Whole lotta 'Love': Cloud Cult returns with new album, same creative ambitions

Led by Craig Minowa (center, kneeling), experimental Minneapolis outfit Cloud Cult has helped blaze a trail for art-minded, independent bands.
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“For all of the Cloud Cult albums there’s been a spiritual journey, a search for a higher power and some meaning in life. All the songs are us trying to figure out how to command our love and figuring out how to get the best out of our love.”

Craig Minowa’s refined tenor tugs at the heartstrings with notable emotion, as fans of experimental indie band Cloud Cult know.

“Nothing here can get in your way,” Minowa sings on “You’re the Only Thing in Your Way,” the opening track on Cloud Cult’s newest album, “Love.”

Recent success has also shown that very little seems to be getting in Cloud Cult’s way these days.

In the 18 years since Cloud Cult’s inception, perhaps the only constant for the eight-member Minneapolis band has been Minowa’s voice, which alternates seamlessly between folksy crooning and agonized howls. The latter is highlighted on “Love,” the band’s first new album in close to three years.

Tracks like “Complicated Creation” and “The Calling” display not only Cloud Cult’s lyrical expertise, but also the versatility of Minowa’s vocals. They further exhibit an ability to dwell on widely varying material and instrumentation — a point of pride for Minowa.

“The music is really diverse, as far as genres go,” he said. “We try to expose the palate to as many musical ingredients as possible. Having the instrumentation that we have right now gives us an opportunity to approach every song a little bit differently.”

SACRED ART FORM

Cloud Cult’s mission has long transcended musicology. The group is known for its paint-infused live shows and a fearless commitment to environmentalism and independence via Earthology Records, Minowa’s label that developed the first 100 percent postconsumer recycled CD packaging in the U.S.

“Initially, our environmental criteria were just too high for us to be able to sign with any label, just because during our earlier albums, being a green band wasn’t really a trendy thing,” Minowa said. “Most of the labels would cut corners as much as they could, and if it would cost a nickel more for a CD to have some environmental consciousness, then they wouldn’t want it.”

Mixing art with commerce usually forces compromise. But for Minowa, “music is a very sacred art form for me, personally, and with Cloud Cult in particular.”

The band isn’t aligned “with any specific religion, but just a bigger-than-us-all kind of picture, and so it felt weird to confine ownership of the songs to a major label that could then use them as a commercial product. It feels really nice to own 100 percent of the music. Every song is kind of like one of our little kids.”

Cloud Cult has molded its affinities into a defining spirit that has permeated all its work, leading to the band’s focus on an overarching, perhaps impossible-to-define theme of “Love” for its latest.

“For all of the Cloud Cult albums there’s been a spiritual journey, a search for a higher power and some meaning in life,” Minowa said. “All the songs are us trying to figure out how to command our love and figuring out how to get the best out of our love.”

After nine albums, Minowa also realized “how important it is to give yourself as much space and time as you need,” specifically in regards to the songwriting process. For Minowa, it often means getting inspired in the middle of the night and jotting an idea down. Once it’s fleshed out, he’ll write guitar and drum parts before collaborating with the band.

“I brought what I had written to them last fall and they put their input into it, told me what could be better and how to approach it in a live way,” Minowa said. “In the process of finding out things that might (be) better live, we find out things that might work better on the recording.

“For the most part, it’s a very different process from other bands.”

READY FORLOVE

If two-and-a-half years feels like a long gap between albums, it’s the product of a packed schedule since 2010’s “Light Chasers,” Cloud Cult’s most commercially successful album and its first to reach the Billboard charts.

In addition to a fair amount of touring, Minowa scored National Geographic’s documentary series, “America the Wild,” and along with his wife, Connie (also in the band), welcomed a new baby.

Touring has also provided Minowa with a refreshed perspective on the band’s Minnesota roots.

“To be in an area that has a thriving music and arts scene like the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is pretty huge,” Minowa said. “Being on tour, it’s interesting how many cities you go to that are of comparable size but are struggling a bit more on that level. When you come back home you feel really proud of where you come from.”

Yet at this point, Minowa is reserving judgment for “Love.” While he’ll know the public’s reaction once the album drops March 5 — and also at Cloud Cult’s next local shows at First Avenue and 7th Street Entry on April 27 and 28 — he still can’t shake the close bond with his work.

“You end up putting so much time into something, getting so close to it and so intimate, that I’m still at the point where I don’t yet know the impacts of the experience,” he said. “Hopefully years from now I don’t feel the same.”

LISTEN UP

Stream the new Cloud Cult album, “Love,” at NPR Music.

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