Unchained Melodies of John Brothers Piano Company

How two musicians parlayed a free Craigslist piano into real employment.

It’s not often that you get serenaded at the storefront of an Old Navy on Market Street. But Anastasia Kubu came for that express purpose on a recent afternoon. Specifically, she wanted to hear two self-taught buskers brutalize an upright piano, because they had struck a chord in her the night before.

The previous night Kubu was about to go to the movies with a friend, but the brilliant size and color of the moon kept them outdoors. As they walked along the pier they heard the tinkling of piano music. It came from John Brothers Piano Company, the official moniker for two UC Berkeley grads who tour the Bay Area doing public performances on a stripped-down Wurlitzer piano. Kubu was bedazzled. “I love that it’s all original pieces, full of energy and emotion,” she said.

It’s not easy to explain the cult of John Brothers. Yet it’s clear that Kubu wasn’t the only person to fall in love with their odd, abstract, experimental music and inventive presentation.

After graduating from college last May, friends John Steven Morgan and John Thatcher Boomer set out on a musical experiment that, they hoped, would also sustain them financially — or at least keep them from having to move back home. They found a free piano on Craigslist, figured out how to lift it onto their 1991 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and christened themselves the John Brothers, for obvious reasons. They came up with an easy gimmick: clean black Levi’s and white T-shirts, to evoke the black and white keys they know so well. The John Brothers currently play for tips in several East Bay BART stations, Union Square, and the Westfield Shopping Center. Apparently, they earn just enough to pay rent in their West Oakland warehouse.

“We try to start with a flashy song to grab people’s attention, but we really get going when we get five to ten people listening,” Boomer explained. “When people stop they usually make others stop as well.” He said that on their best days, the Brothers get as many as fifty audience members at once. “In between each song, around ten people leave, which is fine because we can’t really block the sidewalk or we would be forced to stop by the police.” While both cite Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff as their classical influences, the John Brothers admit they mostly learned by intuition. Morgan took piano lessons until age sixteen, and Boomer gravitated to the piano after receiving the Amelie songbook from a high school sweetheart. He found his way by dabbling with chord changes and ultimately making up his own. The John Brothers’ lack of formal training might make for a lot of bizarre, original music, but it’s also a large part of their appeal. They’re entirely instinctual, preferring to play with sound rather than adhere to a traditional format.

And, improbably, they’ve parlayed the scheme into employment. “All of these street performances have led us to other gigs,” Boomer said. “We are going to play at an upcoming art opening and a wedding in April. All of this from just hearing us on the street one day!”

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