Cloud Cult is the multimedia, experimental brainchild of Craig Minowa, still mostly based in Minnesota, though Minowa and his wife Connie now reside in Wisconsin. Connie is a visual artist, and she’ll be painting during their set at Saturn on Wednesday night.
The band also accompanied their 2016 release The Seeker with a feature-length film of the same name. Over 22 years, the band has released 10 albums on their own; a measure, Minowa says, was taken to assure that the practices in recording and printing albums was done in an environmentally friendly way. Through decades of licensing and being courted by larger labels, the band has remained true to its pledge and released everything on its own Earthology label.
2017 is the 10-year anniversary of their landmark record The Meaning of 8. As the band reflects on that occasion, they’ll visit Saturn for the first time. Minowa discussed the band’s latest effort — both the album and the film — ahead of Wednesday’s show.
Weld: Why did you choose to stay away from label distribution early on?
Craig Minowa: We were fortunate to get some major label interest — and we did originally negotiate with one label in particular — but it came down to the manufacturing process. We were pretty particular about using 100-percent post-consumer recycled materials. And in the negotiations, we weren’t able to have the label guarantee that the materials would be manufactured that way. So we felt like we would be more comfortable running our business ourselves.
Weld: What causes does the Earthology foundation support?
Minowa: We’re kind of all over the board. We have the 501(c)3 Earthology Institute and that’s focused on environmental education and environmental sustainability. We’ve donated a lot to American Forests over the years. They’ve done a lot of tree planting domestically. So when we do our tours and when we create new albums, we figure out how much CO2 we cranked out on the road and we plant enough trees to reabsorb all of that CO2. We mostly do that through American Forests, but we’ve also used Native Energy through the years — a non-profit where you can buy energy that is created by solar panels on native reservations to go back into the grid from which we’ve consumed. We also donate to Make-A-Wish and various other medical organizations.
Weld: Are there any plans to mark the 10-year anniversary of Meaning of 8?
Minowa: Yeah! At the Birmingham show we’ll be pulling up some songs from that album that we haven’t done in quite a few years. We hope to, over the course of the year, bring back some more songs from that album.
Weld: I’ve always heard an overwhelming Flaming Lips influence in your music. Is that fair? Did they influence you guys?
Minowa: That’s interesting, because back in the early days – that’s what a lot of critics first and foremost put as “sounds like.” And at the time, I had never listened to them; I had heard of them, but not listened. The drummer in the band had one of their albums and I asked if I could borrow it to find out what people were talking about. And I got it! I thought, “Okay, he kind of sings like I sing.” And they were way more well-established, so I can see how that reference came into play. But no, I’ve never listened much. We’ve been fortunate enough to play a couple of festivals with them.
Weld: One thing that Wayne [Coyne] has in common with you that you may be unaware of: it’s his loyalty to his home. How important is home to you and why have you stayed close?
Minowa: When we had our son, we moved to a small town in Wisconsin so that we could be a little closer to the town that we grew up in, a little bit closer to family. We were originally in Northern Minnesota, but when the first child came, it felt like it was a little too far for the grandparents to travel. We’re in Southwest Wisconsin now — it’s a small town; and we wanted to be in a small town, but we wanted to be in a town that was progressive. It’s near the headquarters of Organic Valley; so a lot of the farmers around there are organic. It actually has the highest proportion of organic farmers in the United States. So it draws a lot of people from bigger cities that are looking to get back to the land. La Farge, Wisconsin.
Weld: That’s kind of a West Coast attitude for the Midwest. Is it unusual?
Minowa: It’s unusual in the sense that, with the boom of big agri-business in the ’80s, they put a lot of small farmers out of business. In the Midwest, being very farm-centric, poverty arose out of that. And these small farming towns that used to be thriving; towns that had arts and music — the downtowns dried up. It’s gotten rarer to have a thriving farming town in the Midwest because of the boom of big agri-business. So it’s unique to still have family farmers that still have their farms that are thriving. Unfortunately, that’s not common anymore.
Weld: Your music was licensed for an episode of How I Met Your Mother and Josh Radnor was also the star of your feature-length film The Seeker. How did that relationship begin and grow?
Minowa: He came out to a show in L.A. quite a few years back. We met him there and exchanged contact information. Over the years, he and I would exchange emails — mostly focused on philosophy and big picture concepts like, “What is God?” and “Why am I here?” We went back and forth through the years and we working on the Love album, we talked about the possibility of him directing a film that was in coordination with that. And it ended up not working out; but when we were working on this album and we knew that we were going to make it a film, I reached out to him just to see if there was any remote possibility that he has some availability. He was down in Peru at the time doing some spiritual searching. He got the email and said yes and he was amazing to work with.
Weld: How did that creative process work? Was it his concept? Yours? A collaboration?
Minowa: The film was written by Cloud Cult and directed by Jack D. Johnson. Jack D. Johnson had a strong hand in visualizing the story that we created and Josh — for this project — was one of the actors in it.
Weld: Is there dialogue? Or is the story told through your lyrics?
Minowa: Nope. The entire thing is a visual depiction of what’s happening in the storyline that you don’t hear in the lyrics. The lyrics on the album don’t always depict what’s happening in the storyline, but when you have the visuals paired with the lyrics, you realize what the story is — it’s a concept that’s been used on past Cloud Cult albums, too. I’ll have a rough narrative, but without the visuals, people don’t always have an idea of what’s happening. Which is intentional, for the most part.
Weld: Will you incorporate that into the live show?
Minowa: We had been doing that for a little while — where we had back screen video. But we also have two painters in the band and we were starting to feel like there was too much going on. It was distracting to have too many things happening. But we will do a series of shows later this spring where we perform the full score and play the film at the same time.
An evening with Cloud Cult comes to Saturn on Wednesday, January 25. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. No opening act is billed. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.