July 20, 2012 Off

Interview with Cloud Cult’s Craig Minowa

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I’ve started again doing some freelance writing here and there for Isthmus, Madison’s alt-weekly. In May I wrote a short feature about changes at a nightclub on the city’s south side. In this week’s Isthmus is another shortie on the band Cloud Cult, which is kicking off the free outdoor music series Live on King Street.

Compressing a 15-minute phone interview into a 400-word story is always a challenge (but good practice and necessary — most people don’t care enough or have the patience for anything longer, and that’s totally fine). Still, I hate that I have to leave out so much from my transcription and let it languish unshared in a folder on my desktop.

So here’s more from my interview with Craig Minowa, Cloud Cult‘s songwriter and lead singer. (I’ve edited our conversation slightly for clarity’s sake.)

How does your scoring work for National Geographic affect how you write Cloud Cult music?
Well, they kind of go hand in hand in the sense that on the Cloud Cult albums, I do most of the songwriting and production at home and get all that preliminary work in place and then bring that to the band. The scoring work, a lot of it is a similar process. When they initially came to me, they said they just really liked the Cloud Cult flavor of things and that they wanted me to score it in a way that I would actually like, so not trying to fake the genre or something like that. It’s been really nice because I get to keep all the rights to the music, so as I’m working on scoring any of the documentaries, if an idea pops up that I feel “Oh, this could really be progressed into a Cloud Cult full song for an album” — I have that ability to do that.

Have you done that?
I have! It’s been an interesting process. I did six hour-long documentaries with them over the course of last fall and I had quite a few songs from the various documentaries that I had set aside as possible things for the album. But the album is shaping up to be really pretty different from that. With the scoring, I had so much orchestration going on, really in that Light Chasers vain. Now that the scoring is done, I have a really strong inclination for loud guitars and stuff. I’ve been getting really more guitar-oriented.

Sort of in the opposite direction?
With the Cloud Cult albums, the genre is kind of mixed. You can listen to pretty much any album and, song to song, there’s different flavors going on there. I didn’t want to get too tied down into one genre area. So I think maybe because I spent six really intense months on symphonic orchestration, I’ve got this inclination to just turn up the guitar amp and get loud.

So the new album is coming out this fall?
Um, it’s kind of up in the air. There might be an EP thing in the fall. I really want to make sure everything is right and in place with it and exactly how it should be. In the past, we always set our release date before the album was done and then you hit this crunch period where you either have an unhealthy lifestyle of crazy, crazy hours in the studio or, you know, you’re not totally happy with the product. With two young kids at home right now, I don’t really have the option of a having a crazy workaholic lifestyle in the studio. We’re keeping it loose on the release date.

Got a name for it yet?
No, no. I’ve been pontificating a lot of ideas. I thought that I knew what it looked like a couple of months ago and I thought I would have the final draft done right now, but then I hit this gutting phase of tearing things out and writing new material. It’s really changed its face a lot and I want to let it change its face until it is what it’s supposed to be. With Light Chasers I knew what the theme was going into the album, at least a couple songs in. This one, it’s not a concept album and it has yet to fully show its personality.

How’s life in Wisconsin treating you?
Awesome! We’re in Viroqua and we super love it. We talk about it regularly, how happy we are with the move. Just the driftless region, the topography, it attracts a really progressive mindset of people. We don’t have the mosquitoes like we did in Hinckley (Minnesota). If you went outside, you had to be in a screen house. Over in Viroqua, I think I’ve had one mosquito bite all summer and we sit outside all the time. And the people, the people are just so awesome.

And the Organic Valley headquarters is like 20 minutes away from where we live right now, so there’s a lot of organic farmers around here and a lot of back-to-the-landers and people who are trying to simplify their lives and live more harmoniously with the land. It’s really nice to be around that. Not that that’s not in Minnesota but in the area that we were at, it was a little bit more sparse.

How does that feeling of being settled affect your music and songwriting?
I think on a really healthy level. The studio in Hinckley in the basement there — when I was sitting in the studio, I couldn’t see outside or anything. I would go sit on the deck outside and do a lot of songwriting. But when it was the recording process, I was really penned up in this dark hole. Here, the studio has windows that overlook the backwoods and, you know, there’s the bluffs and the hills, and it’s just so majestic and inspiring. It’s really hard not to feel rooted, even if you’ve been sitting in the indoors for some time.

Do you worry that will allow complacency to set in?
Yeah, no, it’s definitely not complacency. There’s a shift. I think it’s less about location and more about lifestyle change. A lot of the Cloud Cult albums before were dealing with the loss of our two-year-old son, and then when Nova was born, the Light Chasers album was being created, so there is a lot of emotional upheaval and hoping that he would stay with us and still that dancing on the edge of mortality kinda thing. And now with two kids and doing a lot of work on the land and doing a lot of work as a dad and a husband, the focus has shifted in the sense that it’s a lot more inner work, like, “What can I do to be a better person?” and really, really trying to strip down through a lot of layers inside the self to try and expose the ugly parts of yourself and really accept it and get it out and figure out how to finish it off. So I think that’s where the loud guitar stuff comes with this album. Direct face-to-face confrontation with your inner demons.

What do you mean, “finish it off”?
Get ‘em out. We all have different demons and different things that we struggle with, and sometimes it’s a lifetime struggle. So this album-writing process right now is really a conscious pursuit in trying to face some of my longterm demons and get ‘em out and just figure out how I can have a mantra that can, yeah, kill ‘em off. We go out and sing our songs hundreds of times, so the lyrics really do become inner mantras for us, so I want to make sure those lyrics have a good potent power to them.

So, you’ll be performing outdoors in Madison.
I saw some pictures from last year’s performance (at “Live on King”), and boy, facing the Capitol like that, that’s going to be really beautiful.

Do you prefer performing outdoors? It seems to lend itself to your music.
Most of the time, yeah. Everybody in the band feels a lot more connected. If you’re going through technological struggles on stage, all you have to do is look up and see a cloud passing over to really get reminded about why you’re here and why you’re onstage and what you’re supposed to be focusing on, which is the bigger picture. So most of the time, it’s great. We did have a show in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago. There was no cover to the stage and it was over 100 degrees, hour-and-a-half set. That was really, really hard. It was still a good adventure, but it’s hard to put out enough energy (when you’re about to keel over).

You’ve only played a handful of dates this summer. Why?
We want to gradually feel out how it goes having two kids on the road, so having a date here and there.

How’d it go in Chicago?
It went … good. (Laughs.) You get to the airport there and then you’ve got a lot of traffic before you get to the downtown area. That last stretch can take a long time if you’ve got a baby screaming in the car and a two-year-old yelling “Get me out of here!!” That was really hard on her [his wife, Connie]. Nova was all about riding on the train.

And you’ll be using the same setup for your show in Madison as in the past?
The overall stage setup is the same. We’ve been doing some of these shows where there’s a crowd portion that definitely isn’t familiar with Cloud Cult. I’m assuming that would be the case with this show. We don’t go so deep into the tracks as we might in a club show. There will be songs that we’ll do in Madison that we’ve never done in Madison before.

Anything else to add?
Madison is a big part of what drew us down to this area. We’re thankful to be here. We’re excited to get back there. Sorry, I’m kind of out of breath. I’m trying to jog our baby down right now. She’s teething, and sometimes fast motion works best for her to fall asleep. She just likes the movement of watching the leaves flying overhead.

So you’re jogging outdoors?
Got a nice little road out here that’s pretty quiet.

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