Mark Meronek and Justin Ong
Mark Meronek and Justin Ong are two musicians who for the past couple years have been posting videos of themselves having jam sessions and covering artists like Nomak and Nujabes. They have both worked with producer Zack Austin aka Nitsua, I interviewed the talented duo to find out if they’ll be releasing any music officially in the future, find out what they had to say after the jump!
So for those of our readers who are unfamiliar with you guys introduce yourselves & let them know what you do.
[M]: Hey I’m Mark Meronek, I’m from Irvine, California and I play piano with Justin Ong under the youtube username mmeronek. I’ve played piano on and off for about 6 years, and I used to play a lot of jazz standards and listen to more traditional jazz before we started playing together, but after practicing with Justin we really focused on the ‘jazzy hip hop’ sound and meshing together all of our influences while trying to create something that allowed us to express ourselves with the musical skills we’d learned up to that point.
[J]:My name is Justin Ong. I’m a recent UC Irvine graduate with my degree in Public Health. In the midst of being a naturally curious person who constantly likes to try new things. I would say a mainstay of my everyday personality would be that of music –particularly trying out and learning new percussion instruments, syllable counting, and attempting to put like sounding words in rhythm.
How did you guys meet? And how long have you performed for?
[M]: Justin and I met about 5 years ago in the dorms during out freshman year and we were put in the same suite, where we realized we had similar musical tastes and influences from areas like drumline, hip hop, emceeing, and more. At that time we had started watching the anime ‘Samurai Champloo,’ which introduced us to the Japanese hip hop producer Nujabes, and that got his jazzy hip hop sound engrained in us until later in our third year we met up randomly (really randomly, where he was practicing for something else and I’d never seen him in the piano rooms before) at UCI and jammed, with our own sound coming out naturally and easily. We had never planned anything to happen at all, and most of the videos up on youtube are long jam sessions that we just recorded with my Macbook Pro, but we thought the sound was really sick and something we hadn’t heard much of before. We’d definitely heard people play jazz alone, or hip hop alone, but rarely had we seen live jams of this ‘jazzy hip hop’ style of the music of artists like Nujabes, Nomak, Uyama Hiroto, Shin-ski, and other artists like them.
We’ve been performing since we started recording these videos, and most of them were hip hop showcases or random talent shows, we’ve also done house parties/gigs at bars in California so almost 3 years now.
[J]: Together we have performed since 2008, but separately our musical careers might date back to elementary school.
What got both of you into music to begin with?
[M]: I’ve been listening to jazz, R&B, pop, classical, and all different types of music at nearly every waking moment I get the chance. Music gave me hope, helped me get through hard times and made the good times better and listening to so much music over the years has undoubtedly been the single best ‘exercise’ for how well I can play the piano now. In 4th grade I started playing the violin, and by 6th grade I’d switched to trumpet, which I continued playing for 6 more years in the school jazz bands. It was in jazz band that I learned a lot of jazz theory and how to read music/count rhythms well, and since I also had tons of friends in drumline who would listen to drumline shows constantly, I ended up picking up a lot of the more complicated rhythms that a drummer would know as well. During senior year of high school I ended up experimenting playing songs on piano from Final Fantasy and from the composer Joe Hisaishi. Since I already knew some jazz theory, I started to play a lot of the songs I had been listening to from a jazz “Real Book,” which is basically a compilation of hundreds of jazz songs with the melodies written with chord symbols, and from that I started to get decent at playing easy jazz songs. From there I kept expanding what I knew about chords and was able to find scales to solo on, and everything progressed pretty naturally from there to being able to play what I play now.
[J]: Since before i could remember, i was an avid listener of a wide array of musical genres thanks to my older cousins who lived just across the street from me. At an early age i was exposed to a wide array of underground hip hop – particularly A tribe called quest, Blackstar, any rawkus records affiliates just to name a few, in addition to my fair share of indy and alternative rock music.
In fifth grade, the concept of concert band was introduced into the elementary schools in our district, and having learned about yankee doodle and the american revolution along with prior recorder experience, I along with 4 of my other guy friends decided to pursue the flute, although it is often seen as a feminine instrument. When starting out, i was far from a natural with the flute, the highest note i knew how to play was an F, so whenever i read a note higher on the sheet music, i just would play that same F note. in hind sight i must have really messed up the over all sound of the band, but at the time it seemed logical to me. before i reached seventh grade, my band teacher told me to perhaps pursue drums as an instrument since i was really good with timing and rhythmic accuracy, just not sound quality. and breath control haha.
In seventh grade i switched to the drums and was a part of drumline from 7th grade all the way up to my junior year of highschool, from there i was fortunate enough to be surrounded by some very good instructors. After junior year of highschool i took it to the next level competing in independent drumlines in the Drum Corps International and Winter Guard International circuit.
I stopped competing the summer prior to college because UCI got demanding, and in 2008 i purchased a drum set. and from there tried to use what i learned in drumline in a drum kit format.
Who are your influences? And if you could both work with any artists in the future who would you pick?
[M]: This is going to be a long list… haha, I’ll just list a bunch of my favorite artists that influenced me so that people reading this can check them out, I don’t think they’ll be disappointed if they do. My biggest influences are, in order of influence:
Jazz – Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Ahmad Jamal, Michel Camilo, Hiromi Uehara, Diana Krall, Shelly Berg, Jamie Cullum, George Benson
Hip Hop – Binary Star, MF Doom, People Under the Stairs, Sound Providers, A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock, Mos Def, Hieroglyphics
Classical – Final Fantasy 1-13 soundtracks and piano collections, Joe Hisaishi, Yoko Kanno, Debussy, Holst: The Planets, Rachmaninoff
Jazzy Hip Hop – Nujabes, Nomak, Shing02, Shin-ski, Dj four one one, Fat Jon, Jazz Liberatorz, Dj Deckstream
Rock – Pink Floyd, John Mayer, Coldplay, Rage ATM, Reggie and the Full Effect
Japanese – Scoobie Do, Bird, UVERworld, L’Arc en Ciel, Freetempo, Yasunori Mitsuda, Utada Hikaru
Others – Bobby Caldwell, Frank Sinatra, John Legend, Joe, Stevie Wonder, Brian Mcknight
Working with any of these artists would be amazing, but if I were to pick I’d want to work with Binary Star, Nomak and People Under the Stairs.
[J]: I would say any sound i listen to, be it a commercial jingle to a Beethoven symphony is subject to influence my playing or understanding of music one way or another, be it conscious or subconsciously. As far as professional drummers i really enjoy watching, the list is extensive but lately i have always been returning to: Steve Gadd, Jojo Mayer, Jeff Hamilton, Will Calhoun, Akira Jimbo and QuestLove.
A few of my favorite rappers: Big L, Eminem, Black Thought, Mr. J. Medeiros, Mos Def, Common, Bambu, Elzhi, Eligh, One Be Lo, Phonte… the list goes on.
If we were to ever work with any group collectively i would say the one band itself would be The Roots, simply for their musicality and style of rap in itself, i would also say Jazzanova.
A lot of people on your channel say that you influence them to learn instruments, what advice would you give for people starting out?
[M] Play what you like, express yourself, and most importantly – Listen to all kinds of music! Practically every time I sit down to play piano, I will solo and end up playing something that sounds familiar, that I may have heard before, yet I’ve changed it to fit my own emotions and self-expression at that given moment. If you look at our videos, I will sometimes play a small snippet of a song I’ve previously heard, and I’ll post a link and the exact time where I alluded to another melody/improv line by another artist. Of course, I didn’t know I was going to play it at all at the time and it came out so randomly during my soloing that I barely would have noticed if I hadn’t been able to listen again. Listening to music is like giving yourself millions of small pieces of harmony and melodic lines to pick and choose from that express a certain feeling for you, and in the middle of an improvisation, these melodies are drawn upon from nearly every song you’ve ever heard and they spontaneously come out when you feel the time is right, if you let them.
‘Play what you like,’ but I mean that phrase very sincerely and I think it helps to recognize that music appreciation is subjective. There will always be someone who likes your music, and another who hates your music, but there really isn’t anything innately ‘better’ about your music than another music that you may dislike. It’s true that there is music that seems to be more easily appreciated or “catchy” than others, and so it’s more popular, but ultimately IMO the goal is happiness and enjoyment of your music, not popularity. I also think playing what you like is so important because you will never be able to play exactly like anyone else, and so constantly striving to play just how “they” played will not get you very far, and you may find yourself bored or uninspired with playing. I think originality and joy can only come from playing what you like, when you like and by playing exactly how you’d like to play it at that moment.
Even with me and Justin, we’ll often have a video where we loved what we did at a certain moment in the recording, but after many trials of trying to “get back to that cool sound” in that moment in the video, playing it gets extremely boring and it feels unoriginal, even if it was something that “I” played before in the past. The very act of trying to recreate all of the conditions that made me want to play those notes at that time is denying the fact that I played those notes for a reason.
[J]: Simply just listen to music and play along to it, since it will do worlds for a person in terms of understanding and how their voice fits into the synchronization of what is going on. Also, make sure to get a really solid foundation of the basics before attempting anything out of bounds. One of my greatest drum instructors: Bill Bachman made an analogy of drumming basics stating that you have to learn to crawl, stand, and walk before you learn how to run.
Question to Justin: How long have you rapped for? Is it something that you just do now and then or is something that your going to be getting more into?
[J]: Not very many people know this but before Mark and i used to jam together on instruments, we would go into his dorm room, and make a huge playlist consisting of all of the nujabes instrumentals and MF Doom’s Special Herbs and try to freestyle for hours on end. haha
I started really trying to write lyrics and freestyle avidly my freshman year at the dorms, so i would say since 2005 but ever since i was in elementary school, i was always partial to learning about the poetry unit in lyrics, I’ve been writing poems about whatever i sporadically thought of ever since, which i think really contributed to some of my freestyle ability. As far as rapping goes, i haven’t been really consistent with it, i take it more as an inspiration thing, i write down good rhymes that i think in my head as they come to me, inspiration can come from me reading one of my biology text books and me simply wanting to find a rhyme for a term like parasympatheric for example.
I’ve explored in the spoken word relm a little bit which is totally out of my comfort zone, cause i am so used to a beat being able to set the feel punchline cues for me. Lately i am in a point in my life where rhymes have been coming to me more often and my desire to write more and freestyle more is slowly gaining its prowess as it was when i was younger. I’m definitely going to be working on improving that craft, and lacing it on top of my drumming.
Question to Mark: You’ve worked with Zack Austin (aka Nitsua) how did that come around? And can we expect more in the future? (Justin has also worked with Zack Austin, rapping on the song ‘Picture Perfect’.
[M]: Zack Austin contacted me after watching one of my videos and he said if I was looking for someone to sample my piano playing, he could help me with that. After messaging me I went to his studio and recorded (on a beautiful white grand piano, I might add!) samples for his songs “Flattened World” and his album title song “The Art of Music.” As of yet that CD hasn’t been released, but it’s possible that we could collaborate again.
Whats the plan for the future? Are you guys looking to record anything?
[M]: Lately we’ve been thinking of using more of Justin’s rap expertise, as well as his flute playing & my trumpet playing in our songs. Were hoping to record with my friend in LA, but I think for now we are sticking to youtube videos. I think it will most definitely come in the future, it’s just a matter of when, and right now I think it would be a while before we get some really good sounding recordings. But yeah, we’ll definitely keep posting videos.
[J]: Were hoping to record professionally in a studio and to possibly get a mix tape out, with both of us rapping and exploring other instruments as well.
Finally is there anything you’d like to say to the readers or to the followers of your music?
[M]: Thanks for all your support, and we look forward to making more jazzy hip hop music in the future, so stay tuned
[J]: Thank You! It started from just Mark and i loving to jam, and we are going to keep it that way no matter what route our music takes us.