The Meaning of 8
We're in the age of the indie epic. While still in love with cracked and homemade sounds, bands have taken up a proggy grandiosity following Neutral Milk Hotel's The Aeroplane Over the Sea or the Flaming Lips'sThe Soft Bulletin. If you've got big ideas and big emotions, elaborate song cycles and thematically linked concept albums are not a verboten M.O. anymore. Technology is part of the story: An album cobbled together in a bedroom can encompass worlds with layers of sound and texture, its scope limited only by ambition and RAM.
The Meaning of 8, the latest record from Minnesota's Cloud Cult, has ambition to burn. Thick with idealism, it's a long, dense album celebrating life and death, and haunted by the presence of the number eight, an eternally recurring symbol of "that thin membrane between the two," as Craig Minowa, Cloud Cult's frontman, explains.
The Meaning of 8 is unashamed of its hugeness; there's no moment so expressive that another soaring string line won't help, no sentiment so poignant that another meandering detour won't elaborate further. Simple guitar strumming and Minowa's straining, yearning voice are joined by layers of cello, piano, drums both programmed and roughly recorded, and synthesizer color. Despite their granola down-homeness, Cloud Cult are a fully technologized band; programming and synthesis weave in and out of rougher organic sounds. The mix yields moments of real gorgeousness, like the outro to the tense and urgent "Please Remain Calm," or the moody, dubby "The Girl Underground," with its honking fake-sax bass line, concertina, wrecked piano, and doubled vocals. Still, it's an album as often tiring and frustrating as it is illuminating. There are so many breakdowns, changes of direction, and moments of outsized melodrama that, after a solid hour, I wanted them to do less.
I spoke with Minowa and bassist Matthew Freed, in an island of cell-phone coverage near Wichita, while they made their return trip from South by Southwest. In the ether, voices got lost, either theirs or mine; it seemed a fitting problem for a conversation with a band so obsessed with the sometimes-unreliable voices from beyond. Aptly enough, I asked Freed to try to clarify the band's mysticism during a shaky patch of connection.
"Well, it's kind of like, our lives as we go through them, deciding where we're going, what we're doing, we all [garbled]...pushing us along in different directions, nudging us this way or that way, the idea is that how [garbled] guide us, and help us through life."
Cloud Cult began as a bedroom project of Minowa's in the mid-'90s as he struggled to make ends meet as an environmental activist—but possession by music hits a kid earlier, like in ninth-grade band: "There was a particular Vaughan Williams piece, and whenever we played it I got brought to this really far, far away place, or really far inside place, and I felt like I was lacking if I wasn't able to play that song. And it went from there."
Since 1995, Minowa's released five albums and one collection of odds and ends, all of them with a thematic heft far outstripping their budget. Who Killed Puck (2000) charted a man's life from before conception. Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus (2005), with added help from a full band including drummer Dan Greenwood and cellist Sarah Young, earned Cloud Cult considerable college radio success, Pitchfork raves of "insane genius," and a Minnesota Music Award nomination.
The constant focus on the presence of death and the sacredness of life is no dorm-room conceit for Minowa and his wife Connie, who paints live onstage with the band as part of the visual element of their shows (along with artist Scott Young). In 2002, the Minowas lost their two-year-old son, who passed away unexpectedly in his sleep, and the experience colors everything Cloud Cult is and does.
Their independence is no joke either, nor is their commitment to a green existence. Rejecting label offers, Cloud Cult release albums out of their own Earthology Records, based on the Minowas' organic farm in northern Minnesota. Their packaging is 100 percent post-consumer and biodegradable, even the wrapping; their T-shirts are organic. For every 1,000 albums sold, they plant 10 trees. The energy consumed in recording and touring is "greened" by buying wind power credits. "Whatever we do makes a lasting impact," says Freed, "so we try to be a carbon-neutral band."
As Minowa explains it, the theme of The Meaning of 8 arrived of its own accord: "I've always been obsessed with the number 8, I've always had an affinity with it. And as the lyrics were developing for this album there's a recurrence of the number 8, whether it was characters that were the age of 8, or 80, or whatever the case may be." If Jung is any guide, this should be no surprise: "Different cultures around the planet, in the modern day, but also in the past, all these people, have that symbol as the same type of expression, either as the gateway to the hereafter, or some sort of symbol for the hereafter, so it all made sense."
I ask him if there's something different about the philosophy of The Meaning of 8, compared to his earlier albums, and he explains, "Definitely; [earlier] it was more of a schizophrenic approach, because it was right after our son left us. With The Meaning of 8, it's like being back on this side, really taking that experience of being really, really close to death for a really long time and applying that to life."