Seattle Experience Music Project
Seattle, Washington, USA
I knew wearing a tie-dye Nirvana t-shirt in Seattle would be cheesy.
Like wearing an ‘I Love NY’ t-shirt in New York – surely everyone would be doing it.
Still, I am still hip, down with the kids – though the retreating hairline might argue otherwise.
Seattle laid the foundation for a good five years of my angst for teens of the ninties. This is where bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains lived and died by rock n’ roll.
So it seems fitting that there should be a temple where you can pray to the music gods in this city, and with a bit of luck revisit some fury of years gone by.
The Experience Music Project (EMP) is that such place of worship, showing off mainly Seattle’s (largely rock) musical finest.
It opened almost six years ago offering both interactive and interpretive exhibitions chronicling the history of defining American artists, who at some stage had an influence in, or on, the northwest US.
The distinguishably-coloured stainless steel and aluminium building is all too bright for one who attempted to conquer the Seattle nightlife the previous evening, but that said I had no excuse for missing it.
It is a construction designed by world renowed architect Frank Ghery, apparently influenced by the bright hues of electric guitars, but, depending on how much you time you spend at the local bars, could resemble a partial guitar, the inner ear or something more grotesque.
Upon entering it I’m initially impressed with the authenticity of the front-counter staff, this is rock ‘n’ roll from the outset – there is rudeness, disinterest and unhelpfulness.
Luckily on this Sunday morning mass there are few clergy at the service, so there are no queues to sidestep and I make my first stop the sound labs.
These are rooms where you can confess your rock ‘n’ roll sins without anyone being able to hear, which is more than convenient for people who should not be heard by other human beings like myself, or Ben Lummis for example.
This is where the has-beens, those who never were and never will be converge and get the chance to be rock stars. As I fit into all three categories, this place could not be more fitting.
Even if you’ve never played an instrument before there’s still the option of receiving computer-guided lessons. But who needs lessons when you’re tone deaf.
In about an hour I jammed on guitars, thumped a drumkit, gave a keyboard the Elton John treatment and, um, mixed a mixer.
However, the vocals room is where I found my calling with karaoke-like offerings of Nirvana and Celine Dion to sing along with. Not that I sang Celine. Ok, maybe once. So it was twice, but that was only because you’re allocated 10 minute timeslots and there were no other songs available at the time.
Those who have some talent or confidence can also dabble in the on-stage lab; a performance area complete with screaming fans and lights. After reviewing my karaoke performance I decided to bypass this one. After all, I didn’t want to show off.
EMP is the brainchild of a Paul G. Allen and his sister Jody Patton. Allen’s other investments include the Portland Trailblazers basketball team, the Seattle Seahawks NFL franchise, oh, and he also co-founded a little company called Microsoft.
So why did a computer geek inject $200+ million into a music shrine?
Allen spent many years of his youth immersed in music and collected Hendrix memorabilia over the years. That is why the largest exhibition room in the 140,000 square foot complex is dedicated to the Seattle left-handed guitarist.
EMP chronicles his Seattle childhood and follows his musical journey through R&B to songwriting.
Situated opposite the sound lab, the Jimi collection has artifacts ranging from the Fender Stratocaster guitar he played at Woodstock to velvet jackets of his fashion collection.
More than 100,000 artefacts have now been accumulated by EMP, including a circular room filled with a chronology of guitars, songwriting lyrics and a towering cylinder-shaped sculpture made from tens of six-strings. Additionally the museum will have guest exhibitions and in this case it featured the life and times of Bob Dylan.
The Jimi and Bob exhibitions are located side-by-side. Though according to the EMP website the pair have more than that in common, for example, they came from small towns – who’d have thought?
I decided to cut short my time in this baby-boomer-overpopulated room to find some of my own nostalgia, so head downstairs for traces of the 90’s grunge era and see if there was still some post-teenage angst stored away.
What I came across first was the hip hop hall. It seemed no place for a white guy in tie-die, so I slipped on a jumper – I mean, it was getting cold anyway.
The exhibit recreates the early seventies and eighties hip hop scene in the northwest that was so heavily influenced by guys like Sir Mix-a-lot, who is known for singing about fat bottomed girls in quite a different way than Queen.
It almost makes me believe hip hop is real music. Well, for a few minutes.
Down the hall, the Northwest quarter is dedicated to the progression of music in the Seattle area, from Paul Revere to 70’s tunesters Queensryche and Northwest jazz.
This was what I had come to see. Unfortunately the area contains only a few Nirvana props and 90’s handwritten lyrics. Nostalgic angst denied.
In many ways that sums up the EMP experience; it doesn’t offer everything for someone, but instead something for everyone.
The hall of costumes and MTV room presents something for teens, even if it isn’t necessarily representing Seattle. Girls can view Beyonce’s rags, Christina’s fashions or admire Britney Spears’s vinyl catsuit she wore in the Oops…I Did it Again video. Meanwhile, boys can ogle the size of Notorious B.I.G.’s pinstripe suit or Eminem’s overalls.
I made my way towards the gift shop to pick up a lame piece of memorabilia with a feeling of disappointment and satisfaction.
EMP did not have as much of what I thought I wanted to see, but I left realising that this city has been built on more than rock ‘n’ roll.
How Much: Adults US$19.95, senior US$15.95, youth (7-17) US$14.95, children (under 6) free.
Open Hours: EMP is open from 10am-5pm Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday to Sunday.