An interview with Craig Minowa of the eco-conscious indie band Cloud Cult
Rock stars. Some time in the last decade, the ever-unpredictable rebels stopped smashing guitars and started cleaning up after themselves. And not just in their hotel rooms -- this new breed is treading lightly on the planet.
Perhaps you've considered the toll our beloved music industry takes on the environment, with its plastic packaging and intercontinental tours. Cloud Cult certainly has. The innovative indie band, based from an organic hobby farm in northern Minnesota, produces music through the self-created label Earthology Records. Though no one buys Cloud Cult albums just because of their eco-conscious bent, it's refreshing when a talented group not only sings about the value of earth and life, but backs up those lyrics with some respectful production moves. Seemingly small things like recycling plastic CD cases, offsetting emissions, and supporting renewable energy all show Cloud Cult's consideration for the planet. In an interview with Utne.com bandleader Craig Minowa explains the messages behind the band's music and their environmental ways.
How would you describe Cloud Cult, musically speaking?
That's always a tough one. We generally get categorized as college indie rock, and that's a very large genre of sounds, but it tends to be a little more experimental than mainstream music. We don't adhere to any single genre, so if you're listening to an album track by track it can change a lot. You can be in the midst of a song that somebody would consider straight-up folk, and then go to something that seems more rock, and then go into something that's almost techno. It kinda flops all over the place. We don't want to get pigeon-holed as a single genre because that would get boring.
Are there lyrical themes?
Definitely. There seems to be a progression with the lyrics. With each album they seem to be evolving more and more in a philosophical, spiritual analysis. Not in a preachy sense, but more in trying to understand what it all means and really taking a hard look at mortality. And trying to put value on the short time that we have here on the planet, trying to understand or at least pontificate about what happens after we leave here.
The band has received a lot of attention for being an eco-conscious and socially responsible band as well as a musically sharp one. Can you explain the steps you've taken to earn such a reputation?
From the very start things have been different with Cloud Cult than with a lot of your traditional bands out there. With the first album (Cloud Cult was just me at that time; it was a studio act), I finished and realized that there was really no way to duplicate the CD in a way that I felt comfortable with, since that first album had some inclinations of environmental messaging in it. (I went to school for environmental science.) So with the first album I had to start from scratch in figuring out how to duplicate the CDs in an environmentally friendly way, and that's where Earthology Records began.
With your standard CD, if you're buying a plastic jewel case, that's a petroleum-based product; it's not biodegradable. There are all sorts of toxins that are made when you make that plastic. All of the inserts are virgin paper and there's all sorts of toxins in making that glossy-coated. And then it's shrink-wrapped in PVC [polyvinyl chloride], which is one of the most toxic plastics out there. It creates a lot of dioxin when you make the plastic shrink-wrap and it makes dioxin when you destroy it, if you incinerate it. That was just something I couldn't do, so initially we didn't even do shrink-wrapping.
We started off the process by putting out letters to college bookstores, asking them to put a box out with a note on it that asks students to recycle their jewel cases. If you try to take your jewel cases to the recycling center they actually won't take them because there's no way to recycle them. Over time it got to the point that a lot of recycling centers had the Earthology contact info. So when people bring their jewel cases there, the recyclers know, 'Earthology Records recycles them.'
So we get boxes and boxes and boxes of donated jewel cases and sift through them by hand by the thousands, and hand-clean them, and reuse those. We separately print out 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper that we insert into them. We've been working with the University of Illinois for the past few years on that shrink-wrap, and we finally have a biodegradable, biopolymer, corn-based shrink-wrap that actually dissolves in the rain and just makes fertilizer.
With the touring: that opens up a whole can of worms that we had to address. We put solar panels on the van. We got a diesel van, so we've been able to use biodiesel. We figure out how much CO2 we put out with our travel, we figure out how much electricity we use on stage and in hotels, and with the whole process, and we buy enough green energy wind credits from NativeEnergy to compensate for all that. And then we plant enough trees to absorb any of the pollutants that we made on the tour.
How exactly does the farm play into the Cloud Cult/Earthology project?
It's a little organic hobby farm. My wife and I just finished an intense canning session, which was really nice. Basically the goal is to ultimately grow enough that we can sustain ourselves on it, maybe even go to farmers' markets. My wife is an herbalist, so she would like to be able to grow a lot of her own herbs.
As far as the band goes, the recording studio is here. That's where the last three albums have been recorded. With the new album that's coming out we've been doing some recording at the bass player's recording studio, Essential Sessions Studios, down in St. Paul, too. So we have two studios going at once.
[The farm's studio] is a very modest studio, and I much prefer working in it, just because it tends to be pretty quiet and I like it mellow. With the touring you're always in busy club settings and in the heart of really big cities. It's nice to get back from the tours and come back to the farm and sit out on the deck and watch the aurora borealis and then go downstairs to the studio and write a song.
Is it difficult to balance all of these different aspects: the band, the label, and the thought that goes into making it a sustainable project?
For the band and the label itself, that's not all that difficult. It really is more than a full-time job, and unfortunately just because of the level that it's at, it's not a full-time job that pays enough to cover all the bills associated with it, plus living expenses. So on top of that I also am an environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association. So a good chunk of my daytime hours are actually spent doing that work.
When we're touring I've got mobile technology on my laptop, so while we're cruising down the highway I can be online researching studies and writing reports and things like that. It's incredibly difficult to juggle. It's really, really exhausting, and I'm hoping that sometime soon finances start working out. Album sales are picking up and tours have actually generated funding, whereas in the past you'd lose money being out on the road, as most bands do. But we're finally to the point where the crowds are big enough to validate driving all over the country a few months out of the year.
Speaking of your shows, did you want to say anything about the live painters you have at them?
Personally I've always liked going to see bands that have some sort of interesting visual thing going on. Unless you're a musician, it can get boring watching a musician play for an hour. It's interesting but I even get bored after a while. Music's great, but there should be something there that titillates all the senses.
We've got two full-time Cloud Cult painters that tour with us and they do paintings from scratch as we perform on stage. Connie Minowa is one of them and Scott West is the other. The paintings go up for bid at the end of the night and the highest bidder takes it home. That's how they make their money on the road, and at the same time it gives the audience something fun to watch.
Is there a story behind the band's name?
Yeah, there's a sect of Hopi prophecy that translates into 'cloud cult.' These prophecies basically talk about the different progressions of humanity or humankind on the planet. In the prophecies they say we're at the end of the third era of humankind and that the fourth era is really living in harmony with the planet and with each other. But there's a lot of transition in the third era moving into the fourth era.
The interesting thing about those processes are how specific they are. The cave drawings date prior to the pioneers coming, but they actually have pictures of the first whites that came through. The first one that they have is this guy with a red hat, and the first explorer that went through that area was known for always wearing that red hat. They talk about how the settlers would move in, and they call the settlers Technology Man because they love their toys so much. They basically move in and every tribe in North America ends up signing different kinds of agreements and treaties with Technology Man. The Hopi people do not because there is nothing on their land that Technology Man wanted -- it was just arid, void. But one of the signs of moving from the third to the fourth era is where Technology Man comes into the Hopi land and finds fuel that powers the technology toys. That's when you know you're starting to move into the cusp period into the fourth era. Basically that's what's happened. We've been going in there to mine out uranium, even though we have no right to it whatsoever.
The overall Cloud Cult prophecies talk about, not how technology itself is bad, but about how there's obviously a balance with it. And they talk about how the people that survive the transition of the cusp period will be those who know how to work the land, who know how to feed themselves from the land.
Is there a story behind the name of the last album, Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus?
It's kind of a hokey story... I used to keep a dream journal and I would have this recurring character in there that was this hippopotamus. I always had those dreams when there was some kind of transition going on in my life, or at a point when I needed to be taught a lesson or hear some kind of advice. There would be this hippo, and I would be running behind it in the woods, and all the sudden we'd be going through this white tunnel. And the hippo never actually talked to me in the dreams, but I felt like there was some kind of message that it left me with.
I didn't know what the concept of the album was when I started, but I ended up digging through my dream journals a lot and seeing those little bits of advice and I thought, 'Well that's a cool thing to put in a song.' So we put those little tidbits in there and ultimately, as the album started coming together, I realized, 'Wow there's a lot of songs here based on those hippo dreams and the advice from those dreams, so give the hippo credit.'
What's in the forecast for Cloud Cult?
We'll have a pretty lengthy spring tour in support of our new album, The Meaning of 8.
Cloud Cult's new album, The Meaning of 8, is available now through the band's website and will be in record stores on April 10.
Cloud Cult is:Craig Minowa, who drives the effort as songwriter, lead vocalist, and also plays keys and guitar as well as masterminding drum loops and sound effects; Dan Greenwood, who handles percussion and backup vocals; Sarah Young, who plays cello, keys, and sings backup; bassist Matthew Freed, who also contributes on the keys and percussion. At live shows Connie Minowa and Scott West paint and Adrian Young does video projections.
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