It's not entirely rare for musicians to have unusual onstage accompaniments. Rob Zombie, for one, surrounds himself with spooky, kitschy ornaments. During Candy Claws' set at MidPoint, a small tiger totem stood by the drumkit. Avail brings along Beau Beau, a guy whose official capacity is “Cheerleader.”
Cloud Cult has an interesting addition of their own. The Minnesota-bred Indie Pop band performs as two painters create original works next to them. Typically taking inspiration from the day's events, the energy of the crowd or a certain person or scene, Scott West and Connie Minowa's paintings have become vital to a Cloud Cult show. Once a concert's over, the freshly completed works are auctioned off.
Cloud Cult aren't the first musicians to do this (Neil Young has also taken a live painter on tour), but what makes their practice notable is how Craig Minowa, singer and guitarist, makes the painters' inclusion sound very matter-of-fact, as if bringing them along was the only right thing to do. In an early incarnation of the band, West manned an instrument, but painting began to captivate him more than music and Cloud Cult reconfigured itself to keep him in the fold.”
He was so completely wrapped up in his painting that we felt like he should switch from guitar to painting onstage,” Minowa says. The other artist, Connie, is the frontman's wife.
This isn't the only unusual quirk about the band. Could Cult is also painstakingly eco-conscious to the point that the band has had fans send in old jewel cases so they could be recycled for use with Cloud Cult CDs. Minowa has also instrumental in the creation of Cloud Cult's label, Earthology Records. It's a 501-(c)(3) nonprofit that uses geothermal recording studios and environmentally sound packaging. Moving to Wisconsin last fall, the group's new place includes a studio that Minowa hopes will have other purposes.
“We're gradually planning on putting little family-built units out here so that it would be a retreat for inner-city kids or people that work for environmental nonprofits that want to come here and have meetings, workshops or classes,” he says.
Beneath the surface, these details reveal much about how wholeheartedly Minowa (and, by proxy, his friends) throw themselves into a project. A similarly committed display was instrumental to garnering Cloud Cult the following it has today. After the death of Kaidin Minowa, Craig and Connie's infant son, in 2002, the singer and guitarist made his grieving process public in prolific fashion. The most piercing of his many songs about Kaidin might be “Your 8th Birthday” from 2007's The Meaning of 8, in which he juxtaposes images of jungle gyms, supernovas and birthday cakes with heartrending shouts of his lost son's name.
“There wasn't any kind of Cloud Cult following when I was writing that initial collection of songs,” Minowa says. “It was just personal medicine. I felt closer to my son when I was doing the music and writing about him. It feels like prayer and ceremony. I realized that maybe it just wasn't medicine for me, but there was a purpose to it. The transparency in the music helped some people connect to it. I wasn't hiding anything.”
There has been better news since then. Last October, the Minowas had a second son, Nova, and Cloud Cult's latest record, Light Chasers, is subsequently far more optimistic than mournful. It's powered by delicate piano and cello, sparkling xylophones, brusque guitars and triumphantly enormous chants. Minowa's endearing, impish voice imbues Cloud Cult with a perpetual sense of charm. Even when things are dire, he's eager to make the most of whatever he has.
The lyrical apex of Light Chasers is “Journey to the Light,” a five-part suite that ties the album's two story lines together. The first concerns a literal spaceship searching for “that light at the end of the tunnel, trying to find God or whatever that edge of reality is.” The other involves someone on a spiritual journey looking to delve into similarly divine elements. Minowa hopes for the record to serve as a tribute to and a time capsule for Nova.
“You're basically throwing fistfuls of seeds of some type into a field when you put an album out, and I want them to be positive,” he says.
Seen from a distance, what do all of those elements — the painters, the environmentalism, the public eulogies, the various intergalactic travels — say to Minowa about Cloud Cult?
“We hope that people recognize that you can make your way in life creatively without having to follow the standard model,” he says. “We've been independent the whole way. We've had offers from major labels and we've stuck to our guns on our ethics and we're paying the bills and doing decent. I hope that the overall picture of the model of the band is inspiring. You can definitely pave your own way in this world.”
CLOUD CULT plays the 20th Century Theater Nov. 3 with Fort Wilson Riot. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.