VIROQUA, WIS. - The road to the new Minowa homestead winds out of town and weaves between green valley bluffs with all the elegance and drama of a Cloud Cult string arrangement.
The house sits on the bed of a former rock quarry, under a cliff that cuts into the hillside with all the abruptness of the band's rocky rhythms. A path behind the home splits off into two distinct destinations: a thick, dark, shadowy forest and an open meadow aglow with wildflowers and sunlight.
Cloud Cult leader Craig Minowa regularly walked his 15 acres during the making of his band's most meticulously crafted album. You can easily guess which direction he most often took just by the title of the record, "Light Chasers," which finally hit stores this week.
"It'd have been pretty hard to sound depressed with all this," Minowa said.
Part outdoor retreat, band camp and family reunion, the idyllic scene at Cloud Cult HQ during a visit in late July was as revealing as it was rejuvenating. And that was despite the band's struggles that day with its new, futuristic, in-ear sound system, which would lead to an awkward 10-minute delay during its set the following weekend at the Lowertown Music Fest in St. Paul.
All eight members of the truly cult-loved, gender-balanced, environmentally pioneering orchestral rock band met up prior to the fest for two days of rehearsals in the Minowa garage and its adjoining studio, both of which open up to views of the cliff and flowers.
The same view greeted the musicians as they reunited from a possible band-ending hiatus to make "Light Chasers" over the winter and spring.
Describing those sessions, bassist/trombonist Shawn Neary feigned boredom as if it were every band's normal process: "I recorded, hiked around, took in the grandeur."
In July, the grandest sight of all was Nova, the bright-eyed and ridiculously laid-back son of Craig and his wife/bandmate Connie. Nova's birth last October figured as heavily in the writing of "Light Chasers" as did the death of his older brother, Kaidin, in Cloud Cult's five previous albums.
"This is the first record I can listen to and only cry a little bit," Connie Minowa said, one of the few moments at the Viroqua meet-up that didn't end in laughter. "[It's] the first one I can listen to in the car and rock out, instead of having to set aside a day to listen to it and grieve afterward."
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In the album's lead-off single "Running With the Wolves" -- a song the Current 89.3 FM can be excused for excessively spinning -- Craig Minowa makes a passionate case for ditching cubicles and city life and returning to the wild. His family's relocation to Viroqua last fall, however, wasn't anything so sensational.
Craig and Connie previously lived on a farm near Hinckley, Minn., one they don't remember so fondly. "The basement where we rehearsed and recorded was moldy and musty," Craig recalled. "In a way, we felt more isolated because there wasn't anybody like us up there. Hinckley isn't exactly a hotbed of progressivism."
Viroqua, about three hours southeast of the Twin Cities, is an epicenter for organic farmers, where you can literally find Harmony. It's the home of Harmony Valley Farms, whose dairy products are all over Twin Cities grocery stores.
The Minowas are longtime organic farmers. They moved south to enjoy a couple more weeks of growing time next season (anyone who's cared for a newborn knows why they failed to start their garden this year).
They also were seeking an ideal plot of land to house their long-imagined Earthology Institute. Craig's idea is to build cabins in the woods and host seminars on organic farming, recycling, wind turbines, etc. If it sounds like the Cloud Cult leader is blowing smoke, remember: This group ran its van on bio-fuel and participated in the NativeEnergy offset program back when most bands didn't know a carbon footprint from a carburetor.
Minowa, 37, already fulfilled one dream upon moving to Viroqua: He quit his day job at the watchdog/advocacy Organic Consumers Association and became a full-time musician. Cloud Cult isn't his only gig. He also spent the last year crafting music for six episodes of the National Geographic Channel's "Expeditions" series. Not just dealing in scenes of butterflies and sunsets befitting New Agey background music, Minowa recounted one particularly challenging montage.
"It was this very graphic footage of a small deer being eaten alive by a grizzly bear," he recalled. "I had to go back in the house and hug my wife and child. It was that disturbing."
Craig and Connie grappled with the thought of playing in a rock 'n' roll band once Nova was born. They knew it could be done: The two young sons of cellist/co-vocalist Sarah Young and band manager Adrian Young had ridden along for many Cloud Cult tours ("our role models," Connie said).
However, the Minowas' tragic experience as parents affects every little decision they make now, and this was a big one. Kaidin, 2, died in his sleep in 2002, for reasons doctors never could properly explain.
"We're naturally going to be more neurotic parents," Connie said, "so you can imagine our worries about taking a baby on tour."
In the end, the baby spurred on Cloud Cult. After eight years of exploring the loss of his first son in songs -- of seeking the meaning of life, questioning the finality of death, reaching out to the afterlife (nope, nothing light and fluffy here) -- Craig predictably found ample inspiration from Nova's birth.
"There was a lot of time working on this album where I'd be walking him around in the middle of the night," the singer recalled, "and I'd try to piece together the words in a way that I'd want him to hear them, just sort of my gift to him, from father to son."
Songs such as "You Were Born" and "You'll Be Bright (Invocation, Pt. 1)" are quite literally about the advent of life. However, "Light Chasers" on the whole is something much heavier and wilder than a celebration of parenthood. It has a sci-fi story line about a spacecraft on the ultimate journey ("Unexplainable Stories"). It has the usual Cloud Cult spiritual quest ("Blessings / Invocation Pt. 2"). It even boasts a grounded, everyday message about simply trying to be a better person (the finale "There's So Much Energy in Us").
Kaidin's influence is still here, too.
"Individual points of the album are about trying to get in touch with him and get the kind of advice he would want to give to his little brother," Minowa said.
That advice is pretty much the crux of the album. Said Minowa, "The album's ultimate realization is that you are always in the light. The big spiritual journey doesn't necessarily have to happen when we die. The search for light is the day-in, day-out experience of us trying to better ourselves, and how to get over the inner issues we all have."
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Unsure about Cloud Cult's future, the rest of the group scattered before Craig's songs came to light.
Sarah Young joined a community choir and string ensemble in addition to working as a children's nurse and mom. Scott West became a full-time artist, after seven years of painting onstage with the band and selling that night's artwork after the show (a staple of Cloud Cult's shows; Connie Minowa is its other "live painter"). Neary, who came to the group from Tapes 'N Tapes in 2008, issued a solo album under the moniker Wapsipinicon (a river in his native Iowa). Violinist Shannon Frid followed her fiancé to Chicago (officially making Cloud Cult a tri-state group). And drummer Arlen Peiffer stayed busy behind bustling twang-folkie Caroline Smith.
All fine and dandy, those distractions did nothing to lessen the anticipation for Craig's call.
"We all believe wholeheartedly in this band," West said, "so yeah, we wanted to continue. No question."
Neary remembered this from the group's first show after the break: "We played up in Lutsen, and even in a song like 'Million Things' -- not the most cheerful song -- I was like this [broad smile] the whole set."
Said Young, "In the end, I think the stakes were higher with this record because of the doubts. It was like we were putting all our chips in."
While the album's concept was fuzzy at first, one thing made clear by the demos that Minowa started sending to the other members -- typically a couple songs per week -- was how much he intended to up the ante for the orchestral arrangements. Classically trained French horn player and keyboardist Sarah Elhardt was thus brought aboard as a full-time member. Minowa geeked out so much with the string and horn parts that he even enlisted two computer programs to turn his musical notes into sheet music. "It was impressive, except the sheet music was in the wrong key most of the time," Frid said, to a roar of laughter (and an embarrassed head shake from Minowa).
That would be the first of two technological advancements that would require some ironing out by the band. The in-ear monitor system they tinkered with during rehearsals in July promises to ease sound issues on Cloud Cult's tour that kicks off this week -- if and when the band properly learns how to work it.
The futuristic in-ear audio system made the scene at the rural Minowa homestead all the more surreal, since the band's instruments could be heard only through headphones. On the cliff top above the garage, the only sound that could be heard over the background of bird chirps and bug buzzing was the crash of drums, and occasionally Minowa's high, willowy voice.
The scene did scream a few truths about Cloud Cult. It almost literally demonstrated how the group has created its own little world, an ultra-private universe born out of Minowa's fantastical mind and his family's emotional story. You feel lucky to be listening in. More than ever, though, you have to be plugged in to the right channel to really hear what's going on.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib