Sunbeam Rd.: It Takes a (Well-Designed) Village

For friends Clive Hacker (Graphic Design 2012), Trevor Hacker (Graphic Design 2008), and Harrison Pollock (Graphic Design 2010), design is about a lot more than lines, colors, and fonts.

"Or working on the computer," adds Clive, speaking specifically about the trio's band, Sunbeam Rd., which formed in 2009 during his years at CCA (and was just featured today -- April 5, 2013 -- in the San Francisco Bay Guardian).

The three friends, who all hail from Lompoc, California, definitely perceive a relationship between the graphic design process and the process of producing an album. "With both, you have think about every aspect that you're putting together," says Clive.

Trevor agrees: "There's an overarching thematic element that's happening, but you still have to design each little piece, every idea, and then put them together. All these little tiny parts become the whole."

A Serendipitous Beginning

Sunbeam Rd. formed serendipitously one day when Trevor was asked to play at a house party in San Francisco's Sunset District. He had been playing informally with Harrison and Clive for years, and called them up to join him at the gig.

They worked up a five-song set list, the band became official, and the momentum from that night carried them through to a second show: the opening reception for the exhibition Art College Radio at the Orange Alley Project, an independent art space in San Francisco's Mission District curated by CCA alumna Jessica Rosen (MFA 2008).

Art College Radio was a "streaming Internet sound exhibition" guest curated by Luke Turner and former CCA faculty member Joseph J. Tanke, whose band, the Flails, would later share a stage with Sunbeam Rd.

Soon enough, the band members found themselves wanting to produce their first EP. They opted to self-produce it rather than working with a label so they'd maintain creative control over the music, the mixing, the mastering, and -- crucially, given that they are all designers -- the design of the physical release.

Real, Physical Music

"You cannot physically hand an MP3 to your friends and fans," Trevor laments, "and no one listens to CDs anymore." Given the choice, then, between producing a vinyl record or a cassette, Sunbeam Rd. chose the latter.

"The cassette is a symbolic object," Trevor explains of this borderline-antique medium, which has actually been experiencing a comeback among indie bands. "When you hold a recording in your hand, it's like an extension of the artist who made the music. Even if the graphics are badly designed, you still see that musician's personality coming through in the artwork, the decisions they've made."

The group wanted their EP to have more character than the standard Maxwell or TDK cassette, so they scoured the Internet for something unique, settling on "some really cool orange tapes with no logo." They hand-wrote on each copy so that each instance of the limited edition would have a personalized touch.

The artwork was a fold-out insert (or "J-card," in the archaic language of audio cassettes) with illustrations by Clive and typography by a friend of the band, CCA alumna Jennifer Hennesy (Individualized Major 2011).

The First EP

The EP, Turtles, Magnets, Animals, was released in June 2010 and came with a free digital download option. The SF Weekly reviewed it and observed that the band's "entrancingly spaced-out song structures and whiffs of reverb and fuzz mingle with three-part vocals that at times harmonize with startling talkiness and dissonance."

"It sold out," says Trevor with a laugh of the EP's 40-cassette run.

On to the LP

Not long after, work began on a full-length album, BREATHERS, which took nearly two years to complete. "I think every band wants to leave their mark on wax," Trevor says of the decision to go with vinyl this time. But they didn't have the money to pay for mastering and pressing, the two most expensive stages of production.

So in summer 2012, they turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds to finish BREATHERS.

Once again, the band placed great value on the physical release as a designed object. "It requires more investment, at least to our minds, than something you only make available online," Clive explains. And a 12-inch vinyl record really begs for a designer's deep focus on the artwork.

"I love LP covers; they're definitely pieces of art," says Clive, who designed the whimsical, psychedelic, Dr. Seuss-esque BREATHERS cover. The typography was done by current student James Edmondson (Graphic Design 2013), who Clive calls "a master of typography."

"We didn't have an elaborate scheme for the Kickstarter campaign, but we did have to babysit it, tend to it. There was a moment where we didn't know if we'd reach our goal," recalls Trevor.

But in the end, their friends, families, and even a few CCA professors came through to make the fundraiser a success. Sunbeam Rd. wrapped up production and released the album in October 2012.

The Video: Lucy

The band also released an official music video for the first track, "Lucy," which grew directly out of Clive's thesis project.

His intent was to explore the boundaries of how a band interacts with its fans, "specifically in a visual way, and specifically related to album cover art, which has been so important throughout the history of recorded music but has become mostly lost in the digital age."

He crowdsourced imagery and collected a wide range of material -- videos, drawings, photographs -- from friends, fans, and his CCA teachers. "I ended up deciding that a digital representation of an album cover isn't enough to engage fans, and proceeded to explore alternative ways of engaging them. Eventually it led to the creation of the music video."

The Bay Bridged blog reviewed it, calling it "a trippy kaleidoscope of shadow and light, reminiscent of the color screens from the discovery museums of our youths."

Sunbeam Rd. is continuing to push ahead, playing throughout California and garnering plenty of positive press. And each of the members remains deeply involved in art and design outside of the band:

Clive Hacker is a graphic designer for the multidisciplinary San Francisco-based firm Brick Design. He says that nonprofessional hobbies are "how you keep sane in the workplace."

Trevor Hacker is a graphic designer for the marketing department at the San Francisco Art Institute. In his spare time he "toys around with photography and other more experimental/improvisational music projects."

Harrison Pollock currently works in exhibition design for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, makes his own video art, and is involved in other musical side projects.