Seattle radio station KEXP (90.3 FM) will be holding a grand opening in its new Seattle Center location Saturday April 16, with live performances by several local artists (Car Seat Headrest, DoNormaal, Grace Love, etc.) and Iceland’s Samaris. In anticipation of that, KEXP gave the media a tour around its spacious new facility, which was designed by SkB Architects, and includes a coffee shop by Italian espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco. But first we were treated to a charming four-song set by Robyn Hitchcock, who’s in town to present a screening of his Jonathan Demme-directed film, Storefront Hitchcock, ably accompanied by backing vocalist/Stranger Arts Editor Sean Nelson.
Following that, KEXP Program Director/DJ Kevin Cole led some media folk around the premises. We started at an immersive installation in a 3,000 square foot section of the building (future office space) called Inside the Music, made in conjunction with Microsoft and We Are Listen. “It’s a physical experience,” Cole says as the group of wide-eyed journalists peer at the eerily lit space that’s hung with sheer black mesh and four speakers. “It’s literally a way to get inside the music. I was able to curate the soundtrack—four different artists, including Samaris, who are here from Iceland. Ólafur Arnalds, alt-J, and Floating Points contributed tracks. We picked songs that were very textural, had a lot of atmospherics, and would be suitable for this interactive experience.” Once you go inside the netting, you can push, stroke, poke, and caress the mesh to change the character of the sounds coming out of the speakers, thanks to a technology Microsoft calls Kinect.
The Microsoft representative named Steve who was on the tour said, “As you move throughout the space and press on the mesh walls, it will activate and bring out various portions of each of the songs Kevin’s curated. It’s all about having fun. Some moments are going to work better for you than others. It’s about finding that musical nugget and what parts you like. Kinect is mapping all the surfaces of the exterior here. That’s what’s making this whole thing happen.” A member of Samaris likens the experience to remixing a song with a dance performance. “It’s tactile and kinetic,” she says. “It’s something we never thought we’d get to do, so it was an honor to try it.” Cole says that the artists who participated gave KEXP the stems of their compositions. “They were open to experimenting and collaborating and letting go of some of the control of their songs.” The results seem random, but they can be interesting. Journalists roam around touching the mesh as a gently burbling, spacey electronic track plays, with tones jutting out and smearing and flaring hither and yon.
Cole explains the reason for Inside the Music: “KEXP’s mission is to enrich lives by championing music and discovery. We’ve done it on air and online. Now this is a new platform for us and a new kind of future where we are hoping people will come to KEXP and have an experience they didn’t expect and leave discovering an artist they didn’t know or new music they didn’t know. We’re hoping people have an experience they haven’t had before. I think this is a great experiment with that. They’re physically remixing the music while being in it and interacting with it. I hope people have a richer, deeper, and different experience with music they may know. Part of it is wanting to try to defy expectations with the space.”
Next we’re led to La Marzocco where one of the company’s employees says, “We hope this becomes a central catalyst for people in Seattle understanding what’s happening in the independent coffee movement around the world—just like KEXP does for music.” If you want to learn how to make espresso, La Marzocco will hold classes on that subject.
From there it's to the DJ booth, which is housed within clam wood that had been soaking in the Puget Sound for 50 years. It's dark and handsome, with indentations where the clams dwelled. The booth is soundproof, so KEXP can hold concerts in the spacious gathering space right outside the booth with no bleedthrough in either direction. Visitors can look into the booth and watch the DJ in action, although four large computer screens make it difficult to see much. Another window allows for a clearer view into the enigmatic, mystical world of the radio DJ. "We wanted to have the booth visible to the gathering space but at the same time provide the flexibility for the DJs to have a level of comfort and safety, that creative space that is very sacred," Cole says. "It was an interesting process of thinking, how exposed do we want to be, how public do we want to be? We thought we should have curtains for DJs who want to have that kind of experience. But it feels really comfortable. Once you’re surrounded by all the gear, you don’t feel so exposed. We can see better out than people can see in. Hearing the music in the gathering space played out better than I could’ve imagined it. There’ll be times when we’re programming for the space, but the hope was people would just be hanging out, doing whatever, doing work, having meeting, having a cup of coffee, and discover music. I think that’s gonna happen."
The booth is equipped with a digital library, CD and cassette players, and two turntables and a mixer. KEXP keeps a real-time playlist going and provides links for listeners to further explore each artist. (One computer's devoted to social media platforms; KEXP is active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and plain old email.) The new booth's more spacious than the one in the old space on Dexter and Denny, and the mic swings all the way to turntables and there are separate monitors so DJs can do mix shows more comfortably. Larry Rose, who was on the air during the tour, said that the new setup has a better floor plan; things are closer and more convenient.
We moved on to the music library, where there are stored, Cole estimates, 40,000 CDs and about 15,000 albums. There's a digital ripping station so KEXP can realize its goal of digitizing its entire collection. (That will likely happen before Bertha finishes drilling.) "As a music-discovery resource," Cole says, "we want to be the greatest radio station there is. In order to do so, you need to have the greatest library. A digital library will be an incredible creative tool since our DJs are programming on the fly. A lot of times I don’t know what I’m gonna play next till there are 15 to 20 seconds left of the song I’m playing. I’m just trying to feel it and go with the flow. This will help DJs make quick programming decisions." Also making DJs' lives easier are the prep areas/isolation booths where staffers can preview music and prepare for their shows.
KEXP's DJs are free to play whatever they want, with a few programming parameters. One mandatory guideline: DJs have to play local music every hour. Cole relates how over the last couple of years KEXP has received about 10,000 albums a year. That doesn't even include digital-only releases. "We try to listen to them all. Our music director Don Yates has the greatest job; he sits there in his office and listens to music. We also have 45 DJs and they all are part of the review process, and volunteers help out as well. Don takes the first stab at filtering and prioritizing the music and the other DJs get involved in what’s left. Don writes reviews and suggests songs, but DJs can play whatever they want.
"If you look at the vinyl," Cole continues, "which goes back to the '80s, it’s a crazy reflection of college radio. There’ll be a review of the record on the cover and then a dialogue happens between the DJs. It’s fascinating. Part of what we want to do when we digitize the library is digitize all the physical assets around the library. So the user can have access to our library, see the reviews, see the album covers, see the dialogue that’s happened on these covers."
On to the live editing room. "It’s like a mini TV station," Cole says. "We’ve been doing a lot with video over the last decade. We started thinking about our listeners and anybody not listening to the terrestrial signal at 90.3 FM were listening on some kind of device with a screen. At some point there was going to be the expectation that they want to watch that in-studio session. We challenged ourselves to do our first live streaming video from the top of the Space Needle for Sub Pop’s 25th anniversary with Mudhoney. We hauled all that gear to the top of the Space Needle, hooked it up, and actually did live streaming video from there. That was the first experiment with that. It was in 2014. This room will allow us to do our normal video editing but will also allow for super high-quality live audio streaming. When a band’s playing live, there’ll be a producer at that station there. Whoever’s producing can talk to the camera operators and the producer can see all the camera angles. It’s going to enable us to produce higher-quality experiences and go into live video streaming seriously. To the left there are four editing suites or work stations. Two are for video and two for audio."
Another thing that sets KEXP apart is its live performance space where the broadcast in-studio sessions. This new wooden floored room with a grand piano is four times larger than the old one and was designed by Walter Storyk for audio and video. Over the last five years, KEXP has done over 500 sessions a year and are anticipating that kind of number in the new, improved home. "We’re going to be able to generate higher-quality sessions and more sessions. There’s a public viewing room of the live in-studio sessions that can fit 75 spectators. What made our sessions special was the intimacy of it all. To maintain the integrity of that vibe, we didn’t want the bands to be facing the audience. That changes everything. We can do that in the gathering space. We wanted people to get a glimpse of the inner workings of what a session is like. Four camera people, an interviewer, and photographer in this space. When we had Polyphonic Spree do a session in the old space, we had them playing out in the hallway" because they had so many members. KEXP's YouTube channel has over 400 million view and counting; that figure is likely to increase drastically with the new setup. "Artists realize that this is a way to break through to an [international] audience and they bring it," Cole says.
We head to the Green Room, which is going to make touring musicians very happy. Cole says KEXP had one guiding principle for the new home: "to create a home away from home for the artists. We’d show up at the old station at 9 in the morning and there’d be bands sleeping in the parking lot. The life of an independent musician is hard, so we wanted to provide a few basic amenities. The Green Room has space for the artists to work and take care of business on the road, decompress, take a shower. Also, we’re putting in a washer and a dryer.
"We feel like we’re ambassadors for Seattle," Cole says. "We want artists to have a great experience, go out and explore the city. If they do a session here, they can store their gear here and not worry about it. We’re gonna see how long it takes for local artists to just hang out and do their laundry here. It’s going to be interesting when the first artist puts up a sticker. Then it’s going to take on a life of its own." The wallpaper design features classic cassette reproductions for artists to write in the details of their recording sessions.
Finally, we move to the live viewing area, a chairless room in which 75 people can watch musicians play their live in-studio sessions and witness all the production activity that happens around them. In the old space, maybe five people could stick their heads in to watch, and it was closed to the public. "It adds a new programming element to KEXP," Cole says. "Attendance will be first come/first serve at first. Then we’re going to transition into some kind of online ticketing system where x percent of people will be able to reserve tickets for sessions and x percent of the tickets will be for folks" who just happen to be stopping by.
Overall, KEXP's new home is aesthetically impressive and a pleasure to inhabit. It's a huge undertaking that happened as a result of corporate underwriting, listener donations, and benefit shows. The station's goal to enhance people's listening experience through the discovery of new music seems genuine. You may quibble with its playlists, but you can't doubt KEXP's sincerity and (pledge) drive. More than any other station in the region, KEXP is engaging with its audience—local and global—on a seemingly unprecedented level. That sort of commitment doesn't come cheap, of course. But through a relentless determination and idealistic, clear vision, the station's become a powerful force for musical enlightenment and made itself a destination point for musicians worldwide. Now you can witness it happen up close and semi-personal, and get caffeinated in the process.