to another modern wonder of the world to shoot a mash-up of music from the movie “Kung Fu Panda” and Frederic Chopin’s “Prelude No. 20.”
“You’re sitting on the Great Wall of China in a kung fu costume playing an electric cello... You don’t imagine stuff like that when you’re a kid,” Nelson said.
The Piano Guys seek to conjure up the same excitement on stage with the use of video and layered instrumental tracks.
“We try to keep (the mood) as spontaneous as possible,” Nelson said, in keeping with their personalities. “We’re just goofy dads. We’re not going to try to cover that up and pretend we’re cool classical musicians or rock stars.”
The Piano Guys
7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$40 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org