On January 28, 2003, Craig Minowa was sitting at his drum set when President Bush delivered his State of the Union. Minowa, the brainchild behind the enviro-band Cloud Cult, was coming off an impossibly difficult 12 months. He had lost his 2-year-old son, who died in his sleep the previous February. His wife hit the road soon after. And Minowa was locking himself in his home studio in Sandstone, Minnesota, night after night until the sun came up, writing and escaping.
As Bush came on the radio, the torment came bleeding out of Minowa's drumsticks. He began beating a rhythm to Bush's words. "I had intense frustration. At the same time I was in awe of the speech," Minowa says. "It exercised all the tools of nationalism that Saddam and Hitler used." "State of the Union," from the group's second album, Aurora Borealis, is a cutup of dialogue from that speech and is easily the most daring song to come from a Minnesota songwriter since Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
The song, getting significant airplay on college, public and satellite radio stations, was remixed from files he downloaded on the Net, taking words from the speech and reassembling them to convey his own State of the Union. At one harrowing point, behind an ominous backbeat, you hear Bush say: "I've got a message for the people of Iraq: Go home and die."
Not all of Minowa's songs are about President Bush. But to say his music doesn't have a political agenda would be undercutting the mission of the band (Minowa on guitar, Dan Greenwood on drums, Sarah Young on cello). Minowa says Cloud Cult is an expression and a movement, in the vein of Deadheads and Deaniacs--a save-the-sky first, bring-on-the-music second collaboration whose name borrows from a Hopi Indian prophecy that forecasts the destruction of humankind in the technological age.
Cloud Cult shows are a commune of sorts. People dance in Woodstock garb, rekindling a bygone era when music and politics were one. Split-screen images are shown behind the band, put together by old Pink Floyd roadies who donate their time; Bush on one side, Hitler on the other.
The songs, your standard nonstandard indie-rock songs, with glitches, beeps, cellos, guitars and themes of loss, love and finding your way back home, have no hint of environmentalism in them. A Cloud Cult show is an aura. Likely, you go for the music, but you come out wanting to save the world.
"I thought they were two different worlds," says Minowa, who earned his degree in environmental studies. "I thought, either I can be in the world of music or I can be in a world of some sort of environmental pursuit," he adds. "It wasn't until years later that I decided they could meld together."
Earthology records, the label he runs, is an eco-friendly label in every sense of the word. Situated on an organic farm in Northern Minnesota that runs on wind energy, Earthology donates all profits after expenses to charity. They hand-assemble their own CDs to avoid PVC packaging, one of the world's worst-polluting products. (PVC is short for polyvinyl chloride.)
The way Cloud Cult got the gig in Dallas is typical of how the band travels the country. A fan from Dallas who heard Cloud Cult on satellite e-mailed Minowa and told him he could book a venue for the band. It's familiar territory. Sometimes the band spends the night at fans' homes, who sometimes tag along on tour. Imagine if the Grateful Dead were from Minnesota, replaced tie-dye and hemp with organic water and wool scarves, rocked out like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill--then you've got Cloud Cult.
"People would expect the music would be 'Go out and recycle,'" Minowa says. "No one would like that. The environmental movement is a holistic movement. It's ingrained in the music we do."
Cloud Cult really doesn't want to bring down the government. It just wants to raise awareness. "Eventually, the hope is that these shows turn into convoys," says Minowa. In order to do that, Cloud Cult must first conquer cities like Dallas, a place where the band doesn't chart well. At its height, Cloud Cult's first album, They Live on the Sun, reached No. 2 on the CMJ charts, knocking off Radiohead--of all bands--but in Texas the album has barely made a splash. And while the band certainly leans left, Minowa says, the show shouldn't be anything less than a lesson on how bands should act in a time of war, government ineptitude and corruption.
The show, which Minowa calls an "old-school hippie festival and modern-day politically oriented rave," is eclectic like a carnival. Fans sign petitions and wear costumes, garb Minowa pondered for a second should the band play "State of the Union." He asked, stoically, "Isn't it blasphemy to speak against Bush in Texas?"
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