Interview | Looking back on Bliss with Will Eastman

19 years ago this month, our founder, Will Eastman, unknowingly set the stage for a D.C. party series that would eventually launch his own career as a DJ/producer, spawn multiple offshoot events and lead to the creation of Blisspop as we know it.

For 15 years, the Bliss party series gave D.C. a monthly reason to dance. In 2000, when Bliss began, Eastman had just started to dip his toes into the world of DJing and dance music. By the end, he’d be an established DJ and producer (capping off the party series with an insane six-hour set) and the owner of a successful D.C. music venue. What happened between 2000 and 2015?

 

Flier for the second Bliss party at Metro Café which was on 14th Street and Church in NW DC, October 2000.

The creation of Bliss

“[Bliss was] a monthly party series that began in September 2000, at a now-defunct club in D.C. called the Metro Café. It was an outgrowth of an event series that I presented that paired bands and DJs,” Eastman explains. “The basic idea was to put together like-minded, forward-thinking bands and DJs in a well-curated series. I was a promoter; I wasn’t a DJ at that time…[but] I presented a party where one of my friends, a DJ, couldn’t make it. I filled in for him and immediately fell in love with DJing. That was 1998, and I never looked back—I started DJing more and more, and fell in love with dance music, and now I’ve been a DJ for 20 years.”

Bliss quickly outgrew its home, going from just 40 people at the first event to bringing in crowds by the hundreds, with lines stretching around the block filled with people eager to join the party. The event moved to the Black Cat Backstage and U Street Music Hall (which Eastman co-founded and owns) to accommodate the growing success.

Bliss at the Black Cat Backstage, 2006.

Bliss flier May 2006. Design by Holly Tegeler.

So why Bliss? The monthly party series grew to be hugely successful in the D.C. scene, but that clearly wasn’t a given from the get-go—why did D.C. need this event?

Will Eastman DJing Bliss at the Black Cat Backstage, 2003.

“I wanted to start my own party that focused on something that wasn’t being served in the market in D.C. — a no attitude, no bullshit, just a fun vibes-focused event, with no bottle service, no dress code, no high cover charge or expensive drinks …[something that] was just focused on the best new upcoming dance music.”

After conceptualizing the event, Eastman still needed a name.

“I love music and I wanted it to be the perfect name — I sort of thought about it a lot, ran different names by friends, [but] the only thing I could think of that truly captured my relationship with music was ‘Bliss.’”

And so began the Bliss party series, an event that would go on for over a decade, bringing with it massive crowds, high profile attendees and a space for up-and-coming DJs to hone their craft — often with a sold-out audience.

Who was this for?

How exactly did Eastman manage to keep this party series going for fifteen years? Attendees who were in college at the launch would have been nearly middle-aged by the conclusion of Bliss — how do you hold your audience’s interest and market something that ends up lasting so long?

Eastman took a simple approach to this problem. He just wanted to reach like-minded music lovers, like sharing music with friends.

“When I first started doing it, it was tailored toward people who liked indie music, anything from synth-pop/indie rock to indie disco. I grew up playing in bands in high school and college and grad school in D.C., and I was really into the indie pop and indie rock scene … around the same time that I started DJing, I really got exposed to electronic music — rave music, dance music, house music. I started dipping my toes into it and it was just like this huge ocean to explore.”

Like any true music lover, Eastman always had an ear to the ground for new, quality music.

“I remember very vividly being in London for work [while working at the Smithsonian as a historian]. I was fortunate to be able to travel a lot between the years of 1998 and 2002 to Munich, Berlin and London … [and] I have always been kind of an obsessive record collector since I was a little kid, so I’d go to the record shops in London. I remember one day on a trip in ’98 deciding, ‘Well, I’m going to check out one of these dance music shops.’”

“I was kind of blown away because all the records were white-labeled; they didn’t have any artwork and I didn’t even know where to start. They were very specifically organized. I’m in this record shop I’d never been in, and I remember vividly — this kid came in and asked the clerk, ‘Do you have the new Ed Rush & Optical twelve-inch?’ And the clerk was like, ‘No mate, that’s at the drum and bass shop across the street.’ That was the first time I realized, ‘Holy shit, there are different shops for different genres of dance music — this is amazing and beautiful, but also this [makes me realize that] this interest in dance music is going take a lot longer than I thought,’ he laughs. “Like, this is a whole new world to explore.”

“That was 1998 … now, we’ve been fortunate enough to host Ed Rush & Optical at U Street Music Hall many times, in fact Matt Optical married one of our bartenders, Theresa Smith, and I’ve had a great time telling them that story — it was like my entry into dance music.”

Bliss’ target audience changed just as Eastman’s tastes did. His growing knowledge of dance music (along with the advent of the Internet, Napster, mp3 blogs, and so on) allowed for an even wider array of music to be added to the Bliss playlist.

“I was just sort of at the right place at the right time,” he notes. “Between the years of 2000 and 2015 (when I ended the party), it was kind of like a place where you could go and hear the newest cool stuff.”

“My motto with the Bliss party for fifteen years was, ‘I go through all the shit music so you don’t have to.’ “I was obsessive— I still am — about music, listening to anything and everything I could get my hands on … promos, things that people would send to me … I meticulously screened it and pulled out the gems. People pretty quickly realized that and would send me stuff in hopes of getting on the Blisspop play list, because it was sort of a hipster tip sheet for new stuff. The party became that, and the website became that … and now, over time, I’ve traded in my obsessive meticulousness related to music focused on the monthly Bliss event and turned that into something broader, with U Street Music Hall and the Blisspop blog, my own DJ career, and other parties. It’s been a beautiful thing.”

Eastman on the decks at a Blisspop pop-up event at the 9:30 Club, 2007. He would leave his day job this year to DJ and produce music full time.

#TBT

Understandably, it’s hard to pick favorite memories from an event that lasted as long as the Bliss series did. Bliss brought in some amazing acts (think Moby, MSTRKRFT, and Miami Horror among many others), but one specific time that sticks out in Eastman’s mind didn’t actually involve a DJ, famous or otherwise. It was an audience member who really encapsulated the Bliss experience.

Bliss often had guest DJs, from the obscure to the celebrated. Ian Svenonius guest DJing Bliss in 2004.

Eastman with guest performer Annie in 2005.

Moby wearing a Bliss t-shirt at Shepard Fairey’s January 2009 Obama inauguration party in DC.

“We were at the Black Cat Backstage for eight years, so a lot of times, bands would be upstairs headlining the Main Room and they would come in before or after a set. John Darnielle, the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, was playing upstairs, and he’s kind of a solo acoustic songwriter …”

AKA, not who you’d expect to find in the middle of the dance floor at a crowded DJ night.

“After his set, he just came down and danced his heart out for like two hours at Bliss, and then at the end of the night, he gave me a big hug and was like, ‘Thank you so much! I haven’t had that much fun in such a long time,’ and then he just bounced,” Eastman laughs. “I didn’t even get to take a photo! But you know, it’s little things like that, that’s what it was about — making people happy and sharing the beauty of music with others.”

Poster for the first Bliss event held at the then newly-opened U Street Music Hall, March 2010. Design by Brian Miller.

U Street Music Hall second anniversary flier. Bliss featured a live performance by Volta Bureau. Design by Brian Miller.

February 2013 poster for Bliss featuring a guest DJ set by Green Velvet. Design by Brian Miller.

What about Blisspop?

The Bliss party series also launched our very own Blisspop website, which grew out of Eastman’s desire to share playlists with the attendees of Bliss.

“This was way back in the days of 2000, when you could do things without having a website or social media presence, and shortly after we started [the party], a friend of mine approached me about having a website. It was very rudimentary, and of course the domain ‘Bliss.com’ was taken … the name Blisspop just popped into my head, and that became the website domain in 2000.”

Eastman eventually realized that the site could do more than just promote the party series.

“Fast forward to the year 2003 — I had started reading this blog out of Chicago called ‘Fluxblog’ (one of the first mp3 blogs), and I had this idea: ‘Well, he posts mp3s of songs that he likes to share with people, and I like to share music from my parties, so maybe I could post some new music [and] people would get the chance to get turned on to it before my parties.’”

This led to Eastman posting a monthly “hit parade” the week before each party, helping attendees get excited about the new music he was listening to (and know what they were getting into with Bliss).

“This was in the era before even big music publications like Spin and Rolling Stone [had large web presences.] Their web presence was kind of anemic at the time … it was all kind of the Wild West. You could actually post somebody else’s music online and not get a cease-and-desist letter, right? It was just for fun.”

Thus, Blisspop was born out of Bliss (and look at us now!).

The future of Bliss

After an insanely successful run, the Bliss party series concluded in 2015. There’s no question that Eastman’s career as a DJ/producer/venue owner is thriving, but is the thought of bringing Bliss back tempting? In a way.

“When I ended it in 2015, my idea was that I would just do an annual reunion show … but you know, time moved forward and I just got focused on other things and it just slipped through the cracks. Instead, I decided to host a festival called Blisspop Disco Fest — so instead of doing reunions I’ve sort of focused on that up to this point. It would be cool to do a reunion at some point with a bunch of people who’ve played.”

Flier for the final Bliss featuring a 6-hour DJ set from Eastman, September 2015.

Final thoughts

By the end of our conversation, I was pretty sure I already had my answer, but I had to ask Eastman — was there anything you’d do differently if you could do it all over again?

“Not a fucking thing. Seriously, there were good parties and bad parties, we had ups and downs, whatever … but look. This party led to me talking to you right now. It’s the only reason anybody would even have any reason to know my name. It led to U Street Music Hall, it led to Blisspop, personally it led to my DJ and production career, which I’m very grateful for … it led to my life in D.C. I’ve been here for 24 years now and I’ve watched the city transform — it’s been beautiful to see it grow and to grow with it … If you were there, thanks for being there. I’m really thankful for the opportunity to have done this party, and I’m grateful for what it led to, namely Blisspop, and now our second annual Blisspop Disco Fest. I guess the thing that I want people to know is if you appreciate U Street Music Hall, or Blisspop Disco Fest, or the website, this was the little party that started it all. I’m grateful and humbled.”

We are just a week away from the second-annual Blisspop Disco Fest, a three-night celebration of the evolution, sounds, and vibe of disco. For a little taste of what you can expect next weekend, join us at U Street Music Hall this Friday for Disco All Night: A Blisspop Disco Fest preview party, featuring b2b sets from DC disco mavens Will Eastman, Ken Lazee, and Nick Garcia, who will be playing everything from disco to house to soul to R&B and sounds in between—all music that has been influenced in some way by disco. Purchase your tickets here.



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