In a nondescript alley in downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn musician Grey Gersten sits inside an abandoned elevator shaft that's been converted into the surreal art museum Mmuseumm. He's behind a movie theatre-style ticket booth surrounded by various instruments, drum machines and recording equipment, asking strangers intimate questions such as, "Did you ever think you were about to die?" and "Describe your last dream."
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Over 10 days in June, more than 100 people visited the Mmuseumm to experience "Custom Melodies," a temporary exhibit in which visitors filled out a questionnaire and watched Gersten, who performs under the name Eternal Lips, create and record a song about their experiences, complete with the person's choice of band name, song and cover art. Once recorded, participants can visit a website — scheduled to launch this fall — to hear everyone's song or sort custom playlists by question. (For example, a playlist of songs by people who answered "Yes" to "Have you ever been involved with space travel?")
"I like the idea of exploring people through songs and having the site be a constellation of stories that reflect the people themselves and not just their specific musical tastes," Gersten tells Rolling Stone. "You can see what random people's advice and dreams are. Visitors become part of the songwriting process, and that's a place most audiences haven't been before. To not know them and try to figure them out and reflect that in a song in 20 minutes is a big artistic challenge, but very exciting."
Despite creating all of the music, Gersten plans on crediting each song to the person's "imaginary band," an extension of the concept for Eternal Lips. "The beauty of an imaginary band is that it isn’t designed to represent reality," says Gersten. "It’s whatever you imagine it to be and that’s endless and always changing. Eternal Lips is my fantasy of an imaginary band, so why not create a place where people could come to realize their own fantasies of imaginary bands?" To that end, Custom Melodies functions as a unique, interactive exhibit, musical companion piece and clever promotional idea.
The imaginary band, however, is now a tangible product, as Gersten, a multi-instrumentalist, producer and singer, recently released an EP featuring Sharon Van Etten, John Zorn and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and is planning his debut LP for later this year. On the eponymous 4-track EP, Gersten bends and contorts the idea of pop music, channeling his experimental music background into dreamy indie-pop.
After a successful New York run, Gersten is hoping to expand the idea of on-the-spot song creation outside of New York, envisioning musicians in other cities picking up where he left off. "What would a song factory sound like if the Boredoms did this in Japan?" asks Gersten. "Or a subway-style booth in Paris or village in Africa? The more people that do it, the cooler it will be."