Cloud Cult has been a part of the experimental indie scene for over 20 years now– they started out as a collaborative project between frontman Craig Minowa and local artists in Minnesota, and have since grown in numbers and changed in members plenty of times. The current eight members are taking on their arguably most challenging project yet– they recently released a concept album, The Seeker which will accompany a feature film of the same title written by Minowa himself and starring How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor and Alex McKenna. The Seeker is set to be released later this year, but Cloud Cult is wasting no time. They’re currently on a U.S. tour, which includes a stop cramming all eight of them onto U Street Music Hall’s stage on April 6th. We spoke with Craig before they came to town.
I’m fascinated by the intersection of the environment and music in your music. How has your music (or production, or general efforts) changed as climate change has moved to the forefront of the political and social worlds?
Craig: I’m not sure if the music itself has changed. But our general efforts have been more focused not only on CO2 reduction and absorption, but also our nonprofit work has focused more on preparing people for the transition. There are major changes that are going to be happening, and more people need to learn some basic forms of sustainable living or there will be major problems when technological and infrastructural systems go offline here and there.
Tell me more about “The Seeker”. Where did the idea to create an accompanying feature film to your album come from? What came first, the idea for the album or for the film?
Craig: The album came first, but about a year and a half into its creation, I realized that there was a storyline manifesting itself in there. Prior to recognizing that, I was feeling like I wanted to figure out how to do a different kind of release with the record, where we put out one song a week, instead of the whole album, and have some form of video to go along with that. Once it was clear this was a story, it felt like a fun idea to put out one chapter of the story each week and have the album and story unfold over the course of a few months.
What do you think having so many of you on stage at one time adds to a live performance? Do you think other bands that have 3 or 4 members are missing out?
Craig: I think it’s just different kinds of music. For us, it just allows us to pull off a lot of songs in differing genres in any given set. We can be very orchestral rock, shift into something more stripped down and acoustic, do straight 3 piece rock band stuff, throw in electronics, and just keep mixing things up throughout the set and albums. The drawback is that the setup is very complicated and touring is very expensive compared to when we were a 3 piece, so we have to be a lot more choosy about the shows we can confirm.
I feel like there’s a drought in the world of soft experimental indie (or whatever genre you consider yourselves) as more and more artists are leaning towards electronic/r&b/hip-hop creation. Who is making music that you’re excited about right now?
Craig: I’m not really familiar with a lot of the new bands. When I’m not making music, I tend to gravitate towards listening to music that is absolutely nothing like what we do. It’s really the only way I can relax, because if I’m listening to other bands that would be on the same radio stations as us, I find my brain is constantly trying to analyze what they are doing, from the instrumentation and song structure, to the lyrics, mixing and production, and I kind of feel like I’m still “at work”. So I usually am listening to big band music and other stuff from the 20s, 30s and 40s.
Back to The Seeker — How is writing a movie like writing an album?
Craig: Although I wrote the basic storyline, the screenplay of the movie was written by Jeff D. Johnson and Chad Amour. So I can speak to how and album and a story compare. I’ve felt the two are very intimately tied ever since writing “Who Killed Puck?” which was also an album with a storyline back in 2000. I’m a lover of an album as an overall piece of art, and admire artists who are able to make it feel like it has all the elements of a good story, whether the listener is recognizing it as coming out that way or not. But, in a nutshell, I think the best albums, as well as the best stories need good introductions, a period of levity and light heartedness, a period of darkness and some kind of cathartic ending.
Back to you being such a big band — do you prefer a larger or smaller stage/venue when there are so many of you?
Craig: There’s benefits and drawbacks to both. Some of the larger venues are nice and comfortable for us on stage, but you lose intimacy with the audience and sound quality starts to suffer in larger venues.
I can’t believe it, but you’ve been making music for over 20 years. How do you adapt to a changing musical landscape for so long?
Craig: On a musical level, we try not to follow fads and stay as authentic with the music as a form of ceremony as possible. On a business level, there’s constant adjustments with the business structure to try to stay afloat and successful. As an example, our first album was released on cassette, and when CDs became the new format, we had to figure out a way to make a recycled version of the product, because no one in the industry was providing that kind of product yet. When people first started going digital with their music purchases, we actually hand programmed a website in PHP code with a homemade online database to serve the product up to buyers, because the early digital providers were so expensive. Now as we enter into the era of Spotify, album sales have tanked, because so many people have subscriptions to Spotify, and they can listen to the album free there. We only get hundredth of a penny per play on Spotify, so even if someone listened to the whole album a hundred times, that only pays us 13 cents, which is why we released this album with a subscription service, where people played a flat fee and received a song and a video every Friday for 3 months prior to the album coming out on iTunes and Spotify.