Cloud Cult's incredible journey brings them back home

First Avenue to host nationally acclaimed local band

On a Saturday in late July, a couple thousand people are crammed together along a narrow block in Lowertown St. Paul. It has been a long, hot day and many people are sitting down in lawn chairs and on the curb, but as the late-afternoon sun sinks behind the weathered limestone and red brick buildings, there's a buzz that runs through the crowd. Strangers chat over beers, couples hold hands, and a group of teenagers works its way up front to the large black stage at the end of the street.

Slowly everyone rises to their feet as the sounds of a mournful trombone and cello pierce through the din of voices. A drumbeat drops in from the rear of the stage and then, front and center, Craig Minowa jumps to his feet from a crouch, a guitar slung over his shoulder. He sings into a megaphone, his tenor quavering and disembodied as it travels out over the people.

Minowa whips around to face the drummer. The stage erupts as the six-piece band launches into a crashing buildup while two painters, one on each side of the stage, set about furiously splattering a pair of canvases with paint. The crowd cheers and presses eagerly toward the stage.

Cloud Cult in Eagan, Minnesota (October 2010)
Tony Nelson
Cloud Cult in Eagan, Minnesota (October 2010)
Connie and Craig Minowa at Lowertown
Nick Vlcek
Connie and Craig Minowa at Lowertown
Shannon Frid, Arlen Peiffer, Sarah Young
Nick Vlcek
Shannon Frid, Arlen Peiffer, Sarah Young
Shawn Neary, Sarah Elhardt, Scott West
Nick Vlcek
Shawn Neary, Sarah Elhardt, Scott West

Each band member is a flurry of activity, running around and switching instruments. Bassist Shawn Neary jumps up and down, his eyes clenched tight in concentration; Sarah Young closes her eyes as well, but she swings her head back and forth serenely as she bows her cello; Shannon Frid rests her hand on her hip, one leg cocked as she clutches her violin to her chest. Everyone—save, perhaps, for Arlen Peiffer, who flails behind his drum kit with childlike abandon, chin jutted out and a broad, irrepressible grin lighting up his face—seems deep in thought.

Through all this action, everybody follows Minowa's movements and feeds off his energy. One minute, he stomps around barefoot, clasping the microphone with one hand and extending the other like a claw, glaring out wild-eyed into the gathering darkness. At the next, he pumps his fist energetically and encourages the audience to join him—which they do, pumping their own fists, jumping up and down, singing and shouting along with almost every word.

An hour and a half later, when the band finally line up to take their bow, there's a drained but satisfied feeling in the air and more than a few teary-eyed faces.

Cloud Cult's show at the Lowertown Music Festival is their first in the Twin Cities since August of last year, but while they've been absent from local stages they've been far from dormant. They released a limited-edition rarities collection, a two-disc reissue of two of their landmark albums, and a four-song EP. Two singles, "Running with the Wolves" and "Unexplainable Stories," were selected for Song of the Day by the Current and Seattle's renowned KEXP. And in September, after a career spanning more than 15 years and marked by its own share of tragedy and national acclaim, the local indie rockers released their eighth studio album, Light Chasers, and launched a tour of the East and West coasts—a tour that will bring them back to Minneapolis next week, when they will receive a star at First Avenue and play a two-night album-release party in the Mainroom.

 

EARLY ON A Sunday morning, Craig and his wife, Connie, are taking their 10-month-old son, Nova, for a walk. They're in Eagan for a rehearsal at the house of Scott West, who, along with Connie, is a painter in Cloud Cult. The rest of the band is still asleep and the neighborhood is peaceful, the mid-August sun bathing everything in a warm, golden glow as it beats down on the still-dewy grass.

"I usually kind of dread the coming of tours," Craig says, as he pushes the baby stroller along the street. He and the family drove up the night before from their home in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a small rural town about a half-hour south of La Crosse.

"We're pretty quiet people and we like the quiet life back in the woods and whatnot, so thinking about big city after big city after big city is kind of hard for me, personally, to digest," he continues, choosing his words carefully as he speaks. "But this is the first time I'm actually kind of excited. We got the whole family, we got the minivan, and, you know, the shows are just another reason to have an adventure and explore the country and have him see things for the first time."

Craig is dressed in a black polo and shorts, as he often is, and wears a brown fedora—"It was my grandpa's," he points out proudly. His goatee is thinly trimmed and his dark brown eyes have a soft, searching look, but he carries himself loosely and gestures freely, a faint smile accompanying most of his conversation.

There's barely a soul to be seen at this time of day, with a lone car passing in the entirety of the half-hour walk. Connie waves and says hi to the passerby. She has wavy blond hair and a pale complexion. Even more so than her husband, Connie is quiet and reserved, and, perhaps in part because she squints from the sunlight, there's a seriousness in her sharp, pretty features that lends her manner a certain solemnity.

Nova has already been on the road for some of Cloud Cult's Midwestern shows in the spring and early summer. "He's more of a people-person," Connie smiles, holding a cup of coffee with both hands as she walks alongside the stroller. "He likes to charm up the ladies and things like that. Especially the elderly ladies. He's got a thing for those grandmas; he can win their hearts over in no time."

When the walk is over, the Minowas lay out a blanket on West's front lawn and sit down in the shade of a crabapple tree. Craig sits with his legs folded and Connie lays down on her stomach to play with Nova. He's beyond relaxed for a baby of his age and has large, hazel eyes that peer out from his small, round face. Connie offers him toys, reads to him from a book, and makes baby noises. A small water fountain bubbles softly and steadily over by the stoop.

Craig happily admits that he's gotten so comfortable with the new family dynamic that it's virtually impossible for him go through even the briefest of separations.

"We had a show down in Kentucky where Connie and Nova weren't able to go, so I got to go in the van for the first time in a while," he recalls. "I had a lot of fun, but I missed these guys so much. I was at the festival at this playground area just watching kids and going, 'That kid looks like Nova. That kid looks like Nova.'"

"Yeah, he called me and said he'd been following around pregnant women and people with dogs," Connie adds with lighthearted embarrassment. "It was like, 'Uh, honey, it's been a couple of days, you can do it. Have fun.'"

They laugh in unison—Craig leaning back with his hands behind him on the ground, Connie resting her chin on her palm—and both turn their gaze contentedly toward Nova, who lies between them calmly looking up into the bright, cloudless sky.

 

BEING PARENTS IS a gift that Craig and Connie likely appreciate more than most.

They were parents once before, but that life was cruelly torn apart one cold winter night eight years ago when their first son, two-year-old Kaidin, died in his sleep. Kaidin's loss was so devastating that the Minowas separated for a year in an attempt to reassemble their lives, but eventually they both found an outlet for their grief through their work—Connie with her painting, Craig with his music.

Craig's output at that time was staggering—at least 100 songs—and the results were raw, unflinching, and sometimes unnerving documents of a broken man frantically seeking answers. Some included recordings of Kaidin's voice, others meditated on Craig's estrangement from his high school sweetheart, and on one occasion he wept disconsolately into the microphone. Bit by bit, the intensity of those emotions subsided, but the legacy of Kaidin's departure has never left Cloud Cult's music.

Light Chasers is no exception to that rule. However, its songs are invigorated by a newfound sense of hope, a rejuvenation of spirit that, as Craig himself puts it, results from "literally a rebirth." Recording began around the time he and Connie moved to Viroqua from their previous home in Hinckley, Minnesota, in August of last year, two months before Nova was born. Nova, quite naturally, had an enormous influence on the new material.

"Ninety-nine percent of this album was written when we were either pregnant or he was a newborn," Craig explains. "So the thought process and the lyric writing was really focused on bettering myself so I could prepare to be a better dad, and then also wanting to leave behind lyrics that maybe could be helpful for him down the road. Like fatherly advice, I guess, in a way."

The joy of parenthood is palpable in many places throughout Lights Chasers, whether in the exuberant, stadium-sized sprawl of "You'll Be Bright" or the tender acoustic ballad "You Were Born." Yet even now the Minowas haven't escaped the past, a fact that grips the album with an inescapable and restless inner conflict.

"Both Connie and I feel Kaidin's presence so much and on such a powerful level that a lot of the advice on this album was asking Kaidin what kind of advice you want to give his little brother," Craig says. Connie and Nova have left to visit the zoo for the afternoon and he now sits on the stoop, speaking softly and leaning forward with his arms resting on his knees.

"Then there's the other side of it where it was obviously a really tragic and difficult thing we went through with the loss of Kaidin. And so a lot of the songwriting that happened with this was late at night where neither of us, Connie nor I, are able to sleep because we're so afraid to wake up in the morning and have—you know, to relive that."

Such sleepless nights inspired Craig to construct a concept for the album around a tale of spiritual "light chasing": Just as the newly born emerge from the light, so those departed must return toward it, leaving their loved ones to find their own light in the here and now. As is poignantly illustrated on the song "Blessings," the record's emotional centerpiece and dramatic climax, it's a concept tinged with fear and anxiety, the likes of which—regardless of the reassurances from oneself and from others—may never fully be overcome.

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.

"I knew in choosing the theme of this album of the spiritual journey and whatnot that there'd be critics that'd say, 'Well, it's rehashing the Cloud Cult thing' and 'You've done this before,'" he shrugs. Pitchfork, for one, was less than charitable in its assessment, although others have been more favorable. "There's spots in it that even different people in the band were like, 'Are you sure you want to do it like that? Maybe like adjust this or adjust this?' But they were really important spots for what I needed, and I guess to me on this living journey it's more important for me to create an honest product."

The band's first concept album, Light Chasers is a predictably mixed bag. As is prone to happen with such records, the concept gets cumbersome at times, leading to some awkward lyrical moments and slightly tangential interludes—but then one need look no further than the hidden tracks that muddled up the backside of Hippo to see that such tendencies are nothing new. If some of the carefully considered advice borders on sentimentality and self-help, it's made up for in the transcendence of spirit that pervades each track. Indeed, the strength of the new material undoubtedly lies in the sophistication and subtlety of Craig's arrangements, which put his gifts as a composer on display more than ever before.

Yet the most revealing window into Light Chasers may not be through the album itself but through a pair of recent reissues. Last winter, shortly after Nova was born, They Live on the Sun and Aurora Borealis were rereleased with altered track lists, each missing nearly a half-dozen songs. In the case of Aurora Borealis, in particular, many of the omissions focused on Craig's then-failed marriage rather than the loss of Kaidin.

"There was enough venting in the albums where I was just trying to get things out and really work out a lot of inner issues...I was just vomiting garbage out of myself," Craig remembers, pointing out that with the number of songs he recorded at the time the track lists were in flux until the last minute. "I feel like it's living art, in the sense that it's a better product now, that it evolves as a biological entity just like the rest of us."

While that explanation is hard to justify on an artistic basis, it's difficult to judge Craig on a personal one. Coming from someone who's always put his own frailty and numerous blemishes on display, the reissues function as a deeply human attempt to reconcile with his past self. And if those albums were almost obsessively concerned with Craig's own devastation, then Light Chasers demonstrates a greater awareness of the world around him and the impact his songs have on others.

"He doesn't want to release music that he isn't willing to repeat over and over and over again," Young agrees. "[Cloud Cult] has become something that isn't just an outlet for him. So now I think he writes music with that filter in. I think if that filter was gone we'd see some different music, but I think that he is responsible to that filter."

Thus, Light Chasers—and the Craig Minowa of 2010—reveals itself like a self-fulfilled prophecy of the band's uniquely fervent mission: the transformation of personal tragedy into something beautiful and life-affirming, not only for its creator but ultimately for others.

 

THANKS TO THE very personal nature of Cloud Cult's music, they receive scores of fanmail—some of it a simple appreciation of their music, but much of it is surprisingly revealing.

"It's gotten to be where you meet some people who have gone through some really intense things and used the music to help them," Craig explains. "They feel so close to you even though you've never met before—they're wide open with who they are and what they've gone through. And it can be really intense, but beautiful at the same time."

I lost my son very unexpectedly last year.  He took his own life.... One way I've been able to deal with such a loss has been through music.... From the first time I heard a couple of songs I felt very connected to this band and their style of music.  It wasn't until recently that my older brother told me the story of Craig's son passing away years ago.  Maybe that explains the connection.

"Because of the music, I think they write and they think that we're going to have some magic answer," Craig continues, bouncing anxiously as he speaks. "And you really want to help and say the right thing and all you can say is...." A distraught look crosses over his face, his shoulders sagging as he drops his hands into his lap. "That's a really hard spot, and it's really baby steps."

My 20-year-old daughter passed away in late June after a tragic accident. At her funeral one of her friends approached me and offered a Cloud Cult CD to me, stating that it was one of [her] favorite bands and that she would want me to hear it. The Light Chasers album touched me deeply, especially "You Were Born."

Most of these letters come directly to Craig and Connie, but occasionally they pass them on to the band, who are similarly moved.

"A couple weeks ago as we were gearing up for this tour Craig sent out an email with just bits of emails that he had gone through," says Peiffer. "It was just kind of a reminder, like, this is why we're doing this, this is really important because the music does move people in this way. So that was a big, like, 'Cool, back on our feet with the right frame of mind.'"

Right now due to recent events especially I'm going through one of the toughest, deepest depressive states of my life and your music still serves as a cast for my broken feelings of self, love, and life.

As Young points out, that openness extends beyond the letters, with fans frequently approaching the band members in person.

"I've had a woman come up to me and say, 'That was so cathartic,'" she says. "She had puffy eyes and you could tell that it was for her because, if you go from album to album, there is this process of grief that gets gone through that you could literally almost name the stages in. But at the end of the day, there's still hope and there's still love."

I am 19 years old.... My mother died on a camping trip...I stayed home because I had to work.... I have never experienced a loss like this before, and the way your music so phenomenally instills a message of life, and acceptance of death, and god, and everything that is unknown; is life-altering to me.

With all the stresses and strains of touring and the growing obligation to his own family, it's through these fan interactions that Craig finds his continued motivation.

"I wonder if [playing music is] one of the things that I'm supposed to be doing, that I should be doing, you know? That I have a responsibility to do that," he says thoughtfully. "Getting those fan letters are the things that kind of remind me, like, okay, I could pull the plug for reasons that affect me directly but, you know, how much longer can I go where I'm doing good, really good things with this?

"I'll keep going as long as I feel I can do that."

 

When the band arrive at St. Olaf the first week of September and unload their equipment for that night's show at the Lion's Pause, the weather is cool and overcast—one of the first signs of an early fall. Craig, however, is bright and bubbling and noticeably at ease.

"I'm usually really stressed out, a lot of anxiety before a tour. Just the anticipation is really hard on me," he says, sitting in a lounge of the student union. "It's just really nice to have everything packed up and just press the launch button and see what happens."

Craig leans back in his chair, arms folded on his lap, legs splayed out in front of him.

"[Connie and I] realized, in taking the break over the winter, that we really like traveling a lot, and the performances have come to be such a medicinal thing," he adds. "Everything's in the right place now and I'm trying not to think that the other shoe's going to drop, you know?"

About a half-hour before doors open, the band sit backstage chatting and running through their parts. The Lion's Pause will soon be full of people, lining the walls and leaning over the railings of the balcony, waving their cell phones in the air and dancing to the music. Right now, though, the room is empty, save for the instruments onstage and Craig and Connie. Nova has already been put to bed and they're busy setting up Connie's easel.

Craig reaches in to make an adjustment and Connie steps back to size it up. She nods in approval. Then Craig steps back as well and they put their arms around each others' waists. They look quietly at the canvas, on which Connie has penciled in the outline of a dove with its wings spread wide.

"I think a lot of the time about what comes after the music," Craig confesses. "Because the band, at some point—it's not going to fit my life anymore. But the spiritual journey that I have with the music, it's so important, I wonder: Do I join a monastery?" He lets out an easy chuckle, looking off to the side as if considering something in the distance.

"You know, simplify a lot, so I can just spend a lot of time meditating and really going on that path of seeking enlightenment." 

Painting Outside the Box

Two of Cloud Cult's members wield brushes as their instruments

One thing's for sure about Cloud Cult concerts: There's rarely a dull moment. In addition to the six musicians making sounds, Scott West and Connie Minowa each produce a complete painting in roughly 45 minutes (and that's when they're not playing tambourine or jumping in on backup vocals).

"It's really great because painting is one of those things where people just see this quiet, still result, you know, where they can sit and they ponder it," says West, who grew up with the Minowas in Owatonna and started collaborating with Craig when they shared a studio space in Minneapolis. "But they don't see the type of movement and the type of time involved in creating that process and how it evolves and how it changes."

After each show, the paintings are auctioned off to audience members.

The results owe a lot to the respective character of the painters: Whereas Minowa layers her paint thickly with short, delicate gestures, West paints in broad, rhythmic strokes, his brush often dripping wet with colors. A musician himself outside Cloud Cult, West draws on the energy of the show and the commonalities of the different mediums to create his own mini-narratives.

For the current tour, the painters added a new weapon to their arsenal, set to make its Twin Cities debut at First Ave: custom-made rotating easels. The pair can spin their canvases at random intervals, adding an extra element of unpredictability. But there was an unexpected side effect on the occasion of the new easel's debut at St. Olaf, when West's brake jammed and splattered Sarah Elhardt with paint.

Fortunately, there were no hard feelings.

"STILL: NEW PAINTINGS BY SCOTT WEST" is on display through December 5 at TARNISH & GOLD GALLERY; tarnishandgold.org

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