Cloud Cult’s latest album, Light Chasers, is as epic as anything in life. It is filled with glorious ups, heartbreaking downs, and many other emotions and minutiae that help populate our lives and make them what they are. More than just a collection of disposable songs, the album is an experience that is meant to be listened to from start to finish, something which is increasingly rare in this era of catchy singles and iTunes obsessions.
Craig Minowa — singer/songwriter/guitarist for the band — recently took some time to talk with Stereo Subversion about finding the silver lining in getting blasted by Pitchfork, having their albums leak to the public early and how crucial it is for him to view making music as a sacred process.
Brian Palmer: I read that recently you guys contributed a track to Think Out Loud. How did that come about?
Craig Minowa: Well, we try to keep our fingers in as many projects as we can that are positive and worthwhile, and are easy to submit a track to [Laughs]. Our band manager kind of gave us the schpiel on that and it sounded like a good idea.
SSv: Now had you been familiar with Think Out Loud prior to this?
Craig: For me, personally, I wasn’t familiar with them, but after getting educated on what they are doing it sound like it would be a great thing to get involved with.
SSv: Is it true that Light Chasers was originally supposed to be released in September, but was leaked out in July?
Craig: Well, we released it through our website in July. Prior to us releasing it officially, it did leak out on a couple of those sites where you can download it for free. We had learned that our last two albums had leaked to those websites a couple of months before our actual release date, so we lost a whole lot of sales because those sites were the only places you could get the album. So this time we decided to beat them to the punch and released it through our website earlier than the street date and that helped a lot.
SSv: It sucks that you guys had to learn that lesson the hard way before, but at least you guys were on the ball with it this time around.
Craig: Yeah, you know, there have been a lot of fans that’ve been really positive about that. Just on this last tour, I think it was in Portland, Oregon, there were fans there that were offering to just donate money to us because they’d downloaded the album and felt like they wanted to pay for it, so there was an idea to put out a jar where people could make anonymous donations for freely downloaded albums.
SSv: So with the early leaks of previous albums and the conscious decision on your part to release Light Chasers early through your website, have you found that at shows there are fans singing along to new material before the album has officially been released?
Craig: [Laughs] Well, yeah, definitely with this tour. The street date was September 17th, I think, but every show we were at there were people in the front few rows recognizing and singing along with the songs. So it is a benefit on the touring level, and I’m really not opposed to the idea of sharing the albums freely or anything like that, but I feel if you download or share something for free and you actually listen to it and enjoy it and find yourself listening to it multiple times, then the ethical thing would be to pay for it. But the freely sharing stuff I think works to the benefit of every artist out there, because people can listen to something that they might not be familiar with and decide whether or not they like it.
SSv: So how have your fans been responding to this album so far?
Craig: Really good. I think it’s a little bit more divisive than past albums. We’ve got kind of an organic, hardcore following of people that are attracted to Cloud Cult because they’ve gone through some extreme things in their lives, be it medical or losing a loved one, or all those types of things. We get stories from people all the time about how the music has helped them through that process, and so with this album there’s a lot of focus on that element in putting it together, so it’s really attracted that base of people looking to use it almost medicinally. And I think that people who’ve liked us doing some of the shorter, radio catchy songs may be separated a little bit on this one. It really wasn’t the time for a radio album though.
SSv: I wanted to touch on that, actually, this theme of interconnectedness that appears throughout the album: life and death and everything in between, the supernatural and the natural, even the songs themselves practically play like one gigantic song instead of a series of radio-ready tracks. Was this intentional or did it just happen as the writing process was going on?
Craig: It was intentionally designed as a concept album. My wife and I got pregnant a little bit into the album creation process, so at that time, the intention behind the album adjusted in the sense that I was really working on a lot of inner issues of trying to figure out how I could be the best dad that I can be, and how to be the best person I can be, and, you know, this whole process of being a parent and worrying about bringing a child into the world. And the music has always been reflective of whatever personal issues have been going on over here.
I just feel like it’s more honest or authentic if it’s reflective of what I’m going through at the moment, so early on I had decided that I wanted it to be a full concept album about that journey of life, and you definitely caught it—the life and death process, and the continuity of it and the timeline that goes through the whole thing.
SSv: I liked the way you guys put this album together. The titles of some of the songs are very picturesque, and just the structure of them all. It’s like your life; you have a lot of stops along the way, and you go forwards, backwards, left and right and everywhere you need to go, hoping to get to the place you want to get to. The album feels like this big, long journey, so kudos for giving it that feel.
Craig: Thank you. Thanks for listening to the album front-to-back like that. A lot of people are listening to radio just to get one track they like, so it’s nice to actually hear from someone who has listened to the whole thing. [Laughs]
SSv: You’re welcome. So what would you say was the hardest part of making Light Chasers?
Craig: Uh, that’s a good question. I would probably say it’s the.. I’ve struggled a little bit more with the response of reviewers on this one. And I don’t really know why that is. Before the release I really did a lot of mental preparation and realizing that, you know, all the decisions I made on this album were really personal and that I needed them to sound a certain way. For me, the final product is exactly what I need in life and that’s a reflection of my journey with my family right now. But because it’s all so personal I think I’m a little over-sensitive to some of the things critics have said about how much work went into it. It took an insane amount of work! [Laughs]
I really enjoyed the process. I was completely committed to this album for a good year and a half and obviously judging art is a very subjective kind of thing and not everybody is gonna like every piece of art that’s out there. But it’s also part of the musician’s job to have enough in them to deal with stuff, like when Pitchfork basically buries you. [Laughs] So I’ve struggled with that. I’ve thought, ‘Well, fine. Next time I’m just gonna release an album that’s really under the radar and just not be so public about it,’ you know? But I’ve got to get over it.
So the response overall has been good, but there’s been just the occasional big hitter out there. I mean, the first review that came out was the Pitchfork one and I think I was just super hyper-sensitive to that because they’ve kind of been big in the hipster scene the last couple albums and swaying people’s opinions concerning us. But I think this last review was good for my modesty so I don’t keep on going into albums with any assumptions of ‘I know people are gonna like it,’ and this will help me to just do what I’ve got to do.
SSv: There you go. You can’t please everybody anyway, right?
Craig: Yeah, there was a very fierce, intentional process with this record. I didn’t want to steer away from radio too much or make songs that were gonna turn away fans, but for this one piece of art it had to be this way and now I get to deal with the repercussions.
SSv: Way to stick to your guns and make the album that needed to be made instead of what you think everybody wanted to hear.
SSv: What does music mean to you?
Craig: Music is an incredibly sacred ceremony to me. It’s been used, historically, probably going back tens of thousands of years even though we can’t really mark where it was first brought into human traditions. But for the bulk of that time it was used as ceremony, it was something to get in touch with nature, get in touch with the gods, and I feel that that this is still its primary purpose. It’s been a very spiritual thing for me. Before going on stage and playing, I feel like I need to have my own personal spiritual experience with the show each night or I feel like I did a really bad job. It’s the same thing with the albums; they speak to me like they’re a sort of prayer, so I treat them in a very sacred way. They’re very special to me.
It’s kind of hard for me to hear some of the fashionable music that’s out there because the artists are really just using it as a tool to say whatever’s cool or demean women or whatever the case is. To me, it’s way too sacred to be used in such a negative way. That’s part of the sweat of the process is recognizing how important it is to have so much intention behind every single word and knowing that people are gonna be listening to that. Because you’re propagating something, you’ve got a responsibility with these albums to try and do something good for the universe. That’s why I feel good about the band I’m playing with because everybody’s on the same page.
SSv: That’s a good thing. So you sort of touched on this in your answer to what music means to you, generally, but why do you make music?
Craig: I don’t feel like I communicate to people or the universe as deeply as I can on any other level with music. In Buddhism they talk about how that last step towards enlightenment is a complete loss of self, loss of ego, of where you’re just gone and you only exist as this separate entity, and music is the one thing that time after time, night after night, can do that for me. I’m no longer separate from people then and can communicate whatever grand mystery is out there, and it just connects in me in ways that nothing else does.
From the get go I never thought we were even going to push things on a commercial album. It just started as something that happened every day as a way to connect to the universe. It’s my prayer and it’s my path to the sacred side of things and I need to do it in order to be healthy in the head and in the soul. [Laughs] Otherwise I just start getting really messed up inside.
*Photos by Stephanie Cogan