An illustration of Jan Sneum for Blacklisted Magazine

Coffee and vinyl with Jan Sneum

Meeting with 70 year old Danish radio icon for a browse through Insula records and some reminiscing over coffee

Published: January 7, 2017Words: J.Scott Stratton & Jan Sneum

Iwill admit that sitting down with a man that has been working in the Danish music and radio industry for nearly as long as I have been alive was a humbling experience. But at the same time, Jan Sneum is one of the sweetest men that I have ever met.

Yet that fatherly smile and infectiously positive personality there is still a little punk in him. Throughout his career, there has always been a little anti-establishment underpinning his pathways and curatorial style for music. Basically, while everyone in the radio industry was zigging, Sneum was zagging.

And like anyone that has stood against the march of industry, Sneum has been knocked more than his fair share of times, but the fact that he keeps moving and taking on new projects, even at the age of 70, is a testament to his passion for music and the music community.

My first encounter with Jan – coming from outside the Danish borders and not having grown up knowing his name – was during the Works for Radio exhibition at Nikolaj Kunsthal earlier last year, where he acted as host and moderator for the panel discussion. I then encountered him occasionally on The Lake Radio where he hosts his own spot entitled Sneum’s Palace.

But the project of his that I found the most interesting was a series of live events that he hosts at Stengade called Sneum’s Institutet. It’s structured in a way where he acts as a host for the evening, introducing the bands, but also facilitating a sort of live interview with the bands – imagine a live radio broadcast with an audience.

The idea fascinated me, because bands rarely get a chance to speak about their work, and are often times their a seen as entertainers rather than artists. Sneum takes the departure from this mindset though, as his love and dedication to music and the artists that make it seems boundless.

Finding myself very curious about this man, so after a few emails, I arranged a meeting with Jan at Nørrebro’s Insula Records to grab a coffee and have a chat about his life, his love for music, and what is in store next.

An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine

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?

Jan: “I grew up in a family with a father and mother who were seriously interested in art. My mother was a musician (and music teacher) playing classical guitar and my father was a painter, art teacher and writer. My mother was mainly interested in the music and her instrument as such, but my father saw painting as an art form – but more importantly, he saw painting as a tool for expression of experiences and feelings and for years he was a chairman of an international organization called INSEA – International Society for Education through Art.”

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 then still works. My interest in music is still there. I still have this lust to learn more. My curiosity is undiminished. For me, it was just pure luck.

An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine
An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine

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 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.

At my home as a child, classical music, some folk music – like fx flamingo – and jazz were on the radio and the turntable. Later, when I got my own room and my own radio, jazz, pop and rock were on my playlists.

But it was The WHO who really changed things for me. For the first time, I was hit by something that was “me” – and instantly turned into a FAN – with all the passion and drive that “state of mind” can create in you. When you get together with other “fans” you know that you are right – and you know that you are on the right track…heading for “something”….in my case a job at DR many years later.

You’ve been active in the Danish music culture long enough to see the many ebbs and flows of the way bands make music and hot it consumed by the masses—vinyl, 8-track, tape, CD, and now digital. What are your thoughts on where it is today?

I many ways I think it’s even more interesting now than ever before. The scene is getting bigger year by year with more and more diversity.

Way back a band could dream about being signed by a record company – and having a career abroad was nearly a non-existing possibility. Now – thanks to a strong DIY culture and to the digital revolution you can go in so many different directions as an artist.

This is when it starts to be interesting – to me at least. When you have something to say (or play) and then do something about it based on your own possibilities. With the social medias and with all the digital possibilities you can reach far.

The main problem here seems to be now is how to get started in musical training as a child. Here is maybe where something needs to be upgraded. Access to education in music lacks in many parts of the country and in the basic public schooling…but that’s another story.

An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine

How has this transition affected the way you work, moving from analog to digital formats?

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.

So the analog time was pretty much a time with co-work and strong partnerships. In the analog time, the sound of your voice had a lot to do with the technician of the day.

When the radio went from analog to digital your work in the studio went from team-work to “one-man-projects”. You lost the “first-listener” and the lost the often joy-full 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. It was 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.

Do you feel nostalgic about the new waves of younger bands that moving back into the analog formats?

No. Not at all. The choice of technique and format do have an impact on the product. Both in the working process and in the final product. And even if you try to do things, the way they used to do way back, I think it’s very hard not to show or integrate the “zeitgeist” of “now” in your music, songwriting or performance.

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.

During my very first travel to Iceland in the late 1970’s, I was lucky meeting musicians there that for me started 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 at 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. 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 the 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 – and especially the Transmusicales festival in France presented for years many new and interesting artists to me. Especially from the “francophone” part of the world.

An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine

“To make a long story short: Music is everywhere – and music is such a beautiful global language. “

An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine

A trip to Estonia in 2009 opened my ears and eyes to a world of music and art that has 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 the 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 much of the research than I have done in 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 are 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 music from the 60’s – 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 that the elements of rock music from the 60’s, and power from the punk music in the late 70’s, have 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”.

How has your education as a photo-journalist and teacher affected your life in music?

Photo brought me into “music journalism”. I got interested in photography as a happy amateur in the early 60’s but started making photos of rock bands by the end of the 60’s.

More or less at the same time, I got involved with people around one of the local “underground” papers in Copenhagen called Wheel. Some of my photos were used in the magazine and I slowly started writing about music, too. That was good fun.

The network I got through working in Wheel Magazine also brought me in touch with Politikens Forlag, and for approximately 30 years, I was the editor of and the main writer on a series of rock encyclopedias.

An interview with Jan Sneum at Insula Records for Blacklisted Magazine

Alongside Wheel I was teaching in a local school at Vesterbro as well as teaching art-teachers (mainly) in photography at a teachers training high-school in Copenhagen, too. I’m sure my time as a teacher gave me some kind of skills in “story-telling”. At least it gave me some routine in talking in front of listeners.

Can you tell me a little bit about your Sneum’s Instituttet project?

The Sneum Institute was an 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 realized 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.

Do you have any projects lined up for 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 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.

For 2017, 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 cooperation 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 is so much music, so many festivals and so many exciting things to jump into and enjoy.