Coffee and Vinyl with Jan Sneum
70 year old iconic Danish radio personality and true lover of all things music, Jan Sneum, tells me about this his life, his passion for music and radio, and how he’s more excited than ever about modern music.
Janruary 13, 2017
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For many people not old enough to remember that trusting in the soft voices on AM/FM radio was about the only way to discover new music, radio personalities like Jan Sneum are more like unsung heroes of a bygone generation — recognition left only to the ones that remember his gratuitous contribution to Danish radio. Largely responsible for the putting on modern face on Danish radio programming during the 80’s and 90’s, his notoriety has waned over the years — as with many that work in the radio public industry. But that is not to say that he is idle. In fact, quite the contrary.
Up until 2015, Jan was still a driving for behind DR’s P6 Beat — with his program Sneum’s Garage — when at the age of 70 he parted ways with DR after over three decades of partnership. Although he was rather coy in giving me a definitive reason why, I speculate it was because of creative differences, and possibly DR’s relentless pursuit of more commercial format. Since then Jan has picked up his mantle at The Lake Radio, hosting Sneum’s Palace — a place where one can expect to hear anything from obscure African Jazz to interviews with up and coming garage and punk bands. If it something that Jan likes, then anything goes. He’s under no pressure from the high-ups to keep that new Kayne song on rotation, so he plays what he likes — and after 40 years in the business, he’s got a pretty trustworthy ear for what is good.
In lieu of the article I wrote on The Lake and their Works for Radio event — which was hosted by Jan in early 2016 — I reached out to Jan for an meeting. I wanted to get to know this icon of a once lost, but now being rediscovered, industry.
I set up a meeting with Jan to meet at Insula Record on Blågårdsgade to get a few photos of him and talk with him about his life, his career and his unending dedication to music. I had, for months, been interacting with Jan without knowing it, by promoting a regular series of events at Stengade hosted under the moniker Sneum’s Instittetet. It’s a concert format, where artist and bands get to play a gig, but after are given the opportunity to answer questions from the audience as Jan facilitates the panel forum.
From the first moment I met Jan, his jovial attitude and excitement at meeting in a record store, completely won me over. He, of course, new the owner Troels Pedersen — and of course, Troels new him. For the first ten minutes, I was almost a side note to his adventurous zeal as he perused through records and magazines and the two spoke about the good old days. We laughed at a collection of vintage Maximum Rock n’ Roll zines that Troels had collected and brought over from the US. This launched us in a lengthy conversation of early days punk, rock and roll, and radio in Denmark.
I knew that I was going to need more than just a short romp though a record store with this man, to truly get an understanding of his decades of passion and dedication to music, so we decide to pop around the corner for a coffee.
I can honestly say it was exceptionally refreshing to speak with a man with a long history of riding the ebbs and flows of the music and radio industry and not see one hint of ego or discontent with how the industry has evolved. It could be quite easy for a man of his background to get lost in nostalgia and largely ignore the reality of the fast pace, fast consumer way in which the music industry has evolved. To the contrary, he is more positive and excited about the state of things then he has ever been. He did share some concerns with the current climate of Danish public radio, but it was more a commentary against the influence of commercialism rather than a statement about the music and artists themselves.
You have had quite an illustrious career in the music industry here in Denmark, can you tell me a little bit about what lead you to choose a life in music?
I grew up in a family with a father and a mother being seriously interested in art. My mother was a musician (and music teacher) … and my father was a painter, art teacher and writer.
When I realized that I could make a living more or less based on my passion for music, I really understood how much my parents way of thinking and doing things had influenced me. And now – being more than 70 years old – I’m both grateful and surprised to feel that what they started way back still works. My interest in music is still there. I still have this lust to learn more. My curiosity is undiminished. For me this is just pure luck.
Besides that, I have been living in a period of time where the accessibility to music has been more and more easy and simple. From the late 1950’s with broadcasts on Radio Luxemburg — received on an AM frequency in some kind of audible format and heard through magic noise from a world of radio waves (especially on starry nights) — to the Internet with loads of platforms and streaming services. When I first started reading about music yet unknown to me, I could just imagine the sound of the music. Now the music you read or hear about is just a click away – and it’s very easy to be totally absorbed by just clicking your way from one on amazing artist to another.
How has the transition from analogue to digital formats affected the way you work? (I speak many about your long career in DR to now hosting a program on the well respect Digital format The Lake).
When I started doing radio at DR on a more permanent basis way back in the early 1980’s, I was always working together with a technician. I selected the music, picked the guests and did the talking, but it was always done in a partnership with “my first listener” – the technician. He or she was also my first teacher in doing radio. In writing a readable manuscript in “radio language” and in timing music – with useful notation of fade in / fade out, for example. So the analog time was pretty much a time with co-work and strong partnerships. In those analog days, the sound of your voice had a lot to do with the technician of the day. A super loyal technician went to the technical department before our studio time in order to bring the newest TubeTech back to the studio. A devise that could turn your voice into a dream. Soft, low and with all the intimacy a close-mic setting can get. Of course, you wanted to work with THAT technician all the time…and some time long lasting friendships started here…
When the radio went from analog to digital, the work in the studio went from team-work to “one-man-projects”. You lost the “first listener” and the lost the often joyful playing around with new technical options. On the other hand, you got a total freedom in the studio. You could put your story or your program together just when and how you wanted it – and you could work both at your desk and in your office with elements of your program – and then just open the files in the studio – or even abroad – in order to add more elements or just to finish your product. It’s a very different way of working, with strong advantages – no doubt – but also with a lack of the old team-spirit from the analog days.
How has your taste in music evolved over the years?
It’s hard for me to tell. Mainly, I think that my taste in music has just expanded all along with the music I have been privileged to experience.
On my very first travel to Iceland in the late 1970’s, I was lucky meeting musicians there that for me to get started in a lifelong interest in the Icelandic music scene, including many later visits at music events in Iceland – and in many DR programs based on my network in Iceland. For a long period of time, my focus on Iceland was expanded to a strong interest in the Nordic rock scene as such – with many travels to events in Finland, Norway and Sweden. Including the possibility of building up a solid network inside the Nordic public service radio stations. All this lead to a radio program on DR P3 running for more than a year focusing only on Nordic music.
In the 1990’s, I got a seat in a working group at the EBU (The European Broadcasting Union) dealing with exchange of live music recordings of rock, pop and electronica between the members of the EBU. I was part of that group (EuroSonic) for nearly 20 years until 2015. During that period I was lucky to be exposed to a large number of artists. Not only from Europe but from all over the world.
Along the work at the EBU, I “upgraded” my visits to festivals also outside Denmark. The Transmusicales festival in France, which for years presented many new and interesting artists to me — especially from the “francophone” part of the world.
A trip to Estonia in 2009 opened my ears and eyes to a world of music and art that had been totally out of my knowledge and focus until then. Still the main media focus is nearly only focusing on the “world” before the collapse of the Soviet Union when it comes to presentation of “popular music” – so for me being introduced to the Estonian – and Baltic – world of music was another expansion of my taste – and interest – in music.
In many ways, I think music is more interesting now than ever before. The scene is getting bigger year by year, with more and more diversity. Way back, a band could only dream about being signed by a record company – and having a carrier abroad was nearly a non-existing possibility. Now—thanks to a strong DIY culture and to the digital revolution—you can, as an artist, go in so many different directions. And while amateurs are running the risk of being humiliated in X Factor, other people with a passion and an interest in music run the risk of doing things on their own, in their own form and format. And then it starts to be interesting—to me at least.
In much of the research than I have done on your career, it seems that you are the most outspoken about the rock and punk scene in late 1960’s and 1970’s. Was that a pivotal moment in music for you?
Music from the 1960’s is music from my formative years. At least when it comes to rock music. The 60’s music scene is so connected to my own history and to the society and the historical time in which I just happened to be young. I was 15 in 1960.
When the 60’s turned into the 70’s my focus on rock faded for a period. I got “back” into jazz – and into the “fusion scene”, but the punk scene was a revelation to me. It brought back all the fun, the energy and anarchy that I loved in the 60’s music – but had missed in the music from the early 70’s. Punk brought my passion for rock music back in full blossom.
To me it’s amazing to see who elements of rock music from the 60’s and power from the punk music in the late 70’s has been “merged” and turned into key elements in many of the bands that I love today. Artists from the new “garage” or new “psych-scene”, for example.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Sneum’s Instituttet project?
The Sneum Institute was a idea proposed to me by the people at the venue Stengade. I had to leave DR by the end of 2015. Not that I wanted to leave, but my agreement with DR just ended on the day I turned 70. Stengade was not focusing on age, but had this for me very sympathetic idea that my background and history in music and journalism could be used in a live-format. In 2016, we organized seven “Institutes” with an artist-talk on stage ahead of a concert with the artists participating in the talk of the night. I love that format as I have realize myself how much more I got out of hearing an artist live if I have had the possibility of doing an interview before – and then having some kind of an introduction to the artist – and the music – ahead of being exposed to the performance live.
And what about Sneum’s Palace?
Once again I have had the honour of being invited to work with great people – and even before I left DR, I was invited by people behind The Lake Radio to do programs at that platform. So far, I have had no restrictions neither in structure, content or running time. I have been doing approximately ten programs by now. Mostly based on long interviews with guests in the studio. Often musicians working away from mainstream music. Some programs in Danish some in English and all available as podcasts. Old school radio in many ways, but “new” in the sense that the Palaces are pretty far in format from to-days music programs on national radio broadcasts like DR and Radio 24syv. Recently I was asked to give a very short description of the Palace-program – and I wrote: “A host-based program formally being a hybrid between interview, conversation and causerie”. Not that this is a result of hours of thinking and planning.
So what is in store for you in the future?
For 2017, I do hope I’ll be able to continue working with the Institute and the Palace. I’m going to see the people from Stengade here in January for further planning. Regarding the Palace I think – and hope – we can do some of the broadcasts live and direct as The Lake “re-opens” with new studios here in the beginning of the year. Besides that I do hope I can get into more projects with Lars Kjelfred who is doing many very interesting projects at Hovedbiblioteket in Krystalgade here in Copenhagen. Maybe even more “music-bus-tours” like the one we did in December called “Bustur til Paradis Vol. 1”. A nine-hours “rock-tour” through Copenhagen.
My plan is also to see if it’s possible for me to “re-vitalize” some of my photos. Mainly from the punk-period. One partner that I already do have solid talks with is the new Rock Museum at Roskilde. On the sideline I have also started a co-operation with two other kind people around a more personal, but so far also more unstructured projects around my work as a “music journalist”. That project will need some extra focus from my side in 2017 if I want it to become a reality in the form of some kind of a publication.
Unfortunately I have a health-problem these days so I’ll just have to see how much I can do. But I have many plans and dreams – and there are so much music, so many festivals and so many exciting things to jump into – and enjoy.
Aside from the aforementioned health problems—which he only hinted at and are not relevant to this article—meeting Jan for some coffee and vinyl left me with no doubt that he won’t be slowing down anytime soon. A rightfully so. After living nearly his entire life dedication to music, expecting him to give it up because a few more wrinkles start to appear seems rather ludicrous.
The music scene, in my opinion, will never stop requiring the wisdom and zeal that people like Jan—with his good-natured attitude towards everything music. I for one, hope that far into the future, we can all still relax—under the turn of dial or the push of a button—to tune in to Jan and his soft-spoken voice and listen to him talk to us about the beauty of music.
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