Cloud Cult Takes On Its Toughest Live Performance Yet

The art-rock band prepares to score its first cinematic release—live and in real time

In the mid-’90s, Minnesota native Craig Minowa formed the experimental-baroque-folk-rock-pop band Cloud Cult—and since then, the group has transcended its college-radio start, having enlisted synths, woodwinds, folk sounds, and fey, naïve-grand lyrics under the direction of the gentle-eyed, earnest-voiced Minowa to critical acclaim.

Because of all that, the group squares away with a certain quirky perception of the country’s north: as mysterious, semi-urban isolation that produces unassuming yet epic sounds out of cellos, computers, and pinewood backwardness for people from coastal cities to discover and try to name. (Think: a hermity Bon Iver, or the witch-of-the-electric-woods echo of Poliça.) From his time with the press, Minowa, too, has come to represent what the Upper Midwest, on a good day, might claim as its public ethos.

Consider, for starters, that the band releases albums through Minowa’s own nonprofit label—which, built partially of recycled plastic and powered geothermally, sits on his organic farm in the off-map boonies south of Duluth.

As for the music? The group doesn’t shy from heavy themes. Grief. Hardship. The inexorable march. Minowa’s songwriting has explored personal darkness—the pain of losing of a child. But critics have noted that in the course of 10 studio albums and one live release, the music hasn’t stewed. No sordid desperation, just bracing, drumming bids for freedom.

And so, with last year’s album The Seeker, the ensemble delivered its hard-won, Minnesota/Wisconsin-chipper spirit via a melodic, genre-crossing voyage of string and choral voices circling a “great unknown,” as Minowa calls it—sung with a wised-up energy that makes the “unknown” perversely comforting rather than frightening.

On the heels of the album came a film directed by a friend of the band, part of Cloud Cult’s long-running interest in matching visuals to music. (Artists often paint onstage during their concerts.) The all-music, no-dialogue film, named after the LP, follows a girl post-tragedy working her way through cynicism and optimism. The album fleshes out and drives the film. Musical nuances court every cutaway and gesture.

And now, following up on the band’s live album, Unplug, which they toured in 2014, Cloud Cult is set to play live screenings of The Seeker across the country. Similarly to an orchestra pit, the ensemble will score the film in real time. The Minneapolis performance, at Northrop, kicks off the tour on June 9 at 7 p.m.

With Unplug, the band “could go down to the street, literally just carrying our instruments, and play the songs,” Minowa says. The Seeker performance, on the other hand—requiring greater scale and finer precision—demands two hours just to set up. With the band members scattered across the country, they took any chance they could to rehearse, recently practicing 13 hours straight.

“It’s one thing if you make a blip playing a regular song, but if you get off by two seconds at the beginning of this film, the whole rest of the performance is pretty much not good,” Minowa says.

A wave crashes onscreen, and drummer Jeremy Harvey plays a cymbal wash that, without the visual, would sound a bit random. “You’re spending so much time playing each frame over and over and over again, trying to lock it into a given moment,” Minowa explains.

After such exacting practice, the show has bled into his dreams, including hectic nightmares of technology revolting.

But Minowa seems to find balance pretty easily, even when adhering to the same strict cues with every performance. “A character’s eyes open a certain way hundreds of times, and the only way to do it right is to be so emotionally open that you’re still on the tip of tears that hundredth time, when you finally get it right,” he says.

With characteristic depth, he takes the project to a spiritual level. 

“I can start to get panicky about how this could fall apart pretty quick, but then my five-year-old daughter comes in and sings a song about bluebirds, and I get reminded of, well, you know, if something falls off with the show, that’s really not a big deal. I’ve got some beauty around here that I need to be present to.”

Cloud Cult performs: The Seeker
Friday, June 9, 7 p.m.
Cyrus Northrop Memorial Auditorium
84 Church St. SE, Minneapolis

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