Three years ago, Cloud Cult skipped out on a scheduled performance at the South by Southwest music festival in Texas — a potentially career-making gig for ambitious indie rock bands — to open for Ralph Nader at a protest rally.
That decision tells you a lot about Cloud Cult, a ragtag crew of musicians and painters who put more value on their unique brand of DIY environmentalism than on record sales; and who fill their records with painfully sincere songs about grief and loss, and then set them to raging hard rock guitars, soaring strings and weird studio trickery.
Somehow, it all works. While still far off the mainstream radar, Cloud Cult has earned acclaim and a growing audience for their passionate rock. They did show up at this year’s recent South by Southwest, and staged several well-attended performances for their sprawling live show (which features two artists painting onstage the entire time). An anticipated new album will be released April 8.
“They’re one of those bands, you listen to one of their songs 40 times and you’ll hear something new on the 40th time,” said Barb Abney, a DJ at Minnesota Public Radio’s rock station, The Current, which has championed the band. “But you know, at the same time, listen to them once and you feel like you know them.”
When bandleader Craig Minowa first started writing and recording music 13 years ago in his apartment, he was more worried about getting to know himself.
“It helped me sort things out,” said Minowa, 35, during a break from band rehearsals in the basement of his farmhouse near the eastern Minnesota town of Hinckley. “It’s an aspect I need to exercise.”
Mourning his son
The next few years handed Minowa much to sort out. In 2002, just as Cloud Cult was starting to earn notice by college radio DJs and record store regulars, Minowa’s 2-year-old son Kaidin died mysteriously in his sleep.
Minowa and his wife, Connie, said doctors were never able to explain exactly what happened to their son.
Craig and Connie, one of the band’s on-stage painters, split up for a time. But rather than let tragedy derail his music, Minowa poured his sorrow into Cloud Cult’s songs — producing a series of albums he now likens to the stages of grief, and offering up an alternative to the glibness and irony that pervades much of indie rock.
Take for instance a song like “Your 8th Birthday” off 2007’s “The Meaning of 8,” in which Minowa imagines his son’s 8th birthday party had he not died, and which culminates with Minowa repeatedly crying out his son’s name in his high, fragile voice.
“There’s not a lot of music out there that deals so sincerely with love and with loss and with hope,” said Sarah Young, the band’s cellist. “And so I think when people hear it, they can take it into their lives for whatever it is they’re having issues with.”
It all sounds uncomfortably personal, but the often over-the-top music helps balance the pathos. Each record hops between genres, incorporating driving rock, symphonic ballads, pulsing dance beats and delicate folk — sometimes in the same song. The Arcade Fire and the Flaming Lips are easy comparisons, but Cloud Cult’s sound is really all its own.
Big record sales haven’t necessarily followed, although “The Meaning of 8” sold 10,000 copies, about 4,000 more than its predecessor, “Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus.” Critics have taken notice, with the Denver Post’s music writer grouping “The Meaning of 8” alongside huge-selling albums by Green Day, Jay-Z and Radiohead as one of the dozen best pop records released since 2000.
Eschewing major label successMinowa, the band’s singer, songwriter and guitarist, still works his day job as a writer and analyst for the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association. The six other band members — a bassist, drummer, cellist, violinist and the two painters, who are considered full members — earn livings as a pediatric nurse, a grocery clerk, a music school administrator and a bookstore cashier, among other things.
But Minowa has turned down offers from major record labels, insisting it’s “complicated” but mainly motivated by his insistence on manufacturing his product in an environmentally sustainable way.
A few years ago, the Minowas established Earthology Records; Cloud Cult is the only artist on the roster. Every week, boxes and boxes of used CD jewel boxes get shipped to the Minowas’ farmhouse, which they recycle as packaging for Cloud Cult’s back catalog; shrink wrap is made of low-density polyethylene or a biodegradable plastic manufactured from corn.
“Earthology was never set up as a traditional record label, it’s more trying to set up models that we can share with other members in the music industry and sort of perpetuate the process,” Minowa said. To that end, he said several major record companies and distributors have adopted some of Earthology’s practices.
Whether it’s music, or environmentalism, Minowa said he’s inspired by a desire to “leave the world better than if I wasn’t here at all.” That’s what motivated the band’s perhaps most distinctive aspect, the use of painters on stage during live performances.
“As soon as the drums kick in on the first song, that’s when we start laying down the paint,” Connie Minowa said. While Craig cites the importance of tapping into a wider range of creative expression than a typical rock show, the painters also serve a pragmatic function.
“We have a 15-minute silent auction that happens after the end of the show, where the painting goes to the highest bidder,” Connie Minowa said. “It’s just another way to support Cloud Cult.”
On April 11, the band is to embark on a nationwide tour in support of the new album, “Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)”. It’s a less emotionally naked album than the previous few, but in its focus on rebirth and new life, no less reflective of where Minowa’s life is at.
“I’ve seen the other side, and I understand it all a little better now, and I’m happy to be where I am, and let’s start again,” Minowa said. “We want to have a baby again, and we’re ready for that. So that’s the rebirth process, too.”