I’ve been to the Experience Music Project only once before and with a very specific goal in mind: see Ernie. The EMP was having a Muppets retrospective. There was a lot of cool early Jim Hensen artwork and two things that made me surprisingly emotional — Ernie and Cookie Monster. They were big and they looked so alive and like such old friends. I wanted to hug them. We didn’t stick around to see the music stuff, though we did detour through the sci-fi collection.
This time, armed with the intention to burn through a comped CityPASS, we went explicitly to see the music archives. There’s a Hendrix exhibit, and one about Nirvana, and the Women Who Rock collection is up as well. Plus, there’s the EMPs spectacular collection of guitars. That National, good lord. So pretty.
I recently completed some research on Seattle’s rock and roll history for a story I was writing for Lonely Planet. I talked to the curator of the Nirvana show, Jacob McMurray. It was fun to chew over 90s Seattle with an expert — I moved here as grunge was just past its peak, I reckon, but the iconic clubs where those band first played were still open. I remember the crowds on the streets outside, my feet sticking to the floor inside these dingy bars. I didn’t see any huge shows — I had no money, and I do mean NO money — but I remember the noise and the scene and the places when they didn’t have shows and the cheap beer at happy hour. It was easy for me to get suckered back into 90s nostalgia again while looking at the 4×6 photo prints and Kurt’s sweater and the other objects on display.
“Everything is archive material,” I thought, and my brain skittered to a drumstick broken by rock DJ Jeff Gilbert when my band played his place, the Feedback Lounge, last winter. I have it kicking around my office… somewhere. I should probably put it in a climate controlled storage locker, just in case.
EMP also has a Sound Lab where you can play rock star with real instruments, and a stage where you can perform in front of a virtual crowd. You get a poster or a DVD as a souvenir. Though the stage was occupied when we were there — we could see the current “act” on the monitor outside — there was no line. “You want to go do a show?” asked the husband. “Nope,” I said, “I’m good. Plus, you know, I’ve done that. With real people.”
Now, I’m deeply aware of the relative insignificance of my career as a musician. But as we walked through the Sound Lab, where mostly adults intently focused on the monitors that told them what to do, I felt — as I often do, it seems — like just about the luckiest person alive. I have a music video and an EP and a second CD in the works. I’ve been in the recording studio and played live with my band to a small, but packed to standing room only house. I did not need a hands on museum exhibit to give me a taste of what it means to be a working musician; I have band practice every Monday night. Maybe it’s different when there are a bunch of kids screwing around in there, having a good time, but everyone I watched was dead serious. I wanted to tell them, “Hey, lighten up! Rock and roll is FUN!” But what do I know — they could have been Real Musicians, not accidental ones like me, just seeing what they’ve got at the EMP and wondering if they should use the same kind of acoustic tile in that unused back bedroom.
My foreign born spouse was unimpressed with the EMP, but I had a good time checking it out. And as you’d expect, the acoustics in there are amazing, everything you hear is crystal clear, sharp, and clean. As we stood in the big open theater area in the lobby, watching music videos and listening to the perfect sound, I wondered one thing only: What’s it like to play in here?
Practical stuff: The EMP is at Seattle Center. Street parking is free on Sundays, most other days you’ll have to pay or you’ll park a jillion miles away. It’s 20 dollars to get in but if you buy tickets online beforehand, you’ll save a fiver. Because we had CityPASS books, we went up the Space Needle afterwards, too. It’s 19 dollars to go up the Needle; there are no advance discounts. I hear good things about the restaurants associated with the EMP and the nearby Chihuly Museum (which is great, but not part of the CityPASS), but the food court in the Armory building at Seattle Center also has — I’m not making this up — excellent food from some of Seattle’s great local restaurants. Honest. I’ve eaten in the restaurant up the Needle too, it was better and not as expensive as I’d expected it to be, though it’s hardly a bargain.