After nearly 20 years making music together, indie rockers Cloud Cult will release a live, acoustic album, "Unplug," in April. The band is launching a tour centered on the album, including a stop at the Barrymore Theatre on March 1.
Founder and lead singer Craig Minowa talked to 77 Square about the Cloud Cult philosophy, the band's commitment to the environment and how Madison has become a "coming home" tour stop since the Minowas moved from Minneosta to Viroqua.
77 Square: How did you decide on a setlist that would serve as a performance and an album, for "Unplug?"
We had worked up an acoustic set — the last three years, we’ve been working on it. We go all the way back to "Aurora Borealis." It was really focused on looking at messaging — we wanted to put together a sort of compilation of songs that distill the overall Cloud Cult message.
What is that message?
It’s always been a very philosophical band, and the music has been very personally medicinal, a soul-searching type tool. I found working on the live album and the last two albums, there were a lot of recurring philosophical themes that kept popping up ever since “Who Killed Puck?” I kept coming up with these things that are important to embrace, but you need to treat it like a mantra, and remind yourself to live that way. We’re out there singing it every single day, but I’m constantly reminding myself.
What are some of those mantras?
The really big one is the need to recognize the present moment. There’s so much of life we put off for the future, so many present moments that don’t seem important. It’s kind of a cliche; you could bring it up to a fifth grader, and they would have heard that message. But within every single moment that you’re breathing, you have to remind yourself.
What do you have in mind for this tour?
We’ll play one full acoustic set and one electric set. We do the full acoustic set, and the Cloud Cult painters — basically, they start a painted sketch of what they’re going to be creating over the course of the night. There’s a 20-minute break, with a changeover of equipment. Then we come back out, do a full electric set and the painters go hogwild.
We have a full kind of enveloping back screen that creates an environment — so for the acoustic set, it’s out in the woods, with leaves blowing. It’s kind of a neat feeling — the first time the band did anything acoustic was in the woods, here in Viroqua.
We’re able to cover so many crowd favorites in our acoustic set, we have more freedom in the electric set. We can play deeper album cuts, longer instrumental versions of things.
Have you started to see some of the older songs in new ways?
Most of the acoustic set is taking old songs and completely re-approaching them. So oftentimes it’s not really recognizable until the vocals come in. It’s kind of a richer, classical performance. So it’s neat in the sense that, for example, “Aurora Borealis,” if you listen to the original version of the song we do, it’s a very eclectic, artsy indie rock. The new version is a very classical folky thing. It appeals to a different palated listener.
How do the painters add to the performance?
They really set the mood for the night, as much as the music. So many times during the night, I spin around and look at Connie’s work or Scott’s work, and I’ll be motivated in certain emotional directions based on what they’re doing that night. The content and approach is based on things they’re going through in their lives right now — their inner struggles or joys. It’s neat to see that unfold each night. They’ve been doing it for 10 years now.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
It’s interesting, how little the source of inspiration has changed over the years. If I go back to “Who Killed Puck?,” I was in my teen angsty years, really coming out of the need to figure out who’s God, and all that kind of stuff. I spent so much of that time with so many people in that age bracket, trying to figure out what this life is all about. Then we lost our son, and we were working through the grieving process, trying to figure out what this life’s all about.
Now we’ve come full circle. We have kids. We have aging parents who have their own health struggles. We’re still in that same spot of wondering what this life is about, and really trying to cherish the magic and mystery of it.
It’s the struggle to keep our head above water, but at the same time, the joy of the swim of the living situation.
You mentioned recreating the woods onstage while you play. How much does that environment influence your music?
It’s a huge, huge part of it. When Earthology was in Hinckley, Minn., there was a lot of time spent writing under the stars. Now that we’re in Viroqua here, we have two young kids, and the songwriting is during the day. It’s still inspired by nature, because we’re out in it. That inspiration of hands-on, working with the natural world outside — I’d say 99 percent of the writing happens here.
You’ve used Earthology to stay environmentally friendly. Is it difficult to balance the creativity of the band with the business aspects of running a record label?
It started from the very origins of the band itself. When the first albums were created, we encountered the dilemma of manufacturing in an environmentally friendly way. I went to school for environmental studies, and I’ve always had strong passions about sustainability. It’s interesting to move from a place of environmental advocacy, pushing other business to adopt dream behaviors, to running your own business.
It came down to feeling like there wasn’t an option; it just feels like it’s the right thing to do, what we’re supposed to do. If we want to run a business, we have to choose ethical ways to do it. It’s quite a bit more expensive, especially initially. Now green products are getting mainstream enough to be more affordable. Having said that, I think it’s something that is approachable and doable for every band.
You’ve remained independent throughout your career, despite a few offers from larger labels. Was your commitment to the environment part of that decision?
We entertained some label offers, of different sizes. We tried to negotiate to see if there was any way that we could keep our desired ethics in place, of how we needed to run a business. It didn’t work out for what they required in our contract. so we just kind of figured, we’ve gotten this far. Unfortunately, in the business there’s a lot of “who you know.” In the woods in Wisconsin, you don’t get to know a lot of event-makers. I think it keeps us humble and rooted.
What’s next for Cloud Cult?
We’ll start working on the next album, and I think there’s going to be a more creative thought process. So far, what’s coming together, it feels like it’s a big transformation from the journeys we’ve been on. That’s what “Unplug” kind of is, the philosophical and musical transformation of the band from “What Killed Puck?” to the “Love” album. It felt like there was a sort of closure at the end of the “Love” album.
Anything else you want to mention?
Madison is a town that we’re increasingly loving performing in. We’ve been here for four-plus years now, so it’s sort of our local big town. It’s kind of getting to be more and more a coming home for us. It’s one that we’re looking forward to.