Tim Sweeney Interview: The Broadway Of Broken Radio Dreams
Tim Sweeney spoke with Marko Kutlesa about the approaching 20th anniversary of Beats In Space, the allure of playing smaller gigs, his radio guest wish list and much more.
Date published: 9th May 2018
2019 is set to be a big year for Tim Sweeney. His weekly Beats In Space radio show will be celebrating its twentieth birthday. It's a remarkable milestone, particularly when you consider it's a college radio show, an unpaid position, a labour of love.
Via Sweeney's dedication and selections, it has turned into one of the greatest underground dance music shows around. Emerging from an era when the flow of information and music was not nearly as easily facilitated as it is today by the internet, Beats In Space became a distinct voice in broadcasting and has justly reaped the rewards.
The show has featured guests and mixes from many of the best underground DJs on the planet, spawned a brilliant, decade old record label of the same name and turned its host and (former DFA records intern) Tim Sweeney into a much celebrated internationally touring DJ.
Prior to Tim coming to the UK to play a rare intimate show for Cherry Mango in Liverpool venue The Reeds, Marko Kulesa quizzed the radio titan about various aspects of his DJing and show.
Beats In Space is college radio, an unpaid position, yet it's what your perhaps best known for. Twenty years is a career length commitment. Was there ever a point where you gave consideration to how you would ever be able to monetise this great commitment?
Every day, ha! I would love to be able to live off the radio instead of having to tour all the time. It would make my life a lot easier. But, if I worked for a private radio station I would inevitably have to give some things up, whether it be commercials or being judged by audience numbers, and that would change the show.
I might be directed to only have big name guests on the show, who attract large numbers of listeners. Right now I don't have any worry of how many listeners there are, I can have a guest who no one knows and, if nobody listens, it doesn't matter as long as I'm happy. It's nice to have that kind of freedom.
In New York there's no other way to do the show I'm doing. I've looked at different radio stations around the world but nobody seems to be interested.
The radio show is so popular these days that you might have guests scheduled for anything up to six months in advance. Does that still leave you with the flexibility to respond to what can sometimes be very fast moving changes within the electronic music scene?
Yeah, that's a good point. It's kind of crazy how the show's gone because originally it was just me DJing. There would be a guest every month or so. I tried to make it so it was a guest one week, then me the next, but this past year I haven't actually played on it except at the beginning of the show. We're booked up until September.
It's great having it lined up so far but, yeah, I sometimes don't know about some people coming to town until it's already booked up. I book people who I'm excited by and if someone gets in touch to say they'd like to come on, but we're already full, at least I've started a conversation with them for the next time. I'm not so worried about missing out.
Playing on the radio can sometimes be a relatively low key affair. What was it like for you to be thrust out onto the stages of large events after Beats In Space started to get very popular? I know you've done small clubs and bar gigs before as a DJ, but I mean the kind of stages at festivals that maybe someone like Earth, Wind and Fire could fill.
Ha! I definitely feel more comfortable doing radio, not being seen, to being out on stage. I get nervous. It's not like I'm dancing around on stage. It's especially difficult in the festival scenario if everyone is looking at you. The point of a DJ set is to dance. But I've gotten used to it.
I do enjoy going to the club, having a party, making people dance. Although that again is very different from the radio, there's something about it which is really fun, it's something I enjoy.
Yeah, smaller club venues contrast again with large stage events. Would you say you have more of an affinity with playing in a smaller, more intimate club environment?
Yeah. It's nice at a smaller club, where you can see people and have a better interaction, you can see how the party is going. Sometimes at festivals I feel like you can't get too deep with what you're playing, you can't go too weird. You might have to keep this peak time thing happening in a short festival set.
At the club, if even have a small group of people in front of you who are into it, that can affect the whole of the club. You can focus on just a few people and on getting them into it and once they are, it kinda spreads. That's fun to do.
How did you hook up with Phillip Lauer to produce music under T&P, and do you have any more collaborative work planned?
Yeah, I'm actually headed to his studio in Frankfurt this weekend. I forget how we first met. I think he sent me music for the show and we started talking online. Then I went to play at Robert Johnson in Frankfurt and we played together. The friendship started there.
I asked him to do some music for the label and when I had some time off in Frankfurt he invited me to the studio to work on some music. Now, whenever I have free time when I'm in Europe, I try to take it in Frankfurt so that we can go in the studio.
Right now we're finishing a new EP that I want to put out on Beats In Space. We have a bunch of tracks finished, we're just trying to get the right ones that would fit together on a release. Hopefully that will be one of the 12”s coming later this year, if not then early next year.
You marked the tenth anniversary of the show with setting in motion the founding of the label. You celebrated your 15 anniversary with a double mix CD and Beats In Space night in London and Berlin. How will you celebrate your 20 anniversary next year?
That is a good question, ha! I don't know yet! It is a little bit scary, it's such a big one. I don't know exactly what I want to do for it, but I am already thinking about it. Definitely some parties, but I would like to do something more.
These days, live streamed DJ sets, which you can watch as well as listen to, are very popular. You've done quite a few of those yourself. Do such new mediums cause any amount of contemplation as you're operating within what's a quite traditional format?
Yeah, I think that's a good point. It's something that I've thought about. It seems people do like to watch as well as listen. I guess I have a hard time with it because I find it a bit boring to watch DJs. I don't want my show to have a camera in there.
There's something about having just pure radio, not seeing anything, that I really like. It's something special. As a listener, I think it gives your imagination greater freedom. It's more like reading a book than watching a movie.
What are the best and worst excuses made by someone for not turning up to do a scheduled show?
Ahahahaha. Good one. People are pretty good about showing up. It doesn't happen too often, although it did just happen this week. I don't like the excuses, so I'm going to call them all bad, ha! People have sometimes forgotten it's happening, because it's scheduled so far in advance. To be honest, there are no fun ones to tell you about, but it is a good question.
Which DJs have you asked to play, who have declined , but who you would still like to come on the show?
Lots of them. I've asked Omar S. Hopefully one day. I'm a really big fan of his productions. I've been trying with Theo Parrish forever. Moodymann, Jeff Mills, Derrick May. Basically, yeah, there are a bunch of Detroit guys who I would like to come on. Ron Trent, Masters At Work, it's a huge list. Mainly older, more established crew. It's harder with those guys because they don't need the exposure.
What music is currently exciting you? I realise you could probably reel off a huge list, so maybe some highlights?
I've been listening to this compilation called 'A Totally New Sound' on Smiling C. I've been super into it. Older music from Washington DC, from the 80s I think. The new 'Beautiful Thing' record by Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip. Tim Goldsworthy helped produce it. There's a new Anthony Naples record coming out, I'm not sure exactly when, but I've been playing that a bunch too.
Do you ever get so excited by music that you can't stop playing it at home and, if so, are you obscuring a genuine enthusiasm with your no repeat plays policy on the show?
Yes, I do really get into a record and play it over and over again. I don't actually mind playing a record again on the show. When I've done it in the past I think it's emphasized that I was really into that song. I just don't want to repeat myself too much because I want it to be different every week.
Beats In Space has also evolved into a music label. Why did you decide to do that, what are your specific roles within the label?
I was brainstorming with Tim Goldsworthy from DFA Records about what I should do to mark the show's tenth anniversary and he said that I should do a record label. I get people sending me all this new music and I should do something with it.
My role at the label is A&R, the music coming through, the artwork. Making sure something interesting is happening with it. It takes a lot of time. I work with RVNG Intl. on it and they help out with distribution, press and the business end.
Like the show, it's another labour of love. Record labels are not the easiest thing to do. People don't really like buying music. But I'm such a record person, a collector. The radio show is like an intangible thing, but to have a physical product, something you can hold, it means something.
What do you have forthcoming on the label?
We just put out an album by E Ruscha V. Later this month we have an album from Shy Layers called Midnight Marker. This past year has really been focussed on albums and we have a few more coming up, but later this year we'll be bringing our attention back to some 12” dance releases.
Predictable question to end, sorry. But whatever happened to the local guy who famously used to call the show several times weekly, usually to register his dissatisfaction - Victor from Washington Heights?
Hahaha. You know, I haven't heard from him so much in a while. I know he still listens to the show, but he hasn't been calling the hotline at all. The relationship changed. He was threatening for a long time, but then I interviewed him on air. I think when that happened he began to see me in a different light.
Yeah, ha ha. After that he got nicer with his messages. Then he kinda stopped leaving them altogether.
So, how do you know he still listens?
Well, he has called in. We have two numbers. I always give out the hotline number, which lets people call in and leave a recorded message, which is what he used to do. But we have another that comes through to the studio when we're live and he sometimes still calls that number. He did that recently to make a request.
So we have heard from him. I think if I mentioned him on air and asked him to call the hotline, I'm pretty sure he would. But it's not the same relationship any more. That's pretty sad, but at the same time I'm pretty happy not to be threatened with death every week. Ha!