For every band living the rock and roll lifestyle – smashing guitars and raiding the mini bar a la Iggy Azalea – there is another that’s traded in the high life for an adult one. And that philosophy doesn’t only apply to tucking in their shirts and adopting 401Ks. Some have created an entire identity for themselves, completely autonomous as both artists and people. It’s rare that an indie group is truly independent by these standards, but every once in a while one will peek through the rows of label-puppets.
Such is the story of Duluth eclectic folk group Cloud Cult. Headed by singer-songwriter Craig Minowa, the Northern Minnesota 8-piece have been self-employed on his home record label Earthology Records since 1997. In addition to giving them the creative freedom to do pretty much whatever they want musically, it also allows Minowa and company to control their carbon footprint as a professional entity. Since its inception, Earthology has made its mark as a sustainable label, supporting renewable energy, offsetting emissions and recycling CD cases. Of course no one listens to Cloud Cult just for their idealistic leanings, but it’s still refreshing to see a band that lives the life they sing about –adhering to no one’s code but their own.
The group takes that attitude one step further with their 13th full-length album Unplug, released earlier this year. Unlike their previous work – including the critically acclaimed Love and Light Chasers – Unplug consists entirely of previously released tracks recorded live and acoustically. Fans of their back catalog will revel in the new record’s bare-bones approach, which perfectly complements the sentimentality that their songwriting has always carried. It’s quiet and intimate in a way that even the lofty moments of Love failed at times to expound. Some live records tend to go overboard with the audience feedback, as if reminding the listener over and over that yes, this was a live recording. Unplug on the other hand features just enough ambiance to give a personal quality. As if they were putting on this show just for you.
If you live in the LA area, you may be able to experience this first hand. Tonight at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, Cloud Cult finish the final leg of their Unplug tour, complete with both acoustic and fully plugged in sets.
Luckily, I was able to catch a word with Minowa in advance of the show where we discussed Unplug, Earthology and what’s up next for the band.
Anthony: Let’s start with a little background. How did Cloud Cult first come to be?
Minowa: It started as a solo studio project with no intention of making a live band out of it. But the second album charted so well on college radio, I decided to make it into a live band.
Anthony: Is there a story behind the name Cloud Cult?
Minowa: It refers to a sect of ancient Native American prophecies that discuss a future where humans allow their technological growth to exceed their spiritual growth, and things sort of fall apart. The idea is to keep a balance between those two aspects of human evolution.
Anthony: Many of your songs are deeply personal in nature. How would you say that individual hardships and triumphs affect your songwriting process?
Minowa: We are very inspired by the stories of people overcoming huge obstacles in their lives. So the focal lyrical content is on self growth and the overall human condition.
Anthony: Over the course of your history, Cloud Cult has received a lot of attention for being both an eco-conscious and sustainable project. Could you explain how that reputation came to be?
Minowa: We created our own record label, Earthology Records, which was the first to create and use some now very common environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.
Anthony: You’ve been around for almost 20 years now. How has your approach to creating music and maintaining sustainability changed over time?
Minowa: We are now to the point of running our own environmental nonprofit, which just recently launched a public park with diverse ecosystem. The studios have expanded, and everything is now solar powered.
Anthony: Have there been any significant challenges to maintaining your autonomy as independent artists over the years?
Minowa: It takes a lot to be able to compete with the big labels. We simply don’t have the kinds of connections that we’d have if we would have signed to a label when those offers were on the table. But we prefer modest growth in order to maintain autonomy.
Anthony: Unplug is your first release of live, stripped down versions of songs from your back catalog. What made you decide to go in this direction for your 13th album?
Minowa: We were rehearsing a lot in the woods at Earthology Records when we were working on the Love album, and ended up feeling like there was something really special about being able to perform in a way that didn’t require any electrified technology.
Anthony: Is there a special significance to any of the songs chosen to be recorded for Unplug, and if so what is it?
Minowa: We looked at the discography and chose songs mostly based on their lyrical content.
Anthony: What’s in the forecast for Cloud Cult after the close of the tour?
Minowa: Head first into the studio, and we will be working on the new album until it decides it is done.
Anthony: If Cloud Cult were a dessert food, what would it be and why?
Minowa: It’d probably be something like an organic yogurt parfait. We want the music to be enjoyable to consume but also to be somewhat good for you. At the bottom of the parfait there’s a little surprise waiting for you, but that ingredient is top secret.