Cyclic Defrost

An Australian magazine focusing on interesting music

Beats in Space, tunes in clubs – an interview with Tim Sweeney

Tim Sweeney has been hosting his quintessential New York based dance music radio show Beats in Space since his first year as a student at New York University in 1999. Since then, it has developed into one of the most well-known and listened to radio programs within the dance music community. Broadcast every Tuesday night from New York on the long-running NYU radio station WNYU, Beats in Space offers two and a half hours of guest interviews, emerging dance music, and deep mixes from some of the best DJs and producers that the world has to offer.

Also a prominent and well respected DJ, Sweeney travels the world on a more than regular basis to bring the Beats in Space experience into the club setting. As he prepares to make the long haul down to Australia later this month, we had a chat with the man about the origins of the radio show,  the differences between being behind a radio mic and a set of turntables in a club, and what his loyal listeners can expect in the near, and distant, future.

Cyclic Defrost: Going into the 13th year of Beats in Space what are the origins of the radio show? How did it start, and how have you kept it going consistently since 1999 without missing a single week?

Tim Sweeney: The radio show started when I moved up to New York to go to school at NYU, where I studied music technology. I started in 1999, and had actually played on the radio station (WNYU) when I was in high school, one summer I played twice on the radio there. So when I knew I was going to NYU I just contacted the station and told them I was coming and wanted to start a show. I was really in to doing the radio; I was into DJing at high school and had already done some club things and other radio things, so I knew that it was something that I wanted to do. So then once I got the show I was just really into doing it every week and just being on it, trying to get guests and find as much new music as I could every week, to play interesting stuff. So that’s how I’ve kept it going that same way really, just trying to find interesting people and trying to find interesting music to play that still keeps me excited.

Was it a struggle at first to get guests on the show, or once you offered for people to come on did it just snowball into what it is now?

Yeah, it was definitely a lot harder at the beginning getting guests, but it kind of snowballs, once you get one guest then you can get another one. From the beginning I definitely didn’t have as many guests, but nowadays I feel as though I have almost too many guests. I would like to do more shows where it’s just one guest and me, but then at the same time it’s hard for me to turn down some guests because if they’re actually here to do it live, then I don’t want to turn down the opportunity. I also miss playing, I haven’t done the whole two and a half hours in a while, and it used to be that I would always be doing that.

Do you feel that the show has evolved intentionally? Was it you thinking that you wanted it to be something that displays both the music that you want to play and also a host of domestic and international artists?

Yeah, I’ve always wanted to have the artists on and to be able to support the people in New York that wouldn’t be able to play on the radio anywhere else in the city, there’s no other radio stations that would be playing this. So for me that was a big deal, that they could come on the show, come on the radio, when they’re not going to have any other chance in New York to do that. I know that having guests on the show helps build the following of the show and the station as well, but it has definitely progressed. Musically it’s always changing; from the beginning I was playing a lot more hip hop and it was a lot slower, and then different things happen, I learn about different music, and things change. It documents the time that we’re in; I have all of the past thirteen years shows recorded, and it shows what we were playing at that time, and it definitely does change.

Do you think that the nature of the station as well, with it being a college station as opposed to a larger commercial station, gives you more freedom and the ability to do what you want to do with it, as opposed to what you have to do to fulfil the requirement of what the station or sponsors want?

Yeah for sure, I don’ have to worry about any kind of ratings or placating any sponsors, I just do the show however I want to do it and if I’m happy then its all good. For me, I can be as experimental or not experimental as I want to be with the show, and I like that I don’t have anyone else calling the shots for me, except for maybe crazy callers who threaten to kill me if I play the wrong thing, but that comes with the New York City territory I guess.

Have you become exhausted at all over the past thirteen years? Do you find yourself intentionally trying to take one week in a completely different direction because you feel as though you’ve been playing the same stuff, or do you feel that the way the show is moving forward in itself is enough to keep it fresh, both for you and the listener?

I haven’t gotten bored at all, I love going in on Tuesdays and doing the show, I get excited about finding the new music to play, and coming up with an idea of how I want my mix to sound, or what exactly I want to play for people. Also, being excited about having someone on the show, or being excited about being able to interview someone. I’m not bored with it, I’m doing it for free anyway, so if I was bored with it and it wasn’t fun then I would stop because it actually costs me more to do the radio show. But yeah, I really honestly love doing it.

Speaking of how you choose what you want to play in your mixes, what’s your track selection process? Do you look for stuff on the day, do you search for new stuff all the time, or do you have your old favourites that you always go back to? Are you always on the hunt for new music to play?

I’m definitely always on the hunt for new music, but especially on Tuesdays I set it out for trying to find as much new stuff as possible. For one, I have hundreds of digital promos that I get sent every week so I have to go through and listen to those, but then I also go on the digital websites and buy things, like from Beatport and iTunes. My main thing is that I go record shopping on Tuesdays here in New York; I’ll go into the city and go to a few shops, which is mainly used vinyl but a lot of the time that process gets me thinking about what I want to play on that show. Usually if I sit at the computer and listen to promos for too long I get really angry, because I get so tired of listening to the same kind of thing, so going out record shopping is something that I feel like is healthy for me. You have to find the right balance between wanting to support something and also supporting what is actually good and cool.

How do you process the fact that the show is a worldwide thing for people who are passionate about electronic and dance music?

I definitely recognise it from going out touring and everything, and I know that being able to play in these different places comes from that, but then at the end of the day I try not to focus on that too much because I feel like what people are listening for is trying to get a piece of New York. I still base the show around the New York radio, that I’m playing for a New York radio listenership and that other people are listening in is just an added bonus. It doesn’t always happen that way but that’s how I try and think about it. I love that there are people from all over the world listening, especially if I have someone from another country on the show, like from Japan, Mexico or Australia, and then people are tweeting while the show is live that their listening and its exciting and amazing. For me the focus is still on me going out record shopping at New York, playing stuff that I might play in clubs here, although I don’t always play what I would play in a club, a lot of the time its weirder stuff just because I want to play it, and hopefully it translates well to some other people.

Do you think “this is going to be a set that I’m going to play on the radio, and this is going to be a set that I play live” and construct them differently? Is it the same process music wise for what you play on the airwaves and what you play in the club, or are they different entities where you have to create different set lists?

They’re definitely different entities. There are a lot of guest DJs who come on the show and get a little freaked out being on the radio, with there being no crowd and not being able to do a normal set in front of thousands of people; but for me I like having both sides, because I feel like sometimes if you get too caught up with playing in clubs and big rooms the records you’re playing and the sounds you have tend to skew to one side of just trying to get peoples hands in the air. So with having the radio show it affords me the chance to play weirder stuff that isn’t about hands in the air and people going crazy. I listen to a lot more than just a pumping disco track or whatever, so its nice to be able to come back from a weekend playing at the clubs, and I do love playing at the clubs because you have the interaction of the crowd and I get to play some of these bigger room tracks, but its nice to be able to come back and play the other side of the coin with some more chilled or weirder things. And I think that can translate in the club too sometimes, and it’s nice to play weirder tracks out because it gives me some ideas about what I could do, but also at the same time I think when I do a really long set, like six or eight hour DJ set, then it’s easier for me to do everything that I would have done on a radio show because you have it from the beginning of the night, and that’s when you can play stuff that you might play on the radio show.

Do you find there to be a difference between DJing in New York and the rest of the US compared to Europe or even Australia, in regards to audiences?

There are definitely different identities, and I can tell the difference playing in New York or LA compared to Berlin, Paris or London; like when you go to Germany there are always people coming up to you and putting there hands in the air and saying “Play harder!”, it just happens every time I play there, but you don’ get that same thing in these other places. The requests are always different too depending on where you’re playing, but at the same time even though places are slightly different everyone is listening to a lot of the same stuff online so they know about all the same records. Again, I don’t try and focus too much on it, I just try and think of what I would want to play. I try and bring it back to New York I guess and think, “If I was in New York at the moment, what would people get into” and if that doesn’ go over well with the crowd then I move in a new direction.

Do you find that there are different attitudes in notable dance music cities like New York, Detroit, London and Berlin in being more critical, compared to cities that don’t get as many big names or that aren’t known for dance music?

You can definitely tell that some of the bigger cities are not always the most fun because people may be more critical; like when you go to the UK it’s always the further you get away from London the more fun it is. So when you got to Glasgow it’s awesome, they all know their stuff and you can play some crazy records and they’ll keep dancing; but when you’re in London it’s more fashionable and more about being seen, it just doesn’t go down the same way. I definitely feel that in the US or in any singular country, it’s the same feeling.

How do you find a balance between radio and DJing? Can you keep them together without much of a conflict of not having time to prepare for the radio show because of travelling or playing clubs?

The radio show was originally on a Thursday, and I switched it to the Tuesday so that I could go away on the weekends to play and then get back in time to do the radio show. Sometimes I’ve flown back and on the day in Tuesday I’ll be a mess, but I’ll still get through it. For the most part it’s easy, because the clubs are really only happening on Friday and Saturday and there isn’t that much happening on a Sunday or especially on a Monday, so I can get back in time. The only one that is tough is Australia, but with Europe I’ve got it down and its good; I can go to Europe one weekend and then come back and do the radio show and then go straight back out to Europe. I like having that schedule and home base and not just being out on the road forever.

Do you prefer one or the other, with having the serenity of the studio compared to dealing with people in a club?

It depends on my mood, where sometimes I just don’ want to speak to anyone, I just want to be alone, and then obviously the radio is the better place for that. But having the interaction with the crowd and being at a club, especially with a good sound system and people that are open-minded, friendly and there to have a good time, you can’t really beat that, it’s what its all about. The radio show is fun, but at the same time it’s the community feel with having the people there in the club and sharing this experience, that’s something really special. So when that goes over really well it’s the best, but it can also be the worst when it’s terrible, when people are assholes, you don’t want to be there, the sound system sucks, the turntables feedback, just when it doesn’ come together; at those times I would much rather be at the radio station and comfortable with what I’m doing.

Do you have plans to keep the show going for as long as possible?

Yeah, definitely. I don’ have any plans on stopping, I want to just keep going and see how far I can take it. I still feel as though I’m on a pretty underground level, so it would be cool to see how far I can go with it and do this as my full time thing.

Do you want to keep the show in New York?

Yeah I do, but at the same time I feel as though maybe one day I could move and that could be fun. I’m kind of up for anything and I think more so it would just be me being able to play what I want and having the guests that I want, that’s what is the most important thing to me, so that I’m not compromising.

So its more staying true to what it is as opposed to where it is?

Yeah, if I was doing the radio show in Japan it could be awesome, but I think from anywhere it could happen, but it would definitely change. New York influences how I’m doing the show, so if I’m in another city its would be different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be worse.

Tim Sweeney will be in Australia in November, playing Melbourne on Friday 23rd in conjunction with Melbourne Music Week, and Sydney on Saturday 24th (presented by HAHA Industries).

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Cyclic Defrost is Australia’s only specialist electronic music magazine. We cover independent electronic music, avant-rock, experimental sound art and leftfield hip hop. Read more

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