Cloud Cult's incredible journey brings them back home

First Avenue to host nationally acclaimed local band

Bless the children, safe sleeping
Don't leave me, don't leave me
Bless the parents, hearts aching
Don't worry, don't worry
Bless the wakeless on their journey
Travel safely, travel safely
We're the sleepless, always searching
Light chasing, light chasing.

 

THE BAND BEGINS practice in the early afternoon. Their rehearsal space is in the family room of West's finished basement, which opens to a small patio and a backyard that runs out to the tree line. The room is a tangle of wires and microphone stands, the musicians cramming themselves in between the instruments with barely any space to move around.

Cloud Cult started as a solo project of Craig's in the early '90s. Over the years, the group has steadily expanded, but Craig continues to write and record the albums in his home studio and release them through his own environmentally friendly label, Earthology Records, using recycled materials. From there he brings the songs to the rest of the band to flesh out the live versions at practices like these.

"He's pretty open-minded about ideas and I think he, in some ways, might even be interested in affirming somebody else's ideas by including it, even against his will," says Young. She's been involved with the band since their first record, The Shade Project, was recorded well over 10 years ago. She has a motherly presence in the group and a hearty, infectious laugh. "I think Craig really values [our input] because he's so insulated where he is in the studio and he's not spending a whole lot of time listening to music."

Today, work centers on "Exploding People," which will debut at the tour kickoff show at St. Olaf College. During the breakdown, all eight members of the group line up across stage and play drums at once. Young, Frid, and Sarah Elhardt (the newest recruit, brought on just last winter to play French horn and keyboards) pause to run through some of their harmonies, and Craig sorts out a keyboard problem that afflicted Elhardt at Lowertown and caused a 10-minute delay.

Practices usually run as long as eight hours, a necessity given the members' geographical dispersion; while they remain based out of Minneapolis, Peiffer is now in Northfield; the Minowas are in Viroqua; and Frid recently moved to Chicago. She flew in this morning just for today's practice.

Yet for all that, no one minds the commitment.

"It's like rehearsal is a means of perspective and clarification," offers Neary. He played in the original lineup of Tapes 'n Tapes before joining Cloud Cult almost three years ago. He's also the singer for local folk group the Wapsipinicon. "You know, I feel like I walk away better, like cleansed or something as a result of playing music." He lets out a delighted, high-pitched giggle at the thought. "What the hell is that, you know?"

Music aside, everyone seems to be most inspired by the example that Craig and Connie set. Tour manager Jeff D. Johnson recalls a specific instance at breakfast when the band was on tour a couple of years back.

"I remember Craig eating in the corner with like his utensils that he brought," Johnson says. "And at the time it was me and [former bassist] Matt Freed with this Styrofoam bowl and Styrofoam cup for my juice. And I didn't feel too good about it but I was like, 'Well, this is what it is,' know what I mean? And he never said anything to me personally about, 'Jeff, you should really recycle this,' or whatever.

"I was just so moved by that unbelievable example of someone who's just doing what he believes and doing it so fervently, and I was not judged at all," he continues with amazement. "I was like, 'I want to do that, I want to do this now'—to the point that two tours after I bought fork-spoons for everybody!"

 

GETTING THE BAND to its present state—a state, for instance, where Craig could quit his day job and focus on his music, or where he could schedule tours around his family—was a long and often discouraging process. For a number of years, show turnouts were virtually non-existent and there was little interest in the band around the Twin Cities, to the extent that some original members left in frustration.

Craig's songs, written on the assumption that few would ever hear them, were ragged and careening, driven by an obstinate hope and occasionally reckless drive to overcome his grief. He pilfered samples and lyrics and assembled them into a collage of angular riffs and hip-hop beats held loosely together by an absurd, often childish sensibility. But before long Cloud Cult were on the national radar, rising to the top of the college radio charts and earning a nomination for a Minnesota Music Award; Craig was even lauded as an "insane genius" by indie tastemaker Pitchfork for 2005's Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus.

Considered alongside the gut-wrenching rawness of Aurora Borealis or the staggering breadth of Hippo—the band's spectacular if flawed masterpiece—Light Chasers is almost bound to suffer, overshadowed because its worldview is too stable in comparison, lacking the thrilling unpredictability that brought those records so fully to life. Craig, however, is philosophical on the matter.

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