Picture a guy who graduated university over a decade ago, sitting in the basement of a student dorm. Now picture that guy doing a radio show called Beats in Space. Different image? Thought so. True, Tim Sweeney has America’s longest-running college radio show. But Beats in Space is iconic, so synonymous with the underground dance music scene, it’s easy to forget its humble roots as a student radio show or the fact that every Tuesday you can find the host at WNYU’s studio located below a university dining hall. And when I say every Tuesday, I mean it. BIS recently celebrated 14 years. And Tim has never missed a week. The stuff of legend, perhaps, but urban myth it is not—he once finished the full two-and-a-half hours with a bad case of the flu (I saw it with my very own eyes.) It was then I realized: there are people who love music. And then there is Tim Sweeney.
In a rare moment when he wasn’t on the air or in the air, flying to a gig, I had the chance to talk to Tim about upcoming projects and the beloved show listeners keep tuning into, week after week, looking to hear what they know they won’t find anywhere else.
S: Beats in Space just celebrated 14 years on the air. Congratulations! What’s the secret to your longevity?
S: After almost 700 shows, there has to be a fair share of highs and lows. Any night you felt was a total disaster?
TS: Usually when I have Juan Maclean or Brennan Green on the show, it’s pretty much a disaster. Somehow I keep asking them back though.
S: Speaking of Juan MacLean, the last time he was a guest, he basically called you an elitist. What’s more important: to strike a balance between what you think people want to hear and what you want to play? Or staying faithful to your own musical tastes?
TS: With the radio show, I’m definitely trying to play music that is interesting to me. I’m not bothered if people don’t like it. There’s always next week’s show for something different.
S: Radio has changed a lot since you got your start on the air as an NYU student. Now with the internet, podcasts, not to mention a myriad of Apple products, do you think it risks becoming obsolete? How do you view its role?
TS: I think most people listen to the radio in their cars now, but that’s why I started archiving the shows and putting them online: to reach a larger audience and people outside of just New York City. There’s a still a lot of history with radio. For me it’s great just broadcasting on the airwaves in New York. Anyone could be listening.
S: You’ve had many major names as guests over the years, but also many up-and-coming acts. How do you source the new talent you feature? Have you ever worried anyone you invited was too much of a risk?
TS: It’s mostly checking club listings to see who is coming to town, or else I write the artist or record label to see when they will be in New York and if they would be interested in doing the radio show. And too much of a risk? I don’t think so. I like if there’s something weird thrown into the mix. That’s the only way to keep it engaging and exciting. If you don’t take any risk it starts to get boring.
S: You get some top-notch fan mail from around the world: calls, emails, postcards…maybe some love-letters too? Still, there aren’t too many DJs can say they have a personal telephone-stalker of sorts: Victor from Washington Heights. What’s his deal? Why is BIS so controversial?
TS: Well, with Victor, it’s about keeping things consistent. He doesn’t like it when I have disco on the show one week and techno playing the next week. But for me, that’s how I keep things interesting. If it is the same every week, there’s no fun involved.
S: It’s been two years since you launched Beats in Space Records. Can you tell us a bit more about the label and how it started? Was it always a dream of yours?
TS: I had the idea for the record label when it was the radio show’s 10th anniversary. It seemed like a good way to start something new after a decade on the radio. Unfortunately, it took two years to get the label up and running- but it’s been great since then. We’re now on the 10th release.
S: So far the BIS releases have been pretty diverse, with genre-spanning talent from around the world. Is there a common thread? A particular sound you seek that ties them all together?
TS: It’s basically like the radio show: whatever I like, we release. I don’t mind if one release is for the dance-floor and another one is for home-listening. Just high quality music with high quality artwork.
S: The two latest additions to the BIS Records family are both from Japanese producers. Can you tell us a bit more about these releases and the underground dance music scene in Japan?
TS: Japan is one of my favorite places in the world. I love going out there whenever I can. I’ve always tried to support the Japanese DJs and musicians on my show and have had mixes from people like DJ KZA,DJ Kent, Sakamoto from Yura Yura Teikoku, Altz, Kenji Takimi, and a bunch of others. I keep my ear out for anything interesting and the stuff Gonno and Crystal have been doing has been on my radar, so I reached out to see if they would want to do something for BIS.
S: Despite traveling the world, you’ve kept the five boroughs as a home base. A lot of people claim New York is dead: a lack of nightlife and no real scene for dance music. What’s your stance? Is there a Renaissance on the horizon? Any local talent you find particularly exciting?
TS: New York is always changing. Club life goes up and down but there are
always parties and there are enough people here to make something happen even if it’s just in someone’s loft. There seems to be a lot going on now, especially in Williamsburg, with clubs like Output and Verboten opening. The Wrecked and Spank guys, who were just on the radio show, are both throwing great parties for the gay scene in New York. Tom Noble just moved to New York and we’re doing a record together for BIS that I’m really excited about. Veronica Vasicka is always doing great stuff with her Minimal Wave record label. And of course, Ron Morelli is keeping things going with L.I.E.S.
S: Lastly, and most importantly, what’s next for you and BIS?
TS: We’ve got a new 12” coming on BIS at the end of October from The Dukes
Of Chutney, then a 12” from Hidden Fees in November to finish us off
in 2013. And as usual, I’m touring all over the place on the weekends and doing the radio show-- every Tuesday!