As WNYU's Beats in Space program neared its 500th episode, I got the chance to hang out with Tim Sweeney a few nights, once when Neurotic Drum Band spun a set (in-between showing me photos of their kids on their iPhones) and again when the legendary Juan Atkins was in the studio (he didn't show me his mobile device). In-between, we chatted at a Japanese restaurant about a few things, including the self-perpetuating ghost of New York nightlife around the world and how he chose the name for his influential radio show:
So Tim, tell me about New York nightlife.
Whenever I travel, wherever I go, people ask about New York nightlife scene. "The legendary nightlife." Where they should go? What clubs? I’m always telling them the same thing: your city has more going on than ours does.
Is it odd to you, that NYC is in that state?
Yeah. It feels so weird. When people are asking me, it’s because there’s a lot of music stuff going on, but club life is not here. People really do have their impression of what New York is, what it looks like. They’ve already seen it from TV. They are expecting Paradise Garage or Twilo or some huge amazing parties. And they get here and they can’t find it.
Did you get your chops from DJing in bars? Or more from the radio show?
That’s how I met the DFA guys, I was doing nights at Plant Bar every week in the early 2000s. I did my own party at APT every Friday. Once I started getting more gigs abroad, now I focus on that. I would like to play here, but I don’t know where to play now. I’ve been trying to think of where to do my tenth anniversary party. I’ve planned it everywhere else but here in New York, I don’t know. Nothing feels perfect.
What made you want to DJ?
I learned to DJ back in high school. My older brother got me into it. He was three years older and started listening to electronic music.
Who struck you the most?
Probably Aphex Twin, early Warp, those Artificial Intelligence compilations on Warp, the Black Dog Bytes album. I can still listen to that. Those were gateways.
I went to NYU to study music, I was a music technology major. The show was right away. I had actually between 10th-11th grade, I came to NYC one summer and ended up DJing on WNYU and knew about it, how it worked. After that, when I knew I was going there, I emailed the DJ station and asked to start a show. It’s all student-run, so it takes awhile, but I got the show running right away. When I started, it was 800 AM, it basically only broadcasted to the dormitories.
Was Beats in Space the original name?
Yeah. I would probably change it now. I was into space (laughs).
I think of the Muppets.
I think that’s a better story.
Print the myth.
Just print the myth. That sounds better that way. Now it’s ten years, so there’s no changing it.
What was your vision of BiS when you started?
It was basically the same thing. I had a lot less guests. Even now, people don’t really hang out there. Mostly it’s just me in there. Now I have an intern, so it’s a little different. It’s always been this place for me to go and do my thing, by myself and just play music and hopefully have people like it. And then have guests on the show.
Who was your first guest?
My first guest was DJ Food from Ninja Tune. I saw they were playing NYC and I emailed the label and I say: “Hey, I do a radio show on a New York station. Do you want to come in and be a guest?” There’s really no other radio station in the US that is so free-form in that regard. Most people are up for it. We don’t subscribe to Arbitron so I never know how many listeners there are. It’s always amazing to get calls from taxi drivers, people in prison, Morgan Geist. I love the live radio aspect of it but the response is way bigger online around the world, with people listening, that it is in New York. More people listen online than live. On the BBC, there are shows that have that kind of audience listening live, but not here.
Do you have a model in mind for the show?
I admire Electrified Mojo in Detroit. You’re not limited soundwise. It is a person behind it and he plays whatever he wants, turning people onto what you’re into. It can be weird or more mainstream, you’re just pushing good music. When I worked for Steinski, he had tapes of shows on WFMU. He spent hours putting together these radio shows, cut’n’paste style. It was really interesting just listening to these tapes. He had an early answering machine and would give out the number and have people call in to leave their answers.
What did your old Plant Bar/ BiS sets used to consist of?
I used to play a lot of trip-hop. And one day Luke said, “oh, you should meet our producer. We call him Trip-hop Tim.” Tim Goldsworthy. I was a big fan of Mo’ Wax and UNKLE so I knew Tim’s work well. And one night meeting Tim and I just said I was a big fan and asked if they needed help in the studio. Tim just said “yeah.” Galkin hadn’t even officially started there yet. Those first two records, the Le Tigre remix. I convinced James to play some bassline on “Losing My Edge.” That’s my claim to fame.
As the show grew, when did it reach a tipping point for you? When did it feel big?
The time I felt most like “wow, people are out there” was when I premiered this Carl Craig remix for DFA on the show and no one had heard it. I talked over it and the response was so crazy. People were making mp3s of it even with talking over it.
Election night was great. Doug Lee and Justin Vandervolgen and Lovefingers came in. All three of them were super-wasted, all coming from a celebratory tequila party. Luckily, they recorded their mix beforehand. Live, it would’ve been a disaster. We were doing a play-by-play, checking the exit polls and we would put on the mic and start cheering. It was really fun.
Brennan Green and Mike Simonetti have been on the show the most. Lovefingers is up there, Horse Meat Disco, Optimo, all those guys have been on multiple times.
Who are you dying to get on the show?
A lot of the Detroit guys; they’re always so tough. Juan Atkins I hope will happen. I’d love to get Jeff Mills to do an old-school set, I’d love to get Derrick May on. At some point, I’d like to have David Mancuso on. For him I would do it there, but I don’t like doing live shows. I had DJ Nori on with an excerpt from his 30-hour mix. I want it to be special for the radio. I want guests to have the radio show in their mind when they do the mix, because it changes the trajectory; it’s not for a club. But the Loft is amazing. How people dance there, it’s amazing. Seeing people expressing themselves like that, so appreciative of the music…it’s amazing. When you see that, you get a glimpse of what New York was once like.
Did you ever think you’d get to 500 shows?
I loved doing radio from the beginning. I didn’t see myself stopping once school was over. One way or another, I was going to keep doing radio. I like doing it. There’s always a little bit of tension, as it is a student-run station. I still have to take continuing education classes to be a student. I pay to do the radio show. My fourth degree is going really well, coming up on the fifth one.
But there aren’t many options out there. There’s WFMU, you have to start out on the Sunday night graveyard for six months and then maybe they give you something. But you aren’t set there either. WNYU is that really works for me. If I get kicked off, I don’t know what I’d do. I can do it online, but I like being in New York doing a live radio show. The idea that a guy in a taxi or someone from Riker’s Island is going to call you up exhilarates.