Cloud Cult makes Aspen debut |

Cloud Cult makes Aspen debut

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Minnesota rock band Cloud Cult, with Craig Minowa, top center, and Connie Minowa, top left, makes its local debut on Friday at Belly Up Aspen. (Scott West)

ASPEN ” Like almost every touring musician who has been at it for a few years, Craig Minowa is looking at ways to reduce the grind of the road. Minowa is so earnest about that desire that he can see the day, not at all far ahead, when he pulls the plug on Cloud Cult, the Minnesota band that he formed in the late ’90s, and with which he has recorded nine albums, including “Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes),” released last month. This, despite the fact the band’s dense, collage-like mix of rock, classical and electronic sounds is being hailed by Rolling Stone and NPR, and their home-state St. Paul Pioneer Press and the satirical paper the Onion, both of whom named Cloud Cult’s 2007 CD, “Meaning of 8,” the album of the year. (In both cases, this was not meant satirically.)

The 35-year-old Minowa offers the standard reasons for reducing his road time. There is the stress of life on a tour bus, the wish to have more family time, and ambitions outside of the band. But in Minowa’s case, all of these reasons have major twists to them.

As far as projects outside of Cloud Cult, Minowa has a concrete one, and it isn’t a side project in the musical realm. Minowa wants to expand the organic farm, in northern Minnesota, where he and his wife currently raise vegetables, to include livestock as well. The two also aim to raise the sustainability factor of the farm. “That’s hard to do when you’re spending six months of the year on the road, plus a few more dates here and there,” said Minowa by phone, as he headed toward Santa Clara, Calif.

On the family side, Minowa has a wife ” Connie, a member of Cloud Cult, whose role in the band, aside from small bits of singing and playing keyboards, is making a painting, onstage, at each performance. The couple had a son, Kaidin, who was born in 2000. He died two years later, in his sleep, for reasons that are a mystery. The Minowas are hoping to become parents again, soon, and when they are, they plan to raise their son on the farm, rather than in a tour bus.

“I don’t want to be in the space I’ve been in the past six years, when I wake up in the middle of the night, trying to get down the sounds I’m hearing, and the words I have going on in my head,” said Craig, who leads Cloud Cult to its Aspen debut Friday at Belly Up, with South Dakota rock duo Kid Dakota opening. “I want to wake up and be totally focused on my daughter or son or whatever we’re fortunate enough to have.”

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On the evidence of the music he has been making with Cloud Cult, Minowa has been completely absorbed with the child he and Connie lost. On “Feel Good Ghosts,” the sixth Cloud Cult CD since Kaidin’s death, the boy’s presence is palpable. “We saw a ghost inside our house, or was it wishful thinking?” Minowa wonders on “The Ghost Inside Our House.” The album is populated by angels, weary souls, images of heaven and a battle between struggle (“This living, it ain’t easy”) and release (“May your lives be long/… may your heart stay strong”).

Minowa says that not all of the songs are directly about Kaidin, but that the child, the experience of having him and losing him, informs everything about Cloud Cult. And it has been that way for six years, and six albums, including “They Live on the Sun,” “Aurora Borealis” and “Lost Songs From the Lost Years.” Many of the songs on those albums came shortly after Kaidin died, when the Minowas moved to their farm and Craig took a year to “spend as much time on the grieving process as I could, by writing songs.”

“It was a very profound experience,” Minowa said of Kaidin’s death. “You’ll always use it as a tool to philosophize and experience life at its true depth.

“That’s kind of a part of the beauty of the project, to bring in the spirit of our loved ones.”

Minowa channels the spirit of Kaidin not only in his songwriting process but onstage as well. This compounds the ordinary stress of being on the road: Each night of a tour is not merely about playing their instruments well (or, for Connie, painting a worthwhile picture), or giving the audience a good time, but about raising literal life-and-death issues, and reaching for some sort of transcendence over what might be the most horrific experience a person can go through. It can be draining in a way that simple lack of sleep, constantly unfamiliar surroundings, lousy food, and bandmates ” the usual assortment of road evils ” are not.

“In the past few years, I’ve been dealing with mortality and what that’s all about: Why some of us die early and some don’t? And to appreciate the gift of this life,” said Minowa. “It’s catharsis. The goal onstage every night is to find catharsis. If I play a full set and don’t experience that, then I didn’t perform well.” Minowa recalls a recent night in Seattle when, because of a ticketing snafu, the band was forced to play two shows: “It’s tough to go through two catharses in one night.”

Still, there is an unquestionably life-affirming quality to Cloud Cult’s music. There is the suggestion throughout “Feel Good Ghosts” that beings no longer living on earth carry on in the spirit world. “Journey of the Featherless,” written from the perspective of the deceased, exclaims, “Though my fingers are blisters and my eyes are bullet holes, my heart keeps beating.”

In at least one way, Kaidin does live on. Minowa incorporates recordings of the baby’s voice into songs. “It’s far enough back that you don’t notice it. But I can hear it. I know it’s there,” said Minowa.

Minowa is separated from most touring musicians in that he never really sought a life on the road. He grew up, as did Connie, in Owatonna, Minn., some 50 miles south of Minneapolis. Craig took lessons on piano and on violin as a kid, then switched to orchestral bass in eighth grade. He continued with training in classical music through high school, with an eye on composing movie soundtracks. He got sidetracked when he formed a band, Contrapoint, and got dreams of being a rock star.

“I wanted to go to school in Texas,” at the University of North Texas, in Denton, which has a famed music department, said Minowa. “But I was also playing in a band, and thought it had more potential. It was a small-town band, but at the time, I was a kid, and you feel like the sky’s the limit.” He ended up spending a year each at Minnesota State University in Mankato, then at the University of Minnesota, studying composition.

Contrapoint would, in a way, be the high point of Minowa’s pop-music fantasies. By the late ’90s, he was focused on finishing a degree in environmental science, and taking an assortment of odd jobs. Minowa was working as an ice cream truck driver when he put together the group of musicians who would record the 2000 album, “Who Killed Puck?” He had no plan to tour with the band, or even record a next project. “I was just a working man, looking to have a job, pay the bills, be a husband,” he said.

Those plans were thrown awry by tragedy. After Minowa wrote a slew of songs ” one report puts the number at 100 ” to get him through the earliest stage of grieving, he let some friends listen to the results.

“They pushed me into releasing the music to college radio. I would never have had the confidence to do that,” said Minowa, who released the songs as the 2003 album, “They Live on the Sun.” “But it was shocking to see it charting so well in cities I’d never been to. I thought that was a good opportunity to try out the live shows in those places. And it just didn’t stop.”

Cloud Cult, which includes a two-piece string section ” cellist Sarah Young and violinist Shannon Frid ” has toured across the country, and appeared on a handful of notable festivals, including the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks, where they headlined on the second stage. Minowa has a second face in the music world, working through his Earthology Records as a consultant on environmental issues to other acts and to record labels and music industry groups.

Minowa can see pulling the plug on Cloud Cult. It was a project for which he had no plans, and ended up lasting six years, and bringing him through a devastating period. But that period may be at a close.

“The current model, I could see ending,” he said. “More a paradigm shift. In that we want to start a family again. The new art form is parenting.”