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Tim Sweeney: The beat goes on

Most journalists will tell you they treasure face-to-face interviews above all else: being in the same room as someone invariably brings out more colourful quotes than a phone conversation or the dreaded email communique. Yet being on the other end of the phone line to Tim Sweeney feels entirely appropriate – after all, his languid, friendly drawl is his most instantly recognisable feature. For the past 12 years he has hosted the weekly Beats In Space radio show from the student-run WNYU studio in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, building his slot into one of the most respected in the world of electronic music.

Speaking shortly before the Beats In Space 12th birthday party in Brooklyn, Sweeney is quick to point out that his show’s cultural ties to New York are as strong as the geographic one – his relationship with James Murphy and DFA has been a vital ingredient in the show’s growth and success, and regular guests include the city’s best loved disco and house DJs like Jacques Renault, Brennan Green, Juan Maclean and Mike Simonetti – but it was from the other side of the Atlantic where he gained his initial inspiration.

“My brother went to London when I was at school and came back with these pirate radio cassette tapes. I remember thinking, ‘wow, this is cool, I wanna to try something like that’.” Shortly after he began tuning into the airwaves in Baltimore, where he attended high school in the 90s when a nascent Baltimore Club sound was on the verge of becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Upon moving to New York to study music at NYU at the age of 18, Sweeney started working as an intern for renowned radio jock Steinski – whom he still speaks to regularly and cites as a “huge influence” – before taking a job as a studio hand with James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy at DFA studios, in the days before the pair had launched their own label. He scored a slot on WNYU radio more or less immediately, and the ascendancy of his own show dovetailed neatly with DFA’s meteoric rise in the naughties: “It was ideal – people were checking out my show to hear early DFA releases,” he recalls. “I did some mix CDs for James and Tim, played saxophone on their Radio 4 remix, and did general studio assistant stuff. I became part of the DFA family – we would go on tour together, and I would DJ before LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture came on.”

Sweeney’s gradual ascension from passionate enthusiast to a globally recognised DJ and tastemaker was down to a mix of his own thirst for music and canny opportunism: “The thing is, there are not many opportunities for people playing underground music to appear on the radio in New York. Once I got a few guests on the air, it snowballed and suddenly everyone wanted to be involved.”

That list of guests now includes DJ Harvey, Laurent Garnier, Juan Atkins and many, many more. Such is the listenership Beats In Space now holds, Sweeney is able to thrust up-and-coming producers into the spotlight by championing their music on air and many big names, including Tensnake, have credited Sweeney with giving their careers a kick-start. “Of course I hope something good comes of it from when I play other people’s music,” he says, before adding with typical modesty: “but all I really focus on is putting a good selection together. Everything else is secondary.”

In 12 years there have, of course, been ventures and ideas that have been sluggish in taking off  – the Beats In Space hotline, an idea inspired by Steinski, has not garnered the kind of quirky, interesting responses Sweeney hoped for, with one notable and frankly disturbing exception: Victor from Washington Heights, whose messages of an increasingly threatening nature have been the source of amusement and amazement for everyone whose name isn’t Tim Sweeney.

“It was about a year ago when I started the hotline and that’s when he started calling. He was a bit more even-tempered with his messages in the early days – he would actually say nice things at times, and his nasty messages weren’t even that bad. But he’s definitely gotten meaner over the past year,” he laughs. Considering the circumstances, perhaps watching Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, a movie in which a crazed fan kills a radio host, is not good idea, and he admits to having viewed it recently and come out “feeling a little bit paranoid”.

The good news is Sweeney has just celebrated 12 years in the business, a milestone made all the sweeter by the fact it coincides with a new, keenly awaited venture: he’s now the proud boss of a freshly minted record label. The idea was first mooted two years ago as a way to celebrate the radio show’s 10th anniversary – the aforementioned Tensnake was even pencilled in to contribute the first release – but that plan never bore fruit, and BIS 001 finally arrived last week, with French duo Paradis at the helm. Arriving in a sleeve with artwork from Black Dice’s Bjorn Copeland and overall design from the Will Work For Good agency, it was an all-round classy affair.

“One thing I wanted was to incorporate artwork into the sleeves; I wanted them to be covers you could frame,” says Sweeney, who drew inspiration from labels including Joakim’s Tigersushi, Matias Aguayo’s Comeme and boutique San Francisco imprint Public Release (indeed Sweeney released some blink-and-you’ll-miss-em edits on PR in 2009). “There are so many labels I deal with as part of the radio show, it’s hard not to be inspired”, he adds. “I love looking the record artwork in my own collection, and I didn’t want to do plain sleeves. I know it costs more, and the record label business is terrible these days – I have no idea why I’m getting into it now – but it’s fun, and it’s nice to work with artists and musicians and bring their work together.”

By choosing a relatively unknown French act ahead of an established producer, is Sweeney setting in place a remit for the imprint to unearth new talent? “I got a demo from Paradis out of the blue and really liked what I heard. I think it’s more fun to release music that maybe people don’t know about,” he says, before admitting he felt slightly unnerved by the fact that the DFA label launched with instant classics from The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. “It’s obviously it’s not possible to replicate what happened there. I wanted to do something different, unexpected… that’s what I love most about the radio show, being able to turn people on to music they haven’t heard before.”

He admits the label business has thrown him new challenges: “I have never had to deal with the business side of things – that’s been a bit of a shock to me.” He refers to Fredric Dannen’s book Hit Men, based on the stranglehold held by the mafia on the record label industry in the 1980s, and jokes about being secretly disappointed when he discovered the real thing – at least at a non-commercial level – is nowhere near as murky.

Further releases are due from German producer Lauer (with a remix from Backwoods aka DJ Kent from Force Of Nature) and L.A.’s Secret Circuit, with a monthly release schedule until the end of 2011 at least. Despite all the time, energy and money being spent on his new endeavour, Sweeney remains as driven as ever when it comes to his bread and butter – with 592 shows and counting, it seems Beats In Space radio is here to stay. “One thing I’d like to do is get more bands on the show – we had the Crystal Ark performing this year, last year Blondes played live,” he says, and you can hear the enthusiasm oozing down the phone line.

It may have been a long wait for a Beats In Space imprint – but anyone who’s listened to the show down the years will know Sweeney is not easily rushed. His label will surely be followed just as keenly by his fans – just don’t tell Victor from Washington Heights.

Aaron Coultate