Will Eastman Speaks on How the Union BBQ was Born

Image via Union BBQ
Image via Union BBQ

On Saturday, June 14th, Washington, DC’s U Street Music Hall pairs its premier global reputation for curating dance music and for having one of the overall best venues anywhere in the world with Union Market‘s growing reputation as a gourmand’s paradise for the Union BBQ. Unlike so many other festivals this summer, the ethos of the event is more organically based in fostering music and community than most. Featuring a lineup headlined by Jamie xx, and featuring the likes of Kaytranada, moombahtonistas Nadastrom, Tittsworth, and DJ Sabo and more, there’s certainly less of a notion of builds and drops, and more of a feel more significantly defined by unique grooves and the moods the induce. I had the opportunity to speak with U Street Music Hall owner, DJ, producer and Union BBQ DJ Will Eastman about not just the festival, but U Hall, dance’s space in DC’s growing community and economy, and a bit about the state of dance as a community overall.

Where did the initial idea for the Union BBQ come from?
We’ve been throwing around the idea of doing a “U Hall” festival for a few years now. We had a couple of opportunities that we had passed on, and we wanted to wait for the right opportunity and location. How Union Market got involved was that last October, I played there with The Walkmen, and EDENS, the real estate developer (that owns Union Market) promoted it. As I stood there on the stage, I thought “this might be our festival place.” After that, I set up a meeting with them and said that we had been thinking of doing a U Hall festival. They invited me up to their offices, and said, “let’s do this.” They were familiar with U Hall, our values, our curatorial take, what we had been doing in the city, and they were very open to having us come up there. From there, we started putting it together.

Thoughts about the awareness of diversity in the EDM space and how the growth of mainstream awareness of the diversity within dance music culture played a role in the development of the Edens/U Hall partnership?
The BBQ is a very different music festival than a lot of what exists right now. We wanted to take our curatorial approach at U Hall out into the daylight and do a daytime thing. We had some opportunities to book very big name artists and we went for something that, if one follows dance music, one would not look at the Union BBQ lineup and say I see those artists on every other festival. It’s a unique take on [booking]. We took [U Street Music Hall's] vibe and put that out into the BBQ. The way that we added in the food, we wanted to add that component because it’s not food trucks, it’s people who [in a] block-by-block [radius near U Street Music Hall] are [U Street Music Hall's] friends in the food community. [We thought about] who are the people we work with, and came up with that list of people.

Your thoughts about U Street Music Hall growing as a pillar of the revitalizing DC community, and how events like these foster community development?
We couldn’t have done the BBQ without that atmosphere. Look at how we connected with EDENS, the landlord of the space. [Also], we’re working with ITI on the sound and lighting. They’re the company that installed the sound system at U Hall. They also do sound for Alvin Risk, who is our homey. It’s a very inter-connected thing. DC has a very nice community in that regard. I feel very privileged to be a part of that community.

Well, since we’re here, four years in, your thoughts about the evolution and development of U Street Music Hall as a venue, and its expansion (note: as the interview was taking place, a crew was setting up for a Banks concert later on in the evening)?
Well, three years ago [this concert] wouldn’t be happening. Our challenge with the space is to expand our programming, but to do so in a way that meets the rigorous standards we set when we opened the place. That’s a challenge. The other challenge is that we are no longer the new kids on the block. We’re not the newest, most novel thing. We’ve been around, people know about us. But yet, we are a far cry from being an institution, like (legendary DC venues) the Black Cat or the 9:30 Club. Really, our course is one where we think about how we fit into the music scene here in DC, but also nationally and internationally. We’re also aware our role as dance music curators and being a stop on the tour scene as well as being DJs ourselves. We’re also in touch with the blogs, be it Dancing Astronaut, Do Androids Dance, Resident Advisor, so we feel like we’re a part of a much broader community.

We’re figuring out how do we support that by bringing in people from other cities, as well as the live music partnership with 9:30 Club. We also want to expand the types of events we do, like the Union BBQ, as well as the shows we’re doing with Flume, Bonobo, and A-Trak at the 9:30 Club later this year. Also, we’re an incubator for new talent in DC. We have the Backbar space at 9:30 Club. It’s a 50 capacity room that we use as an incubator for new DJs. We’re always looking for who we should get in new, and who we should have doing support slots. Most people, if they could be a fly on the wall in our weekly booking and promotions meeting would be surprised at how much time we spend discussing who we want to have open shows. We spend a lot of time on the headliners, too. But people would be surprised at the amount of time and care goes into the attention to detail about who’s playing a slot first of three. Most people who come for the headliner may not see that person, but it matters to us. That’s the person who’s going to be headlining in two years, and that person is our colleague, our peer, our friend and a part of the community.

There’s a “Moombahton Massive” stage at the Union BBQ. Thoughts about moombahton, the sound’s close tie with U Street Music Hall, and the evolution of Nadastrom and moombahton as a sound and movement?
We feel very honored to be the home of the Moombahton Massive party. We’ve been friends with Dave and Matt for a very long time. They’ve been always pushing boundaries and striving for excellence. [Their sound] is always surprising me and always excellent. Their new EP, Fallen Down, is just a beautiful EP. I’m going to put [the lead single] in my next “4 AM Eternal” mix. I love moombahton, but I don’t play a lot of moombahton [as it's] not my personal vibe. But I love this single, and was blown away by it.

In terms of Moombahton Massive, it was a no brainer that it was going to be a part of the festival. The idea for it to have its own stage was there from the beginning. We were enthusiastic and happy to do that. U Hall cannot take any credit over curating that stage. We handed that over to Dave, Matt and Sabo, and they put together that lineup, as they do for all of the Moombahton Massives. We just have a great, positive relationship with those guys, and it’s been a real gratifying experience to see their sound grow, expand, become more mature and reach a global audience. It’s a pleasure to have them here at the club, and now as a part of larger events.

Thoughts about the headliner Jamie xx; how did you go about choosing a headliner for the Union BBQ? How did that process take place?
Choosing a headliner took us a long time! We had a lot of internal debate. There was a lot of back and forth. In many ways, U Hall is a very flat organization. Everybody has a say who works here. We had a lot of different voices, a lot of input, and we spent a lot of time going back and forth and airing our ideas of who should be on the lineup. We ultimately decided on Jamie and I’m glad we did. He’s someone who is unique, can’t be put into a nutshell sound-wise, has, at a young age, a tremendous amount of experience – with the xx and his own production – and by all measures is a very fantastic DJ. He’s someone who, though we have different musical perspectives at U Hall, strikes a chord with all of us in the U Hall family, across genres. People who rage to bass music love him, people who listen to techno love him, people who listen to indie dance love him – we’re fortunate to have him and  looking forward to his set.

What’s one reason why someone should come to the Union BBQ?
To have a great outdoor music and food experience that will have a great vibe to it. It will showcase the different music that we champion here at U Hall, it will have great sound, the space is really cool, the food is going to be great and we’re looking forward to having a good communal experience to give back to the community of DC.We’re privileged to be in the heart of U Street’s music district, and we’re looking forward to throwing open the doors and doing something in the daylight.

For more ticket information visit The Union BBQ’s website.