Motion City Soundtrack and Next aside, the national music acts who emerge from Minnesota tend to be somewhat different than the average stars. Take Cloud Cult: they’ve driven around the country in a van with solar panels on its roof, their live shows feature two painters creating art on stage, and they’re unafraid to use rock ‘n’ roll to address life’s Big Questions. Why are we here? Where are we going? What’s the meaning of life? It’s a heady stew, and they’ll bring it to First Avenue on November 17 and 18 with a pair of release shows for their new studio album Light Chasers. I spoke by phone with band leader Craig Minowa as he rested at home in rural Wisconsin between legs of Cloud Cult’s fall tour.
You’ve been very open about the fact that the death of your first son at a young age inspired the songs that have lifted Cloud Cult to international recognition over the past several years. I imagine there’s a strange feeling of vertigo that comes from meeting such great professional and public success with music related to such a devastating private tragedy.
Initially, when I was writing those songs, I really didn’t have the idea that the music was going to take off like that. Some of the songs on They Live On the Sun  I never even thought would be put onto a commercial album. They’re now albums that are hard for me to listen to, but something happened where people started reaching out, people who had experienced similar losses, and that continued to increase. After a couple of albums there was a deeper purpose to the band’s music—it became music as medicine for a lot of people.
Your new record is a full-blown concept album. What albums by other artists come closest to doing the kind of thing you were trying to do with Light Chasers?
When it comes to concept albums, Pink Floyd’s The Wall is the gold standard. A big part of that was that there was a full-fledged movie with visuals to accompany the album. With Who Killed Puck? , there was a story line that I spent a lot of time trying to write. With Light Chasers, we leave listeners with more opportunity to decide what story line they hear in the album.
Cloud Cult has grown over the years, adding a number of members and coming to incorporate onstage painting. How is what you’re trying to do as a live act different now than it was in the past?
The recording have always had a lot of layers; there isn’t a lot of thought put into how it’s going to be performed live. For the first couple of albums I didn’t even think there was going to be a live band—it was just a studio project. We started playing live as a three-piece, but it was pretty much impossible to replicate the album sound with all its tracks. Over the years, it’s been a process of trying to get established enougth that we can have the number of instrumentalists to pull the songs off live. We’ve finally hit the spot where we have the musicians to pull it off.
You grew up in Owatonna, which has produced at least three national music acts [Cloud Cult, Owl City, and Har Mar Superstar], the Minneapolis music scene counts you as one of its own, and now you live on a farm in Wisconsin. What role has the local music scene played in your career?
We do a lot of touring with Minneapolis bands. The majority of Cloud Cult still live in Minneapolis—[my wife] Connie and myself have moved out here, and our violin player moved to Chicago, but the rest of the band live there. We go way back with a lot of local artists, and we have natural, comfortable relationships with them. If we have a show somewhere and have an opening slot, we can call Jeremy Messersmith or Kid Dakota. This fall we’re touring with Fort Wilson Riot.
Have local artists influenced your music?
I’ve always been pretty quiet and introspective, so I haven’t been going out to the clubs. We live a quiet life in the country, and I’m inspired by nature—by looking up at the stars, by listening to crickets. I haven’t really been keeping up on hipster music, either locally or nationally.
Cloud Cult have always followed environmentally friendly practices. Have any of those practices influenced other bands?
We’ve been fortunate to develop some models that have worked well, and others haven’t worked so well. When we started, there wasn’t any ecologically friendly CD manufacuter. Even cardboard digipacks weren’t there, so we started by reclaiming thousands of used jewel cases that would otherwise have gone into landfills and put them back into the market. That turned into developing 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard cases and non-toxic shrink wrap. Other bands have been able to use that. Something that didn’t work so well was putting solar panels on our touring van to charge batteries that powered our laptops and cell phones. [The technology] worked great, but when we did the math we realized that we were consuming more energy to haul the batteries around than we were saving. So now that’s just a stationary unit. Sometimes when you try to reduce your impact, there are consequences you don’t foresee.
I often ask artists what their favorite t-shirt is. What’s yours?
I have a weird t-shirt wardrobe. When we go on tour, I take a stack of 10 blank black t-shirts and 10 blank white t-shirts. I sweat so much that I have to change my shirt several times a day, and I don’t want to look like a diva who’s always changing clothes. So, my favorite t-shirt is to always wear the same t-shirt.