Check out Jakob Tranberg in his snakeskin boots, crystal-studded T-shirt and white fur coat with the Versace logo splashed across the back. He's at the top of his game as a celebrated graphic designer in the advertising world. Ideas and award-winning record covers churn out, and in his mania, he is soaring higher and higher.
Even as a boy Jakob Tranberg could never get enough. At the age of eleven he begged his parents to let him hike in Lapland, 125 km through glaciers and snow, with a group of adult scouts. He embraced the hardships and intense camaraderie with such passion that finishing the trip was almost more than he could bear. “I gave everything I had, and was completely exhausted. And then it was back to humdrum reality. I didn’t want my parents to talk to me. I just lay in the bathtub with my eyes closed.”
Jakob grew up in a Danish provincial suburb. He was one of those kids who like to draw, and his drawings earned him praise. His skills continued to improve because he could concentrate for hours on end.
Just graduated as a commercial and graphic artist, 23 years old, Jakob longs to get away. The Promised Land is Copenhagen: that’s the place D-A-D and his other favourite rock bands call home, and that is where he dreams of designing album covers for them. By a stroke of luck he lands a job at a Copenhagen advertising agency with clients in the music business. The agency has plenty of work. So much, in fact, that he ends up sleeping there on a mattress on the floor.
Fast forward. Just one year later, Jakob is on stage at the Danish Grammy music awards (since 2001 “Danish Music Awards”), gazing out at the audience with six statuettes in his arms. Members of D-A-D stand next to him: they’ve just raked in a load of Danish Grammies for best band, best video – and best cover. Jakob’s cover art. Applause, celebration, parties. “This is where I belong. This is my stage,” Jakob thinks. It can’t get much better than this.
But it does. Shortly after, EMI, a leading record company, gives him a call and asks him to do cover art for them. They offer more money than he thought possible. Jakob pours himself into the work. He also begins to make cannabis a habit at the agency, where he and a few other creatives like to gather in a meeting room, smoke a joint, and then draw together in companionable silence. They come up with at least a handful of visual ideas before they go home and sleep on them. The next morning there are always a few ideas that work.
Four years after moving to the city, Jakob is creative director at his own agency, PowerPlant, whose clients include the record companies Sony, EMI and Universal.
I am the chosen one
PowerPlant is an agency, but it is also a person: Jakob. He whirls clients and friends up into a kaleidoscopic barrage of ideas. They enjoy the flight, and they ask for more. Jakob tells of his ability to sense where other people are at – and to vibrate in harmony with them. It is an ability that can turn him into anybody’s best friend. “I would walk into a music store, for example, and fall in love with a Jimi Hendrix luxury box set in purple velvet. The owner and I strike up a conversation, and fifteen minutes later he’s asking me if I’d like to have his store. It was like that all the time – people wanted to give me something.”
Assignments keep pouring in. Jakob’s workday begins at 11 a.m. and stretches until 1 a.m. the next morning. When you work so much, you also deserve to party, he reasons. And Jakob can always start a party with his disco ball, smoke machine and colourful group of friends. Other people are like batteries that supply energy. “I attract high-energy types like myself, and talking to them gives me a charge. I can always talk faster than any of them.”
Later, Jakob is puzzled that nobody stopped to wonder what was going on. Maybe he overheard their warnings? Perhaps they said nothing because he was always overflowing with energy? “Because I did feel fantastic. I’m the chosen one! But I’m not the only one – anybody else can also be chosen, because they are also fantastic!” Jakob bathes everyone around him with positive energy, and he gets his way. As he tells the story of this period in his life, he suddenly demonstrates how it was. He claps his hands loudly as his voice booms out, “It’s going to be like this!” Then, he adds gently, “And my words made their mark.”
But there is an undercurrent, and it is pulling in the opposite direction. Jakob always says yes to clients. His girlfriend must wait, and this has its costs. “We’re lying in bed and I say, that I’d like to have a child with her. She’d like to have a baby, too, but she’s afraid to. She’s afraid that I’ll leave her to deal with the baby on her own. And I don’t know what to tell her, because I can’t say that I’m going to change everything.” The only way to get out of the situation is to accelerate.
Jakob moves into his office in 2001. “That’s probably the time when things began to fall apart,” he says, “because I’m starting to stay awake for several days at a time, working.” He remembers being frustrated by the music industry’s failure to grasp the potential of the Internet. Everything was still done on paper, he recalls, and if musicians wanted a website, they had to pay for it themselves. One night he is scribbling down ideas, faster and faster, and suddenly he explodes inside. “There is this FLASH and I have a vision. Everything that we are doing is totally passé. And I know what we need to do. We have to reform the entire music industry – no, the entire entertainment industry – and I see how things will be in six or seven years, I see it so clearly.” The veil between the inner and outer worlds is torn apart. A gale is raging inside Jakob’s head; outside, a thunderstorm has begun, and Jakob runs out to stand in the pouring rain.
Jacob hires six new employees to realize his vision. But the undercurrent is still there, and getting stronger. Clients are growing sceptical. As soon as he leaves a creative meeting, he cannot remember a word of what was said. The agency’s books are a mess, and their landlord wants to throw them out. And his new staff refuse to work at Jakob’s pace, threatening to call in their union. It’s not fun anymore. Now he just wants peace.
So he leaves his phones lined up on his desk, all five of them. He wants his staff to be able to figure out that the boss has left. But where does he go? To Gran Canaria with a few bags of dirty laundry. He has no idea that he is deeply into a manic episode. But his mania takes a new turn on the Spanish island: “My mania keeps soaring because I can’t talk to anyone. I feel quite lost, and yet everything is so beautiful.” At an AIDS memorial event that he attends, the sight of the many candles moves him. He looks out over the sea of light from above, but something disturbs him. “I could see that some of the candles weren’t lined up properly, so I ran down to fix them,” he recalls.
He has to go home when his money runs out. Some time later, his father asks him how he is doing. Not very well, Jakob tells him. Should his father come and get him? Yes. And then Jakob falls silent.
He moves into his parents’ basement and tries to get his life together. And to some extent, he succeeds. Another wave of wild, extravagant experiences storms through his life, sparking a new manic episode. Jakob describes these years as a long, downward spiral. Eventually, his parents go so far as to try and get him committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Here, he fluctuates between fits of rage and interludes where he charms the staff. Friends visit, bringing him cannabis. But when he is finally ready to leave the hospital, his past is waiting for him on the outside – and eager to catch up. “So many things had gone up in flames,” he recalls, “and I owed a lot of money – especially to a friend. And then I hit the bottom.”
One night, Jakob discovers that he is trying to figure out the most rational way to commit suicide; this time, he catches himself and is voluntarily admitted to the hospital for depression. When a manic patient on his new ward introduces himself as the sun god Ra, Jakob does not have the strength to reply. Patients sit in their robes, chain smoking. Everything has a greyish tinge. But Jakob discovers that he can please the other patients by drawing for them – monograms based on their names, or whatever else they might like. One day, he tentatively begins a drawing for himself. Pencil barely touches paper. Jakob, who normally oversteps whatever constraints he meets, now makes a rule: “I told myself I could not use an eraser. So I had to consider the consequences of every line I drew. No corrections! There was a lot of meditation in it. And I think it was a kind of parallel to my life.” He called the drawing The Animals’ Party, but the animals did not look happy.
The walls in Jakob’s flat are covered with paintings, drawings, clippings, mirrors, and pieces of fabric. Hecalls it “Santa’s workshop.” He is now 41 years old and has lived with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder since 2003, the same year he went bankrupt.
The realization that he will never return to his old life has come slowly. “I was Mr. Rock’n Roll when I lived in Copenhagen, and continued to be so for a long time in my own mind.” For an extended period he believed he was sad, not sick. Accepting his illness with the help of the Mood Disorders Clinic is a process that has taken years.
Mr. Rock’n Roll’s vast circle of friends has dwindled. He has become very selective about whom he sees in recent years; at times he isolates himself. His creativity has not left him, but he cannot concentrate as he did before. He overcomes this barrier with hours of quiet before he starts drawing. If he is interrupted he loses his focus, and must start over. The phone is on silent mode much of the time.
Jakob paints and illustrates for his own pleasure, and signs his work with the name ‘InCoqnito’. He occasionally agrees to take on a job, but only small ones with no deadline. Otherwise, the energy starts to pulsate much too strongly. It’s so easy for me to stir up a storm. And put myself into the eye of the storm, and watch it go through the strangest spins.” On the other hand, staying too far away from the storm is also dangerous. “I run the risk of things getting too grey,” says Jakob. “Then I can’t convince myself why on earth I should muster the energy to do anything at all. That’s how it is for everyone: we swing between the two poles in our struggle against indifference. But I craved creativity in everything I did.” And pure creativity is almost like anarchy, he says. “I used to have to do everything creatively – even unlocking my bicycle. Maybe it’s my curse? That I so wanted things to be new and fresh every day.”
Jakob is a graphic designer.
He designed more than 300 album covers between 1994 and 2004 for Danish artists such as D-A-D, Aqua, Safri Duo and the Raveonettes.
Jakob was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003, the same year he went bankrupt.
Since his first major manic episode on Gran Canaria in 2011, he has had four manic episodes and three depressions. His last hospitalization for mania was in 2011.
The disease makes it difficult for him to plan, remember and concentrate.
Jakob has received disability pension since 2010