5Q :: Cloud Cult digs into its vaults for new reissuesThough Craig Minowa has been busy with preparations for welcoming a new baby into the world, he hasn’t neglected his main creative outlet, Cloud Cult. PLUS: A "reprint" of a lengthy interview between Minowa and the Budgeteer from '07.
Craig Minowa always seems to be up to something. Though the Hinckley-area visionary has been busy with preparations for welcoming a new baby into the world, he hasn’t neglected his main creative outlet, the earth-conscious alt-rockers Cloud Cult.
The group, which has seen its national fanbase increase exponentially over the last couple years, recently reissued a slew of harder-to-find recordings: the 2002 compilation “Lost Songs from the Lost Years” is back (though with an almost entirely new set of tracks), and the early-2000s albums “They Live on the Sun” and “Aurora Borealis” have been remixed and remastered and are now available together as a two-disc set.
To celebrate a large chunk of Cloud Cult’s back catalogue now reaching a much broader audience, we threw a couple questions in Minowa’s general direction:
Budgeteer: As was the case with most Cloud Cult diehards, I was excited to see that a “Lost Songs” reissue was on the horizon — but then I noticed a lot of songs from the hard-to-obtain original were chopped. What was the criteria for making this new version? Did you feel some of those older ones just didn’t stand the test of time? And ... any chance those castaways will ever resurface?
Minowa: This release would probably have been more accurately titled “Lost Songs II.” Most of the record is totally different from the original “Lost Songs.” There has just been a lot of unreleased material created since that first one came out, so we narrowed the final selection down to our overall favorites.
The original “Lost Songs” will never be re-released, and this current version is a limited edition. We like the idea of having something special and limited in quantity for our hardcore fans: When it’s gone, they have the only copies. That’s mostly why we chose to just release it exclusively on our Web site and not put it through our usual national distribution or through record stores.
It was also nice to see the “They Live on the Sun”/“Aurora Borealis” double re-release. What have you learned studio-wise since those two albums’ respective releases that you were able to apply to their recent remixing and remastering?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned about the final stages of making a record is in regards to the final volume levels. On those two albums, I didn’t expect radio play, so I never had them mastered professionally. I did all the mixing and mastering myself, but I later found that when it was played on the radio, the overall volume levels were lower than other songs you hear on the radio.
It’s something that has come to be known in the music business as the “volume wars.”
Music producers know that people will pay more attention to a song on the radio that is a little bit louder than other songs, so they are starting to compress the songs so much that there aren’t any dynamics anymore.
That is to say, the goal is to take a song that has quiet and louder parts and just make the whole thing as loud as possible. For example, the new Metallica record (“Death Magnetic”) is considered the loudest record ever recorded, because they compressed everything so much that there are no longer any quiet parts in songs.
Anyway, in going back to these two albums, I needed to find that fine line between maintaining artistic integrity with dynamics in the songs and being loud enough to at least not disappear into the mix you’d hear on the radio.
Most of the final decisions went toward the “artistic integrity” side, because I wanted to keep the albums authentic to their original creative goals.
There’s a curious posting on your Web site that Cloud Cult is seeking a “sane” multi-instrumentalist ... does the strain of touring prove to be too much for some?
We have gone through a lot of members over the years for various reasons, and the intensity of the touring schedule has played a role in some of that. But this particular step is due to the fact that the new album that will be coming out this year has a lot more instrumentation on it. There are full orchestras in some of it, so even having our current cello, violin, trombone and trumpet isn’t enough to pull off that sound on stage.
So we are needing someone who is able to perform at least a couple classical instruments to help fill in.
I was completely mesmerized by Ice Palace, the group you signed to Earthology. Are you cultivating any more talent for your homegrown label?
My wife, Connie, and I created Earthology when we were living in Duluth.
The original concept was not to be a conventional label, but to be an environmental nonprofit. The record label aspect was really only there because we needed to develop green methods of CD manufacturing, touring and merchandise for Cloud Cult.
We have since used that information to help “green” some other labels. We had never planned to release any other bands, but my brother-in-law and I got to talking one night, and we decided to use our model for Ice Palace, his band.
But, beyond that, the music business really doesn’t interest me at all, so we focus our non-Cloud Cult time on further developing other environmental aspects of Earthology, like greening elementary schools and gradually building an environmental learning interpretive center.
Finally, I’m sure you get this all the time, but ... has work begun on a follow-up to “Feel Good Ghosts”?
Yes, we will be releasing a new full-length album in the late summer. It’s actually been in the process of being created since before “Feel Good Ghosts” even came out, but a lot of the studio work is happening right now.
Cloud Cult will return from its baby-induced touring hiatus next month. Confirmed dates include Lutsen and Minneapolis (at First Avenue). See www.cloudcult.com for details.
Note: The following story, also written by Matthew R. Perrine, originally appeared in the Budgeteer June 10, 2007.
Music for the Green Revolution
It seems as if the world at large is finally coming around to Cloud Cult.
As far as critical accolades are concerned, the Minnesota indie rockers were handed a big one recently when the Denver Post hailed the group’s seventh album, “The Meaning of 8,” as one of the 12 best records released since 2000 — right up there with acts like Radiohead, Wilco and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.
But it’s not just the group’s recordings that are garnering so much attention.
When MTV came calling, it wasn’t even about music at all: The cable giant wanted to know more about the group’s Earth-friendly approach to … well, everything.
So, when the Budgeteer caught up with the group’s frontman and principle songwriter, Craig Minowa, it was only fitting that he was outside enjoying nature on his organic farm north of Hinckley.
The fact that he was locked outside of his house is kind of irrelevant, because he almost seemed to prefer it that way.
“Yeah, it’s really nice here, so I’m actually enjoying it,” Minowa said with a laugh.
And, given that his situation allowed him “all the time in the world,” we asked away.
Budgeteer: Are you on a break from your tour?
Minowa: Yeah, we got back a couple of weeks ago, and it feels really, really good to be home. [Laughs] When we left, everything was still covered in snow. Got back a couple of months later and the lawn was like, you know, knee high.
Do you ever get burnt out? Cloud Cult played a lot of shows on the first leg of the tour.
Oh, I definitely do. I’m definitely more of a rural person, and pretty introverted and pretty hermitic. [Laughs] I really like to be out here in the quiet at the farm. Going from big city to big city to big city can be a little overwhelming for me personally. I know some other folks in the band are a little bit more used to kind of the big-city rush. They have a better tolerance for that. I get burnt pretty quick.
How are the crowds reacting to what I’ve heard is a “mini-Woodstock on wheels” atmosphere?
It’s not as much like that at the shows anymore, just because … I don’t know, we shifted a little bit. Back when we had the “mini-Woodstock on wheels” touring, we had a couple light guys who actually did lights for the Doors way back in the day. They were some old-school, really cool fellas who did the old-school lighting — the liquid gels on overhead projectors and all those types of things. [Laughs] It was really neat, but now it’s more of an updated kind of thing. We’ve got the back-screen video and the two live painters and then the strings and everything like that. The crowds have been really, really nice. I’m just surprised. There are a lot of cities we’ve never played at before, and it’s really nice after so many years of touring around to be able to go to places and have people coming out who know who we are, enjoy the music and are all-around good people.
[Minowa’s wife, Connie, is a full-time painter and one of Cloud Cult’s two permanent visual artists.] Was it your wife’s idea for live painters onstage?
The other painter up there, Scott West, and I used to play in a band together in early, early college, and he at the time was going to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for painting. My wife did the same thing at MCAD, and so when Cloud Cult first became a touring thing, we were trying to figure out how to really make the show exciting to watch. In the early days, we actually worked with Semblesque (Dance Company) up there in Duluth. … We just sort of branched out from there. We started adding painters to the shows and for awhile we’d just welcome as many painters as we could get to come out — try and make the show sort of this thing where everybody was surrounded in a creative process happening. After a while, and after shifting over to focusing more on national touring, Scott and Connie both became our mainstay painters. So now they’re full-fledged band members. They do all of our shows with us and take care of the artwork, and they’re key players.
How do you stay earth-friendly on tour?
It’s kind of complicated. We use biodiesel with our van. We had solar panels on our van for a long time, but then we found out it was more energy efficient to have a panel powering in the stationary location; instead of hauling the batteries across the country. We also figure out how much energy we consume onstage, in our hotel rooms and on van traveling or flights; and then all of that is put together and we pay for an equivalent amount of energy to be pumped back into the power grid with wind power. Then we also figure out how much CO2 we put out on a given tour and plant enough trees to absorb all of that CO2. And then all of our products, of course, are environmentally friendly. If it’s T-shirts, it’s going to be 100 percent organic cotton. If it’s a CD, it’s going to be 100 percent post-consumer recycled. Every single angle that we can make more environmentally friendly, we do, and if there’s a product we can’t make within an environmentally friendly way, we just don’t make it.
Have there been any products you wanted to make, but couldn’t?
Bumper stickers, definitely. Unfortunately, they’re all made out of polyvinyl chloride — and that’s what helps them sort of endure the weather outside. I think it’s a million-dollar idea for somebody out there to come up with an Earth-friendly bumper sticker. I betcha all of the environmental nonprofits out there will start buying ’em from them. [Laughs]
Are any other big names following suit with Earth-friendly tours and packaging?
There’s a lot of bands out there who are adding “green” elements to their touring or to their CD replication — to different degrees and with different focuses. Dave Matthews, I know that he will do the green tag stuff to compensate for the CO2 on tour. Willie Nelson does the biodiesel thing. There’s a lot more mainstream bands starting to incorporate things like that into their touring. Sheryl Crow’s last college tour was an education tour on climate change, so it’s exciting to see some of the bigger acts kind of jumping on that. When we first started with it, even five years ago, it was something that was seen as almost unhip. I don’t know, we were kind of surprised by that — going to New York and some of these other places where the hipster kids didn’t really want to know that we were doing the green stuff. At the time, it seemed like it was equated with the hippie jam band kind of thing — which is good music, and has its genre and everything, but that’s not the type of music we play. As soon as you say you’re a “green band,” in certain places they immediately assume that you’re a preachy folk singer or a hippie jam band. We’re neither of those. If you listen to the music, you definitely can’t tell that we’re an environmental band. One of the neat things about the environmental movement right now is that there are a lot of mainstream bands out there that you don’t think of as being your stereotypical environmental band, but they are.
Do you think that environmental lyrics would turn listeners off — or is it just not something you want to write about?
About a decade ago, the music that I was writing had lyrics that were more focused on that, and then I just sort of lost interest in writing like that. And I also felt like I was being preachy, and felt like I was being hypocritical because there’s a lot of things in my life that I can do a lot better that I’m not doing. Then, too, I feel like there’s a change in the environmental movement in the sense that people are constantly inundated with all the horrible news about what’s happening with our global environment, and we don’t get enough information about solutions. So, I think a lot of people out there are just burnt out and have a bad taste in their mouth about the environmental movement because of the lack of upbeat, sort of solution news out there. I guess for us it feels more like the best we can do is really try to offer a model that other bands or record labels would be able to borrow some ideas from, and work to find solutions instead of going out there and preaching about it. And I think that there’s a place for music like that, too, but it’s definitely not what we do.
Were you surprised when MTV showed so much interest in what you’re doing?
Yeah, it was actually a little nerve-racking, because Connie and I, we’ve got this little organic farm here and it’s really modest, you know, it’s not fancy at all … like you’d see on “MTV Cribs.” [Laughs] I’m thinking, “OK, they’re flying a camera crew over here, and what are they expecting to see?” [Laughs] But they showed up and they were really, really nice people, and I was really pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. They did a really respectable piece about it, too. I was pleased about it, but I was totally shocked that they were interested too.
Is your farm in the Hinckley area?
We’re north of Hinckley right now, and Connie and I are looking for land back up closer to the Duluth area. We need real estate that’s a little bit more farm-friendly. The land we have right now has a lot of swampy areas.
Where did this love of nature come from?
As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the woods. I grew up in Owatonna, which is in southern Minnesota. I wasn’t the most popular kid. I was really small for my age, so I got beat up a lot. [Laughs] But I could climb really, really well. There were a lot of trees that I could go to that I knew that I could climb and nobody else could climb, so I would be safe. As I grew older, it became a sanctuary where I wanted to go to just find peace in college and whatnot. As I started to learn about some of the issues that were threatening them, I just inherently felt the need to get involved, and it’s never really gone away.
Cloud Cult’s sound has been compared to a lot of different groups — like the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse — are any of them influences?
The Flaming Lips one is funny, because I’ve never listened to the Flaming Lips. When we started getting the Flaming Lips comparison quite regularly, the band wanted me to listen to them so I could see why people were comparing us to them. To this day, I refuse to sit down and listen to a Flaming Lips CD just because I don’t want to feel influenced by them, you know? [Laughs] I can say I’m not familiar with them, and I feel all right with that. We played a festival with them last summer in Wisconsin and we’re playing festival with them at Red Rock Amphitheatre in Denver in August of this year, so I at least get to see them perform.
What do you listen to when you’re not on tour?
When we get back here, I’m pretty much burnt out on the indie rock scene by the time we get done touring. If I’m poppin’ music on the radio, it’s usually ’30s and ’40s music. Something that’s totally out of our genre. … We have satellite radio, and there’s a really good ’30s and ’40s station on there. I’m either listening to that or big-band music or … I’m an NPR junkie.
[In 2002, the Minowas’ 2-year-old son, Kaidin, died unexpectedly in the middle of night. Although they later reconciled, the loss drove the couple to separate for an extended period.] You’ve dealt with a lot of heavy personal issues. Is songwriting a cathartic act for you?
Yeah, songwriting has been my safety net completely. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for it. After we lost our son, we were both, you know, obviously just completely shattered and…. [Sighs] I guess I started to feel like I could feel close to him again when I was writing music. Initially, it was something where I would sit down at the piano and just play old recordings of him, so I could hear him talking in the background at the same time as I was playing. The music just kind of brought me into a deeper, more comfortable state of mind, where I could feel comfortable with feeling like I was with him. … Every single Cloud Cult record has him on it somewhere; his voice buried somewhere. Every single Cloud Cult album has his image on it. He’s become the driving force now. It’s different than it was before, where, with the earlier albums, it was sort of using the music to work my way through the grieving process. And now it’s more like I feel my son’s presence with me all the time. I look to him for inspiration, what the song should be about. It’s kind of interesting. I just kind of wait and think, and let him guide where the song’s gonna go.
When you wrote “Dream Music for Little Wizards,” was that for your son?
Yeah, that was for my son. I was working on that when my wife was pregnant. He was born colicky, so I kind of continued to work on it. I had this idea of creating an album for colicky babies. It had a lot of alpha waves planted into it. So that was in his music collection, and, as he grew older, he got to pick what he wanted to listen to when he was going to sleep, and that was one he picked a lot. When they asked about it (for inclusion on the “Treasure Chest” CD, which benefited Duluth’s Pearl Swanson), it just felt logical.
Are there any styles of music you’d like to experiment with that Cloud Cult hasn’t touched on yet?
I feel like I’m getting deeper into the classical realm. I think this next album is going to have even more of that. And, for the first time, we’ve been adding horns. For the Grandma’s show, we’ll have a horn player up there. I’ve been really, really enjoying having some brass up there. There’s definitely going to be more brass happening, too, but as far as genres go, we flip a lot through different genres on the albums. I feel like I’d rather not be too tied into any single genre, and, with that, any given song we can have it be electronica and the next song is, like, bluegrass, and the next song is really classical. I kind of like flipping through genres like that, like a really good mix tape.
You’re quite prolific. How often do you compose new music?
Whenever I get back to the farm is when I work on the music. I have a really hard time writing when we’re on the road. It’s here at the farm where you can sit outside and write and the stars are just perfectly clear, and you just kind of sit and wait for whatever it is that’s going to happen that night. But it’s my favorite thing to do, writing and recording. The only reason that I even tour is just because it gets the music out there. It kind of gives me an excuse to spend so many nights sitting in the studio writing and recording. But if I had my choice, I would be full-time writing and recording. [Laughs] I probably wouldn’t be out there doing live shows very much at all because coming up with a new song is really exciting. This last week, actually, was the first time that I ever … oh, MTV called and they were interested in some songs of the back album that they wanted to have remixed. It was the first time that I felt so close to the occupation that I really enjoy, in a sense that they called and said, “We’ll pay you for the music. Can you get it to us in two hours?” It felt really great to go to the studio and just crank out something like that.
Two hours, that’s it?
Yeah. [Laughs] Well, the songs were already written. They just wanted them remixed in different ways.
On that MTV piece, you mentioned a job outside of music. What do you do?
I’m an environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association. They’re based up there north of Duluth in Little Marais. I’ve been working with them for six years now. My wife is a full-time painter and now sings too. She has worked with the Environmental Organization for Great Lakes Education there in Duluth for probably about five years. … I really love working with them (OCA), because I get to focus on sustainable agriculture issues and children’s environmental health issues — well, Connie does way more with children’s environmental health work. I’d like to do more of that, but that’s what her complete focus is on. … Obviously, I live in a little organic farm, so I really enjoy those issues. It’s really a blessing to be able to do the music and then come back and have the flexibility with Organic Consumers Association, where they allow me to write their twice-per-month newsletter. It lets me be creative, and lets me do all sorts of research in environmental areas. I can step away from the purely creative process that is writing music and get into the other side of my brain, which is science mode. And I love that equally as much.
What did you study in school?
Environmental science. It started off with biology and ecology, and it sort of branched off from there. I knew that I wanted to work in the environmental movement. I love the sciences and … I really felt like the thing that the environmental movement needed more than anything was just some good, solid science — and not as much of the sensationalism. I wanted to be really well-versed in the sciences.
Some major labels were interested in the group, but did they not want to do things the environmental way?
It’s varied. There were a couple of larger labels that were interested, but when they found out how much it costs to make the CDs in an environmentally friendly way, they shied away. Our last discussion was with a Warner group. They were OK with us doing everything how we want to do it — or so they claimed [Laughs] — but when you sign on the dotted line with them, it’s upwards of a five-year agreement. [Laughs] It just feels like things are going really good for us right now, and we really like the freedom of being able to operate things in a way that feels like it’s the ethically correct thing to do. And as soon as you sign on that dotted line, that’s when the horror stories start to happen. You hear it all the time. Even if it seems like a watertight contract, it seems like there’s always something in there…. Being independent is just what we really enjoy.
For more on Craig Minowa or Cloud Cult, check out www.cloudcult.com or www.earthology.net.
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