In a top-floor suite at the Westin Hotel yesterday afternoon, Paul Allen and his younger sister, Jody Allen Patton, sat serenely on a sofa while aides bustled around them.
"They're a little tired," whispered a press agent as she ushered us into the room. "They've been doing TV interviews all day."
The day was about, of course, the Experience Music Project, the music museum that incorporates exhibits, a ride, hands-on instruments and cutting-edge interactive technology. The $240 million museum opens today at Seattle Center, with a huge array of concerts, ceremonies and international media attention.
Although Allen gets most of the credit (and blame) for the museum, it is the brainchild of both these close siblings. Allen provided the money and inspiration; Patton, as executive director, is largely responsible for the vision that made it happen.
Allen looked at his sister, at the floor or out the window as he fielded our questions; Patton seemed more animated under media scrutiny. Reminiscing about their childhood, they smiled and laughed, enjoying the memories. At other times they were more serious, especially about EMP, its evolution and mission.
To Patton: Did Paul Allen take you to any concerts when you were little?
Patton: No. Actually, some of the things Paul took me to were . . . I think he took me to see "Planet of the Apes." We also went to see "The Exorcist" at the Cinerama. I think it was at the Cinerama. (Looking at Paul.) No?
Allen: Yeah, and look what happened to the Cinerama! (muttered) I'm joking.
Patton: And I remember we had a friend who was actually Paul's age, who lived up the street . . .
Allen: One year older than me.
Patton: . . . One year older. And our parents went on a trip, and we stayed at their house. That was the beginning, when Paul was inoculated with the rock 'n' roll virus.
Allen: One summer she played a Monkees record, so then I went out and bought the Monkees record. I thought it was great. The next summer, she played "Are You Experienced?" And that was it, I was gone.
Did you get the Hendrix record right away, after you heard it?
Allen: I'm sure I did. . . . Funny how you remember, back in those years, you remember going down to the Pay N' Save, whatever it was, getting the album. . . . I remember, especially, "Electric Ladyland." I wore out the copy of that.
Patton: In those days we had to listen to them in our living room.
Allen: Except our parents didn't like it. My mother said it sounded like noise. Or, "What is that awful sound?" were some of the phrases I'd hear her say. So a lot of times I would listen with headphones, and since I was a little bit of an electronics guy, I figured out a system where I could play electric guitar along with the record and not bother the rest of the family.
When did you get an electric guitar?
Allen: It must have been about . . . I think Mom found it at a garage sale or someplace like that. Some thrift store, I think I was probably 17 or 18.
Did you ever play together?
Allen: No, Jody played classical piano. Jody ended up getting more into dance, studied choreography in college.
Allen: . . . playing showtunes and everything in college. Whereas I was off into Bach when I was in Albuquerque, starting Microsoft. We were kind of separated for a period of years, and then eventually I came back and after I left Microsoft, Jody was still working at the (Pacific Northwest) ballet. And I convinced her to leave the ballet and come work with me on projects. She got really involved with building the Rose Garden in Portland, with Cinerama, and now EMP. Those are all projects Jody was supervising.
We understand that Jody is the one who wanted architect Frank Gehry?
Allen: She had to convince me. Frank's architecture is very much on the cutting edge.
Patton: Exuberant. Spatial.
Allen: I think we actually pushed Frank to be even more extreme, and he's usually pretty extreme.
Patton: And I think he would acknowledge that the building went beyond what he's done before. He's never used color before. He's never used some of those colors before, some of those forms before, those multiple complex curves. But the moment I met Frank I knew he was the right person for the job.
What about the interior? Did it kind of start with the stuff you already had?
Allen: The original museum was going to be the Jimi Hendrix museum. Then it became the Jimi Hendrix gallery. Then we said, well, we should really encompass all Northwest rock 'n' roll and pop. So that kind of became a gallery.
Patton: Then we had "hands on . . ."
Allen: We wanted to have "hands on," which became "Sound Lab." Then we wanted to have something with the best specific artists for specific genres, which became "Artists Journey." So it all evolved over time . . . it's been a long, major journey . . .
Which parts of EMP were most important to each of you?
Allen: I think I would say that some of the components, like the Jimi Hendrix component, that was something I was interested in doing. I wanted to have a "hands-on" component. I thought about that early on, because I wanted people to get the idea that they could touch the music, they could pick up an instrument and play themselves. Jimi was a self-taught musician . . . On guitar, if you just play three chords you can play a rock 'n' roll song. Jody did a great job of bringing in people designing those hands-on instruments, which are not an easy thing to do. They have to be robust and not break and be about different kinds of music and all that.
How do you deal with negative feedback from people who, say, might walk past the museum and say "Ugh! That is just too radical for Seattle!"
Allen: Anything that's at the cutting edge, it takes a lot for people to get used to. To me, it's just breathtaking and beautiful. If you can't find part of that building to like, that would really, really surprise me. But there are always going to be people who don't like something like that because it's that exuberant. But there are not many buildings that could coexist with the Space Needle, the Fun Forest and the Monorail and still come out with their own rock 'n' roll stadium.
To Patton: Was that your idea, incorporating the Monorail in the building?
Patton: Yeah. What happened was I had negotiated . . . the lease for the lot. And we very casually reserved this section on the other side of the Monorail for our future expansion space. . . . We had too much good stuff that we wanted to be part of the initial Experience. So I said, all right, let's cut into our expansion space. . . . You can see in the very first models, that the first models don't really engage with the Monorail. Finally I called up and said, "Frank, get your arms around that Monorail! Go for it!" When you see that Monorail zipping by, you're just like, "Wow!"
To Patton: Have you taken your kids through, and what are they listening to? Is that going to influence any of the expansion with EMP?
Patton: Well, I don't know. Britney Spears and 'N Sync? Should we? (laughs) I have three children, and only the oldest one is really at just the beginning of listening to music. He's 10 . . . So I'm not really sure. We'll have to ask the curators about that, uh, content choice. None of them have been through yet, although my 10-year-old is coming tonight.