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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007

Cloud Cult's Green Operation

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December 06, 2007

Cloud Cult's Craig Minowa laughs when recalling a large Canadian retailer that used a song from the band's second album in a television commercial.

"It was all pretty ironic to us, because the album is about the idea of advertising leading to excessive consumerism," he says.

But that was back in 2000, when some folks just didn't get what the band was about. With seven albums under their belt and more major-label interest than ever, these days the Minnesota band's environmental and political convictions are better understood, even though the band has since shied away from expressing them through music.

"I felt preachy," Minowa explains. "It felt weird to get up onstage and tell people what to do. I felt it was turning people off. The atmosphere has changed a lot since the 1960s, though, so now on an environmental level, the mainstream understands that there are problems and that what people need are real solutions."

Behind the scenes, the group still does their share to preserve the planet. The band's label, Earthology Records, which Minowa founded in 1997, is a nonprofit that donates to environmental charities. On the road, each band member keeps careful tabs on how much energy is expended or wasted; even amps are monitored for ecological output.

Minowa and his band mates buff and hand-wash donated CD jewel cases to reuse as packaging for their albums. The recording studio used for all of the band's albums, including their most recent release, The Meaning of 8, is powered with geothermal energy.

"We use post-consumer recycled cardboard, the plastic packaging uses nontoxic materials, we pay for energy to be put back into the grid if we used it," Minowa says. "All the environmental things we do are simply to mitigate our ecological footprints."

They may leave no trace of themselves ecologically, but Cloud Cult has already left a rich musical legacy. They blossomed into heavily played, college-radio staples with 2004's Aurora Borealis, an album born from the grief Minowa harbored after the unexpected and unexplained death of his 2-year-old son in February 2002.

"I returned to the farm and studio and wrote over 100 songs," he recalls. "At that point music was such a large part of my life that it just made sense to use it to achieve some catharsis."

Songs like "I Guess This Dream Is for Me" and "As Long As You're Happy" were tinged with sadness, but their eclectic, colorful instrumentation hinted at hopefulness.

To complement the melancholic undercurrent in much of Cloud Cult's songs, Minowa employs a small orchestra, led by cellist Sarah Young. The strings collide with bright, shining horns, pastiches of sampled film dialogue and the occasional backing choir, forming what Minowa refers to joyfully as "a beautiful cacophony."

On the band's 2005 album, Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus,the experimentation continued, with Minowa frequently eschewing a live drummer in place of electronic percussion patterned after military marching beats. Though more forceful than previous efforts, Minowa's songs remained subdued and slightly pensive.

This year's The Meaning of 8 is the band's most critically acclaimed yet. With a more traditional indie-rock sound, the album maintains the thematic pathos of the previous two albums while bypassing the sprawling experimentalism. These slow-burning tracks still occasionally mention Minowa's lost son, Kaidin, in songs like "Your 8th Birthday," but elsewhere the wall of sound explodes in songs like "Take Your Medicine" and "Chain Reaction."

The Meaning of 8 and the band's next album, which Minowa says may be released next spring, benefits from a rich and lush string section that only strengthens the compositions in a live setting. This means an even greater concert experience from Cloud Cult, already renowned for their live shows that feature two artists flanking the stage and creating art while the band performs.

"On the road, and even on the next album, we are weaving some pretty sick orchestral tapestries together here," Minowa says. "The album is taking shape, and we have been playing out and really killing these new songs."

Cloud Cult headlines a 9:30 p.m. concert at Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Dec. 7, with openers The 1900s and We The Living.