An interview with Tim Sweeney

Tim Sweeney – radio host, DJ, and producer – is, amongst other things, notorious for his long-running FM radio show, Beats In Space. Tim started working on his show back in college just over two decades ago, since then becoming nothing short of legendary in the experimental dance music scene.

Tim has welcomed endless talent onto his show, from Seth Troxler to The Juan Maclean, with whom he shares a DFA connection, to name but a few. Tim very recently blessed us with his first solo production “8th & Broadway” on Public Release’s latest EP. It won’t fall on deaf ears – mellow melody set against jarringly vibrant beats, this addictive sound is guaranteed to incite much nostalgia for those sticky dance floors.

His music has taken him far and wide from gigging in local NYC haunts all the way to a remote festival on an utopic untouched island in the north of Brazil. Tim is busy, successful and humble – we spoke about his love of all things music and radio, the new age of Covid and his trying time with a guy called Victor who remains to this day the all time greatest fan and worst enemy of Beats in Space.

Hi Tim, thanks for agreeing to this old school call, I don’t know about you but I find it less awkward than zoom.

Yeah, no, I too am old school and prefer this. I’ve been wanting to record some more video chats with people but it’s so difficult to get right with absolutely no connectivity jars. I’ve upgraded to the best kind of box and internet but the  other night in the middle of broadcasting a live radio show the internet just cut out.

Yeah, live streaming raises the stakes. Bet it’s nice to pre-record to make sure nothing goes too haywire.

I have a show on SoundCloud already recorded and play it through the software TeamViewer that connects to the board. So it’s technically not live. Things can always go haywire.

Part of the beauty of it?

Yeah it’s way more fun that way. But owing to the current situation many artists who weren’t coming through NYU have been able to do mixes and come on to the show even though they aren’t local.

One of few perks! So you decided to become a radio host when you were just a boy living in Maryland – did anything in particular spark this love for music and radio?

The fascination with radio started in high school. I don’t think it was the only thing I could ever see myself doing but it was definitely something I’d always been into. When I got to New York to study music at NYU I began working on the  radio show right away and I loved it – playing chosen tunes, listening to callers from all over New York, being in the studio.

I wanted to be a part of the club scene at the time. I was making mixed tapes and CDs and trying to get gigs at anywhere that would have me. I had a few connections from visiting record stores I liked and doing the bar rounds.

Beats in Space, first aired on WNYU in the Fall of 1999 while you were still a freshman at NYU. Uni life,  studying for a degree and managing your own radio show… how did you manage to keep your head above the  water in that first year?

During those early years, well, you know what it’s like when you are starting out at uni you want get on with what you really want to do but have to get through classes. I guess turning that radio show into something was the main thing I was really focused on. NYU has two radio stations – the WNYU 89.1 FM that broadcast 4pm to 1am Monday to Fridays, and 800 AM that I was on and broadcast at all other times that the FM wasn’t on air and only to dormitories.

Everyone wanted to be on FM because that’s where you’d be heard, but a minimal amount of people ever got on. My aim was to get more listeners so I prioritised the online side of things, posting as much as possible through various media. I thought to myself ‘I want to be on FM but what can I do in the meantime to get more listeners and more guests on my show?!’. Actually lots of the guests I invited at the start imagined they were coming on FM radio – they didn’t realise they weren’t actually being heard by the outside world.

So you start with one well known guest, then another and things start to develop organically?

Exactly. Then the names begin to add up and snowball – that’s how it blew up for me. Many up-and-coming artists wanted the opportunities to premiere their stuff on my show for the first time. I met loads of the future guests when I  was out DJing at bars and parties – as you’ll know as a fresher you have a crazy amount of energy to dispense and  you want to be going to all the parties. Especially in New York.

A city that lives at night.

Yeah because I was DJing at Plant Bar from 5-10pm before the party actually started and every big DJ arrived to play their own gigs and after party sets. I wasn’t yet 21 but thanks to this connection got to watch loads of people I  wouldn’t normally have gotten to see.  

Bet your age was one of the more minor obstacles along the way. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve discovered about maintaining your own show?

Yeah it’s tough being on a college radio station that has been going on for 21 years. The radio show is older than most of the students! And things change according to who the program director is. Earlier this year they actually decided to cut the show altogether. It was quite a shock. And tough. But it made me realise you can’t be so reliant on the one gig. I thought I had everything sorted but it was a great reminder that anything can happen and you have to be prepared for change. Thankfully there was such an outpouring of support from listeners that they ended up changing their minds. It’s been an eye opening year! This happened in January and by March everyone was online. It’s definitely been a weird one.

It sure has. Speaking of some of the many incredible guests who’ve come on your show, anyone you were particularly star struck by?

Yeah, Andy Weatherall – I’d always been a huge fan. I remember being in the studio with a few guys I was working  with at the time who happened to know Weatherall and spoke of him so highly that by the time I finally had him on  the show I was definitely star struck.

Does that change the way that you are around people? Do you think it makes you different?

Yeah, I am quite awkward. I was definitely more quiet than usual and had lots of questions that remained unanswered because I never asked them, spending too much time worrying about saying the wrong thing instead. You have to test the waters with certain people and tread carefully. Andy was so nice though.

I heard that you once just walked right up to Steve Stein (Also known as Steinski from infamous duo Double Dee & Steinski) and asked him to be on your show. Are you always so fearless in chasing what you want?

I think people worry about rejection, it’s often at the back of your mind. For me personally it’s really about trying for whoever I want for the radio show and if they don’t want to do it then that’s fine – if they say no it’s probably just a question of bad timing and I’ll get them in at another point. I was a huge fan of Steve’s and I’d gone to see play and just went up to him. I stood in line to get one of the free tickets for a show he was playing and when I was there I thought, ‘Well, here I am with the chance to go up to him and outright ask him’ and so that’s exactly what I did – with that experience I ended up interning for him at the studio and he opened me up to another world in New York. So that was huge.

I also think when you take people by surprise with your enthusiasm and passion, they respond well to your  weird queries – you just have to put it out there and see what happens. The weirder the better as it can throw them off their comfort zone.  

I imagine too that throwing your guests out of their comfort zone enables a certain amount of freedom – something that goes hand in hand with performing memorable live sets?

Yeah, I guess I want people to come on and be free whatever that means to them. I’ve had all kinds of different  guests and they all know that they have the freedom to go anywhere they want – they can come on and bang out the  biggest club set tunes if they want I don’t have any problem with that. Or if they choose to dig deeper and go someplace else with their sound, then the show is definitely their chance to do it. Others on the show have done just  that and rest assured they won’t have anyone yelling at them or telling them to do something else with their set. I have so many different types of guests on my show and that’s what prevents me from getting bored and keep it fun  and interesting. I listen to all kinds of music at home and I want that represented on the radio. Otherwise the show gets old and people stop being surprised by the kind of stuff they hear from week to week.

I loved your solo production, “8th & Broadway”. How did it come about? Tell us all.

The solo work came out of studio sessions I had with Frankfurt based producer Phillip Lauer who I’ve been making music with for a few years now. I then took it from Germany back to New York and worked on it until it became something of mine. I have a bunch of productions at home and Eugene Whang was asking if I had anything for his label. I’ve been working with him a long time for Public Release so I sent him a bunch of stuff and this was the one he liked. I was happy to have one track there, to be part of this compilation with other artists and ease into things with the solo productions.

It must feel different to place yourself in the spotlight after putting forward so many other artists on your own show over recent years.

I’ve been sitting on a lot of stuff for a lot of years. I feel better about promoting other people’s music than my own!

I really enjoyed your Boiler Room Sugar Mountain festival set too. You’ve travelled far and wide to some  incredible spots – where are some of the coolest place DJing has taken you?

So many cool places. One of the most amazing was a festival on this island in the North of Brazil with no cars. You had to fly a plane to jump on another plane then a boat then a donkey… that was a pretty amazing experience I probably wouldn’t have lived if it wasn’t for DJing.

I definitely enjoy seeing new places, meeting people and experiencing different cultures and music. When I went to  Indonesia, Jakarta, I met this young crew who were hard-core fans of the Beats In Space so that was an unusual and incredibly cool reference point. And hearing the different sounds they listen to and see first-hand how it all evolved  from there for them musically speaking.

Amazing that you have fans all the way out in Indonesia. Speaking of, I am told that you once had a fan closer to home who often called to tell you how much he loved the show and sometimes how much he hated it  and threatened to kill you. This sounds terrifying. Can you elaborate?  

Victor from Washington Heights! I still have the messages saved, there’s about a thousand voicemails from him about the shows where he often gives other names and trying at different voices but you can definitely hear that they’re all him. On NYU radio you get a lot crazy callers. I’ve even had people call from prison.

The first calls were more friendly, although they were weird, then they started to get progressively more aggressive. At the very start it did scare me a little and I didn’t know what to do about it, I began asking friends for advice and  some told me to go the police, others said not to worry about it… and I happened to have just watched one or two movies, exactly at this point in my life, where the radio show gets stalked by obsessed listeners and mostly end  up killed – so I really freaked myself out. Eventually I decided to put one of the messages up on SoundCloud, so that if I went missing people would know Victor was behind it! I put it up and, even though it was really mean, everyone  loved it. I kept posting his messages after that because the world went crazy for them and it actually released something on my side – people’s reaction helped me cope with the absurdity of it all.

Later on, I actually interviewed Victor on air and since then our relationship changed – I think his messages became kinder because he had actually talked to me in person and realised I was a real human being.

Glad to hear it. Many highly successful people attribute some of their greatest successes to their greatest failures. Have there been any sore spots in your own life or career which turned out to be a blessing?

I consider myself to be a failure still working on college radio 20 years odd years later! At the same time I’ve built something from that and I do love the radio work – I love being on FM radio and here in New York. And there aren’t a lot of radio options around the world for what I’m doing.

Right now we’re in this situation with Covid happening all around us where I’m thinking ‘how can I push this radio show to a bigger and wider audience, how do I go about making all this work?’ Boiler Room has been killing it but people like to watch the crowd, and again, can’t have that with Covid. During these weird times I’ve been soul searching for those next moves – I think all the creatives have been.

Thanks for being so candid Tim, it’s been great talking to you.  

Photo credit: James Hartley