Interview: Tim Sweeney (Beats in Space)
Tim Sweeney is the longstanding host and founder of the Beats in Space radio show. The show has broadcast on 89.1 FM on WNYU, a college radio frequency from 10:30 PM - 1 AM every Tuesday night. Every single week without fail, since 1999, never making a penny. Since then the show has grown to be one of the most important radio programmes in underground dance music, attracting an endless list of requests from some of the most seminal producers for an opportunity to play on the show and to collect the prized relic of having their Polaroid snapped and displayed in the WNYU studio. All the while Tim Sweeney has become one of the cultures most admired figures and garnered a reputation as the industry's biggest sweetheart. On top of his commitment to the Beats in Space (BiS) programme Tim Sweeney actively tours as a DJ to keep the show alive on free college radio, has founded the Beats in Space record label and pressed productions to wax with Phillip Lauer under the 'T&P' moniker, their remix of Smokey's 'Piss Slave' the most recent work together:
BiS is approaching 20 years in age now, how much has radio changed for you since then?
Yeah, radio is definitely something that has changed a lot. When I first started getting into it, it was still dying out, but it was definitely still a bigger thing than it is now. I remember being in high school and being excited to get mixtapes from radio shows in Europe, dance music shows in Europe and being like what is this music?
That translated into when I started my radio show, it was at the very beginning of this new internet radio thing so I would post my shows online to try and get some more listeners. Now online listenership is probably bigger than FM radio listenership and there’s so many online radio platforms and so many different ways to find new music.
Have you ever been tempted to move to a purely online radio platform?
Yeah… I mean, I have thought about it and it might still happen. But for me, I still like the radio, the FM radio thing. Even though it's a weird thing to kinda talk about, because its more an idea. Like being on the radio in New York, there’s so much history in that and being one of the only shows in New York playing the type of music I play - there’s something really special about that. It’s different to just playing online. You know you have listeners who tune in, in their car, there’s truck drivers, there’s a really wide catchment of people and you get random people calling in, who wouldn’t call in on just online radio shows. People calling in is interesting, it’s not that you don’t get interesting people in the chatrooms for online radio, but it isn't that same group, its less personal somehow; when you hear someone’s voice its so much more meaningful than someone typing, and I really like that. But, I would like the freedom to move around more, if I wasn’t stuck to terrestrial radio but for me its something that I’d like to keep being able to do.
Where did your passion for electronic dance music come from?
I have an older brother and he did a study abroad and he brought back these mixtapes, you know, pirate radio tapes and I was like “oh what is this? This is amazing!” And then this is when I was like oh wait, my brother is cool, before that I didn’t always see it. This was something cool, it was something different. It was a lot of the early Warp Records, early Aphex Twin and everything clicked, I needed to find out more about this. Back then it was a whole different searching thing because you didn’t have all the online stuff. It was so exciting, it was just a different world. I would have to call up record stores in New York and they would play me things over the phone and that’s how you’d buy records. No little clips, they’d physically play it into the phone. Crazy, I’d completely forgotten. I still talk to I guy I used to call up, Jason, from Satellite Records in New York. I used to call him up every week, because I was in Baltimore at the time. He knew what I liked, but he was also shaping my taste too. He was a good person because he wanted me to know about a lot of different stuff.
Radio is in an interesting place at the moment, where do you think it’s headed?
I can definitely see that people are really into this live streaming thing, Boiler Room and that. But for me… I don’t quite get it. I don’t really find watching DJ’s to be so interesting. I like the freedom of radio, without having the visuals because people don’t know whats going on, they have to imagine it and I think there’s something special about that. I love it when people visualise the studio in New York and when they get there they go, “Oh, I thought it was gonna be a lot bigger”. But with online radio, it’s definitely getting a lot bigger, quickly. Things like NTS or Lot Radio in NY where they’ve developed this community kind of feeling that a lot of community radio stations used to have. There’s always going to be a place for community radio though. Like here in Melbourne, Triple R. I love Triple R, if I were here in Melbourne I’d definitely do a show on Triple R.
So aside from BiS, what are some radio shows you personally listen to?
I’ve listened to Andrew Weatherall’s show on NTS, Trevor Jackson, he’s on NTS as well. On the Lot Radio I’ve checked out Juan MacClean’s show a few times. A lot on DubLab down in LA. You know, they’ve been doing great shows for so long, I think they’ve been around for the same amount of time as me and consistently been putting down great shows. Solid Steel in London from the Coldcut guys, I want to go back to the mix they did, where they did like 76 minutes on ‘The Wheels of Steel’, I need to go back and listen to that. But that show has always been a source of inspiration and Gilles Peterson, what he’s been doing on BBC has always been great. But now also I just listen to a lot of Soundcloud too. For people who I have on the show I’ll often just go and listen to some of their other mixes and you always have people pointing out stuff for you or sending you recommendations, so there’s a lot of that too.
Is it kinda tiring with the show being so busy listening to so much electronic music?
The show, no. But listening to so much promo stuff… yeah, that gets really tiring. Because you want to listen to it all, but so much if it is… you know, not great. But you find ways to make sure you don’t get burnt out. That’s why I do work with Revenge, the record label, because they’re putting out more ambient stuff so thats fun. But also just digging back through my whole record collection at home depending on my mood is great, I love pulling out music from Greece, or Turkey and coming back to old prog rock albums and new wave stuff. I find that if I’m getting tired of dance music, its because I’ve been playing clubs too much. Club music can get tiring sometimes, but the radio show I’ve always found to be a bit of a counter to that. It’s not always banging music and people come on and they’re always looking to do their best so its so it always stays interesting.
But playing clubs and playing radio are two sides of the same coin almost, I love playing to a crowd, and if its a good night and its a good party there’s nothing quite like it and at the same time if I didn’t like how the radio show went I’ll get pretty emotional and I’ll be angry the next day.
With the show being so booked, do you miss playing on BiS yourself?
Well, this year has been a bit of an experiment you know, this year I only played the very first show in January, I haven’t played since then. So I’m trying to see what happens if I’m not on it so much, to see how it affects me, how I feel doing the radio show and also to see how it affects how I’m perceived from a booking perspective, I don’t have the answer to either of those questions yet but it’s been interesting. When I set up the show I tried to do it as the guest and me where the guest would do the first show and I’d do the second but now I have so many guests requesting I haven’t been able to do the second half, maybe next year I’ll be better at saying no more. But it’s so hard to say no because I wanna see these people and I feel a little bit spoilt. I don’t want to go out to the club every weekend and I’m lucky enough to have them come to me and play on the radio show and get to meet them. Sure it feels a bit weird not having played any mixes but it goes both ways, I used to get worried that if I was playing the radio all the time people wouldn’t want to book me, because they’d already know a lot of what I was going to play and no one would be excited. It was a nasty catch, trying to think about if I want to play this really great song on the radio or save it and try and make a special moment with it in the club. For me, I just want to play everything on the radio, but, I also need to get booked for parties to be able to keep the radio show going.
What are some things that never really leave your bag when you’re on tour?
I’ll almost always have something from Carl Craig, he’s such a master. I always like to have, even though I don’t ever end up playing it, but love having something from the Basic Channel guys. Disco wise there’s usually something from Sylvester. I think its good to learn to limit yourself, it’s nice when you’re playing an all vinyl set and you look at your bag and you go right, that's what I have, let's make something work. On USB’s you can keep so much on there, but if you have too much you’ll just end up getting lost.
You’ve been to a few stores around the world by now, what are some of your favourites?
Well A1 Records in New York is still my favourite, always will be I think. That’s where I’ll go every week if I’m in New York before the radio show, I’ve just got so many things and learnt so much from there. Around the ,world Hardwax in Berlin is always funthere are because it seems like such an institution. Light House records in Tokyo is a fun one. Phonica of course! I’ll always visit there when I’m in London, Rubbadub in Glasgow. Snickers Records when I’m in Stockholm, he’s been on the radio show a couple times and he always has the most amazing selection there. Each city has their spot which is nice.
On cities, a lot of cities have a definable sound, Detroit and Chicago for example. What do you think of when you think of the sounds coming from Melbourne?
Yeah… I would say Melbourne kinda reminds me of a Glasgow. Glasgow has Optimo, and Optimo kinda plays everything and the crowd goes for it all. In Melbourne it feels the same and it's nice. Like when you go to Berlin or Germany you know, you feel like you have to play harder. It’s good coming to Melbourne because you feel like people are open to hearing everything and its a lot of fun. I do attribute that to resident DJ’s for being eclectic, it’s great.
It’s a cheesy one, but dead or alive who would you have on the show?
Larry Levan is a big one. It’d be just amazing to have him on, to see what he’d play, to talk to him. He’s just such an inspiration and Paradise Garage is such an inspiration. David Mancuso is another one who I tried so hard to get on the show before he passed away. I tried so hard, all the time, but I just couldn’t do it, he just wasn’t into self-promotion, it was really hard. He would have been great, I know he was super opinionated and it would have been really interesting for the radio, but it just never happened. There’s a lot of the Detroit guys that I’d love to have on the show who I haven’t been able to get just yet. Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Jeff Mills, Derrick May, I would love to get all of them on the show at some point. I’ve been trying, but it hasn’t happened yet. There's so many people I’d love to have on, I feel like Moodymann will happen one day soon haha.
So like DJ Kicks… but DJ Flicks. What are some movies or TV shows which have left a big mark on your life?
Ooooh, that's a good one. Well, there’s ‘Talk Radio’, it's from the early 80’s about a radio show host in Texas and he gets killed by a listener, that was a big one for me haha. There’s ‘Play Misty for Me’ which is an early Clint Eastwood movie and it's about him as a radio host and he gets harassed by a listener - that’s another big one for me haha.
Yeah… who was that guy who always used to call in on Beats in Space? Whatever happened to him?
Haha yeah… Victor from Washington Heights. He’ll be in my movie. He hasn’t called for months actually. I get slightly worried about him, we gave him a shout out a little while back. Usually if I said his name the phone would blow up and he didn’t call up, so I’m actually a little bit worried about him, he’s an older guy. But I’ve never met him in person so I have no way of knowing up with him, I mean… sure he could just not be listening to the radio show anymore but I kinda doubt it, he was just a big part of it.
Have you got any plans for the big 20th anniversary when it swings around?
Yeah... I’ve been thinking about it. A lot. I’ll definitely do a 20th-anniversary tour. I’d like to do a big party somewhere, like you know, a festival somewhere, like try to run a festival. I don’t know if it’ll be able to happen, but I’ll try for sure. I’m still coming together with the final ideas for that.
What’s the best postcard you’ve ever got?
It’s a good one, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me about the postcards before. I got one from Pakistan which was pretty crazy, I mean to get one from there? Lately, it’s been a lot of people from Canada. They’re just funny to see, I like to see what people send in, like the photos on the actual postcards. It’s just another thing that makes it different to an online platform, to see someone to send in an actual postcard, they’ve gotta be really into their show and you know they’ve put some thought into it. I’m always really excited to get something physical, to get postcards is really special. That’s why I do the Polaroids too, because its something that lasts.
There are some classic songs that if you can find the right place and time slotting in its a whole lotta fun. What are some of your favourite songs of this ilk?
Haha well, one person's cheese is another person's fine wine. But definitely, with those big bands like The Police, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones you can always find something cool from it to drop, you do it at the right time and its just so fun. Because people recognise it, but they hear it in a different way. You’re playing all this underground stuff and then you play something classic but it still relates then you kinda create an ‘aha’ moment. I like to listen to all kinds of music and I like ‘underground music’ the most, you always want to find those songs that no one knows about. But when you go to deep into that rabbit hole there are all these other tracks you’re missing out on that are amazing too. I think that people who dig so far underground can miss out on a bit. It’s fun just to fuck around with people and to play those things.