Craig Minowa has been nurturing his eco-friendly band Cloud Cult since the early 1990s, and like anyone who is finally reaping some success after eking out a living in the hard-scrabble world of experimental orchestrated indie-pop, he speaks with pride at how his musical garden has grown.
“It’s been a gradual process,” says Minowa by cell phone from his organic farm in northern Minnesota. “But it seems like with each album we come out with, there’s a trajectory that goes through yet another layer of the crust of mainstream media.”
Minowa considers the most recent of Cloud Cult’s eight ingenious discs of green-themed songs about life, loss and redemption - 2007’s “The Meaning of 8” and this year’s “Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)” - especially important breakthroughs.
“Releasing an album used to put me in the hole financially,” he says. “Until the last two albums, I was using a credit card to put them out. But for ‘The Meaning of 8,’ I didn’t have to go into debt. It was the first album that core members pooled their money and treated it as an investment.”
Even so, when “Feel Good Ghosts” was released in April, Minowa announced that Cloud Cult might go on indefinite hiatus after its 2008 tour and perhaps call it quits.
However, the 35-year-old frontman, who works as an environmental scientist for the on-line nonprofit Organic Consumers Association, is now forecasting a sunnier future for Cloud Cult and its music, which has drawn comparisons to Arcade Fire, The Postal Service and The Polyphonic Spree.
“The spring tour went really well financially,” notes Minowa, who with his band mates often travels in a bio-diesel van, records in a geothermal-powered studio and contributes to the non-profit conservation organization American Forests and NativeEnergy.com, which helps build wind turbines on Native American reservations.
“And we have been able to back off on regular day jobs,” says the singer, who estimates he has had 36 of them, including kids’ party entertainer, wedding DJ, ice cream truck driver and window handle factory worker. “So we decided to come out and do a fall tour. ... It’s lucrative enough for me to consider it a paying job.”
On the tour, “We will be bringing the full shebang,” says Minowa, “painters included.”
Minowa is referring to his wife, Connie, and trumpeter Scott West, who create original works onstage as the band plays. At the end of each concert, the paintings are auctioned off, with proceeds going to green groups.
Minowa attributes his interest in the environment to his parents, who instructed him about the importance of all living things - humans, plants and animals - as he was growing up in Owatonna, Minn.
“And I’ve always had an inherent need to do music,” adds Minowa, citing The Cure’s Robert Smith as “a huge role model” and crediting the Art of Noise for his interest in samples and sound sculpting.
“That carried me through (lean times). I’d think back to bands like (British new wave band) The Cure, who had a half-dozen albums out before hitting in the U.S.”
Minowa released the first of Cloud Cult’s eight albums, 1994’s “Shade Project,” as a solo studio project. The band’s name refers to ancient Native American prophecies advising humans to balance technology with spirituality.
However, by the time of 2000’s “Who Killed Puck?” he had formed his own label, Earthology Records, and recruited other musicians, and they began to play live.
Cloud Cult’s status among critics and fans billowed with three subsequent albums - 2003’s “They Live on the Sun,” which hit No. 1 on many college-radio charts; 2004’s “Aurora Borealis,” and 2005’s “Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus.”
“Our music is open, honest and intimate,” says Minowa, noting that “They Live on the Sun” was written in the year after the death of his infant son Kaidin in 2002.
“‘Sun’ is about all of the different grief processes,” he explains, “while ‘Borealis’ is about the later stages of grief, when you’re starting to accept it and think about mortality and the hereafter. ‘Hippopotamus’ delves further into that philosophy. Near the end it gets playful about what happens when we die.”
“The Meaning of 8,” says Minowa, “is about what it would be like if you had one foot in the living and one foot on the other side of that veil,” while “Feel Good Ghosts” says that “life has its own inherent darkness” and outlines “the exercises and mental habits that allow you to smile - you know, party through the tornado.”
In concert, Minowa and band are performing several tunes from “Ghosts,” including “Everybody Here Is a Cloud.” “The meanings are multiple,” says Minowa of the joyfully rhythmic track he conceived on his back porch late one night while looking up at the stars and watching the clouds between them. “On one level, it says the vast majority of what we’re made of is water. “But it’s also about longing for the hereafter and wondering what that will be, and on a socio-political level, about the path to a more sustainable civilization.”
“No One Said It Would be Easy” and “Journey of the Featherless” also are on the set list.
“It’s kind of like a pep rally song,” says Minowa of the former, a pulsating, keyboard-rippled neo-psychedelic tune. “It’s about the struggles we’re going through, and the necessity to stay optimistic, fight the good fight and make it out the other side.”
The latter is one of “Ghosts” best daft flights of fancy. It was inspired by trip to Malaysia that Minowa’s wife had to make because of her job, as head of the Earthology Institute, a non-profit devoted to children’s environmental issues founded by the Minowas in the late 1990s.
“She had never flown so far, and she has a fear of flying,” says Minowa. “I was concerned, so I started writing a song while she was in the air. ... I had been working on a different song about a winged creature that could only fly straight up. So I tied those two songs together.”
There’s a line in “Featherless” that goes; “They say that I’m a lunatic, they say that I am full of it,” so Minowa is asked if anyone has ever said those things to him.
“I’m lucky to be in the profession I am, where people tolerate that kind of lunacy,” he replies with a laugh. “In my more white-collar career, I’ve got to hide that lunacy in my brain and keep my mouth closed.”