Interviewer’s note: the following interview is the first in a series I will conduct with various indie rock bands of political, artistic, and literary merit. “Ten Questions” will be the series title, as I hope to keep these interviews suitably brief for an online format.
Based out of Minneapolis, Cloud Cult formed in 1995 as the brainchild of Craig Minowa. But it wasn’t until 2005, with the release of Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus, that their music began to receive the kind of attention it deserved. Rooted in spiritual convictions and an environmentalist message, the music is personalized by the hardships Minowa has suffered – and it is perhaps this personal element, more than anything, that has gained Cloud Cult the, well, “cult-like” following they enjoy today.
In 2002, Minowa and bandmate-wife Connie Minowa lost their two-year-old son when he stopped breathing during the night. This loss caused the couple to separate for a time, and it was during this period that Minowa wrote more than 100 songs in an attempt to deal with this grief. Their latest album, Light Chasers, carries over these themes, and like the earlier albums it is incantory, celebratory, and full of love for life against the odds. Here is Minowa, in an earlier interview with Ground Control Magazine, speaking on what keeps him going in good times and bad.
“Basically, for years I’ve been trying to find God, feeling like I had to be in some extreme state of being, whether it’s really focusing on mortality or in this really deep place with music. I felt the divinity that I was finding in music is that same divinity you could find in your relationships. I found divinity with my wife. I found divinity with my son. I found divinity when I had a really good one-on-one conversation with my best friend. I don’t need to be in hell or in some extreme deep trance to get that feeling. I can get that from my family and my loved ones.”
Raul Clement: How did Cloud Cult form? I know you’ve been playing music from a very young age. Were the people you recruited to be in the band people you already knew, and did it come together easily or with struggle? Obviously one of the members is your wife, Connie.
Craig Minowa: It started off as a solo studio project. I recorded The Shade Project, Who Killed Puck and They Live on the Sun without any intention to ever have a live band, but They Live on the Sun ended up going to the top of the college radio charts, so there was suddenly a lot of pressure to do live shows and tour. We’ve had a number of musicians come and go from the live band over the years, but Sarah Young, the cellist, has been on board from the get-go, and Scott West and Connie Minowa started painting on stage with us around 2004. The other current band members have been on board for varying times and mostly replied to ads we had out for openings in the band. Shannon Frid joined on violin three years ago. Shawn Neary came on board on bass a couple of years ago. Arlen Peiffer joined us on drums early last year. And Sarah Elhardt joined us on brass and keys a few months ago.
RC: Where does the band name Cloud Cult come from? It seems to be the perfect amalgamation of your interest in nature and in what you have called “the great mystery.”
CM: It wasn’t ever intended to be the band name. It was the name of the “Who Killed Puck” studio project and summed up the focus of that album. It’s a collection of ancient prophecies that predicted European settlement here in North America and predict the downfall of the current society at the hands of poorly managed overuse of technology. It basically suggests that our technology is growing faster than our spirituality and that we are getting out of balance.
RC: Speaking of the “great mystery,” you grew up in a conservative Christian family, right? Also, you’ve spoken about struggling to find God. And yet your music, while definitely spiritual, doesn’t preach. What is your relationship with the “great mystery” now? Do you put a specific face or denomination on it?
CM: The Cloud Cult music has always been about that search for God and the understanding of the Great Mystery. But it really began to hone in on that when we lost our first son at two years of age. Ever since then, I’ve found a certain connection to him through the music. I feel music is a sacred language that, when used right, can allow us all to tap into the otherside. I came from a very conservative Christian family, and I appreciate the values and concepts I was raised with, but I no longer categorize myself in any denomination. I feel that kind of thing just separates us from each other, but we’re all here with similar journeys.
RC: You’ve had a lot of personal struggle in your life. I don’t want to dig in more than you’re willing to, but what gives you the strength to make such uplifting, inspirational music? You’ve described it as a “celebration.” You don’t feel bitter about anything?
CM: Music is very medicinal for me, so I’ve used it, historically, to help me through a lot of hard stuff. In the process, that music unintentionally ended up helping some other listeners out there, so over time we’ve been fortunate to attract a following of like minded seekers, many of whom have had some serious struggles in their lives. I don’t profess to have the answers or to not have serious flaws, so, yes, there are struggles in this life that I still feel bitter about, but I don’t want to propagate those negative feelings by putting that into songs and spreading that around. I want to spread the helpful art.
RC: Do you write most of the music? Lyrically, it seems very personal. How much do other members shape the songs?
CM: I write the songs at home and work them up in my home studio. When the album is getting close to completion, I send those out to the band, and they come one by one to record their parts. Sometimes their parts are pre-written, and they get sheet music from me, and sometimes I ask for input or improvisation.
RC: Where does the name Minowa come from? It was adopted by you and your wife, correct?
CM: It’s our family name. We kept our original last names in our middle names and added “Minowa” when we were married. It means “moving voice”.
RC: Our readers will no doubt be interested in your commitment to environmental issues. You live in a geothermal house. You drive a biodiesel van. Your CD cases are recycled and you are the founder of Earthology Music, which attempts to minimize the carbon footprint of music making. On a scale of one to difficult, how hard is it to avoid compromising in the modern world? Are those who say it is too difficult simply making excuses?
CM: I would say it is quite difficult to live the green life in our society. There’s a mass mentality where a vast number of every-day behaviors here are considered ethically okay. Since everyone is doing it, it is very difficult to wake one’s self up from the illusion and come to the realization that it’s not right. We’re just getting started on truly greening our lives, and there is a lot of compromise with that. For example, there is no real way to completely mitigate our negative impacts on the environment from touring, so I’m not sure how much longer that machine will continue in its path. Having said all of that, I think people would be surprised how easy it is to have massive positive impacts on our environment with a few relatively simple every day life changes. For example, everyone knows that if you sell your car and buy a Prius, you’ll reduce your greenhouse gas output dramatically. But few people know that a recent study showed you can reduce your co2 output to a comparable level simply by eating 30% less meat. Of course, I’m speaking of the average American above. Kudos to the bike riding vegetarians who would read that previous statement and already have the majority of us licked.
RC: What about the paintings your wife and Scott do on stage? Has that been going on since the beginning? Is it still going on? And what was the impulse behind it?
CM: Scott was one of my closest friends in college, and I was dating Connie. They were both going to college for painting, so they were painting around me a lot when I was writing music, so it just felt natural to put the two together. We added that to the live show in 2004 and it is still a part of every show.
RC: I don’t want to ask the cliché question about influences. And so I’ll just ask: what are you into right now? That can include music, books, movies, art or anything that interests you – whether or not it has a direct influence on your work. It can also include any hobbies we might be interested in.
CM: I don’t listen to hip music anymore, because I’m old and out of the loop. By the time we’re done recording and touring, the type of music I want to hear is usually something very different from the alternative indie rock we’re pretty much always around. So I listen to big band music, and 40s-60s bubblegum pop. It’s really simple music, so my brain just feels relaxed and doesn’t get engaged in it. I can’t say it influences my music at all. Nature is the biggest influence on the Cloud Cult music. I also read a lot of books on various types of spirituality and philosophy, so that turns up in the lyrics.
RC: What’s next? Does Cloud Cult plan to continue touring and making music for foreseeable future?
CM: We just released a new album and are in the midst of a national tour to back that. I never know what’s next. We recently had a child, and we want to have another one, and I’d like to get more into farming and less in the limelight, so sooner or later the live shows will end, but the music will continue to be written, because I have an inherent need to write. Even long after the fans move on from our music and no one is buying albums anymore, I’ll still be writing music.
If you’d like to know more about Cloud Cult and their transcendent music, you can visit www.cloudcult.com or watch their 2009 DVD, No One Said It Would Be Easy, available for order on their website and on Amazon.com.