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Until two years ago, Craig Minowa was the lunar type, drawing his blinds during the daytime and listening to Cure records until the sun went down again. But things changed after he woke up one morning to find his two-year-old son Kaidin had passed away during the night. (When talking about what happened, Minowa simply says, "Kaidin left the planet.") His wife--Kaidin's mother and Minowa's high school sweetheart--left him soon thereafter. Alone at his organic farm in Sandstone, Minnesota, he was like Job, doubting the universe, his suffering sometimes making him doubt his sanity. "I remember standing outside," he says, "just laughing hysterically, and feeling like it would be so funny if I got hit by lightning."
The lightning never hit. And then these songs came. Cloud Cult's They Live on the Sun and the forthcoming Aurora Borealis are both evidence that Minowa is becoming more like a solar flare: His music is swift and unpredictable, occasionally stunning. Aurora Borealis plays like the more melodic, serious counterpart to its predecessor, while They Live on the Sun conjures two-minute excursions into sonic radiance that keep your brain whirring for days--think Built to Spill minus the guitar solos, with a truncated time code and electronic Devo-lution gnawing at the boards. Elbowing Radiohead off a number of college charts, "Fairy Tale" is a trundling-into-glory tune that should unbury countless heads from dreary pillows. An echoing piano hook and thundering drums groove into place as Minowa's grainy tenor describes the whiskey in Mother Hubbard's cupboard and Jack's big, green beanstalk. A few songs later, you hear Kaidin singing into the microphone, and then you've entered Minowa's wrenching world.
"The carbon that's here was made on the sun, so we all came from that place, literally," he says. It's a bright October morning filled with monoxide and pancakes as I join the four members of Cloud Cult for breakfast at French Meadow in Minneapolis. The server hands us our organic burritos and omelets while the Saturday morning traffic beeps and roars outside. Minowa explains, "When [the sun] collapses in on itself, we all get to be together again."
As your faithful correspondent from the concrete world, I will confess my prejudices at the outset: I don't believe in that cosmic stuff. Yet there is a sincerity to Minowa that helps me understand why he does. He has the earnestness of a man who has paid for his sanity. Salt of the earth, they used to call it. His suffering is his own, and he won't burden you with it.
Listening to the rest of the band speak, you get the feeling that they're just as down to earth. Drummer Dan Greenwood is a scruffy journalist who recently interviewed homophobic protestors at the confirmation of gay Rev. Gene Robinson. Cellist and singer Sarah Young works as a pediatric nurse and often volunteers her services in Guatemala. And bassist Mara Stemm, who keeps a rock 'n' roll sleep schedule, doles out caffeine to coffeehouse patrons. But Minowa still does most of the talking. He barely touches his breakfast burrito.
"The replication process is just so gross," he tells me, moving on to discuss the kind of carbon that doesn't come from the sun. Then he's on a roll: Polyvinyl chloride releases dioxins when incinerated, he explains, and let's not even talk about jewel cases. The music industry would rather destroy the planet than put some effort into figuring this stuff out. Which is why his label, Earthology Records (www.earthology.net), uses recycled materials and geothermal energy to produce its releases, giving 100 percent of the profits to environmental causes. During their show at the Cedar Cultural Center this week, when Minowa claims they'll have "an enviro education/entertainment shitzbah with full back-screen video, performance artists on stage (and in the audience), and a light show--all while the band plays," Cloud Cult will donate all profits after expenses to environmental charities.
This is what makes Cloud Cult so fascinating: They're ultra-principled ecophiles with every reason to create solemn folk tunes or dull hippie jams, yet their records are pure indie-rock charmers. And that doesn't mean they're just lo-fi clattering-beer-can bedroom spew either: At least one song, "Radio Fodder," coaxed tears out of my cynical eye crust. Maybe that's because Minowa's own mindscape is so vivid.
Judging from the personal catharsis embedded in his music, I fully expect to see Minowa as a bedraggled marionette when Cloud Cult play at the Quest Ascot Room. Instead I'm surprised to find a consummate pro with a trim goatee--and I could swear he has highlights in his hair. Sure, he's barefoot and appears to be wearing hospital scrubs. But he's also a controlled performer, composing himself behind the mic and angularly strumming his guitar while the rest of the band lures me into the just-keep-staring state of mind.
Sarah Young clings to her cello as if it were her last synapse, then takes a deep breath and lets her voice resonate throughout the room. Mara Stemm conjures a stoic din from her bass, crossing the Bootsy-Sid continuum and setting up a tent somewhere in Iceland. All the while, Dan Greenwood frowns as if pondering a calculus problem, then drums up a herd of beasts. Two of the cutest groupies I've ever seen shout requests for "It's Gay," a 65-second goof from They Live on the Sun, while the rest of the audience stands and stares, mesmerized. If the universe is truly sentient and sublime, this majestic sound would shake the leaves off the fake tree in back of the room.