Cloud Cult | Be Honest and Genuine and Don’t Feign Anything at All

prof cloud-cult_75It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with the music that Craig’s written and connect with the audience and the energy of night.

As I mentioned before, I think Cloud Cult is pretty awesome. Recently, they contributed a fantastic version of the Beatles’ “Help” to a compilation of Beatles covers created to benefit art and music programs in Minnesota (see Minnesota Beatle Project for more on that awesomeness…). In November, they announced that they are taking some time off this winter, planning a summer tour, and working on a new album. Also a couple weeks back, their in-studio performance from August (8-25-11) was featured as a “video of the day” on Seattle-based independent music powerhouse KEXP.

Later that evening, I chatted with lead singer/songwriter Craig Minowa and onstage painter/visual artist Scott West in a mid-sized rental camper behind Seattle’s Neptune Theater about touring, writing, painting, and family.

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Your wife is pregnant now? Congrats! Boy or girl? Do you know or will you find out?

CM: Thanks! Yeah, new one on the way in January. We actually just found out the gender the other day…but I didn’t check to see if it’s OK to announce it yet. [Laughs]

This tour [four dates] is really short. How come?

CM: Now that we’ve got our son [Nova, 2 years old] and another baby on the way, it is not really feasible to do long cross-country tours on a regular basis. Our really good markets are on the East and West Coasts, so trying to figure out how to do Seattle, Portland, San Francisco once a year is hard. This was one idea.

We thought maybe we’ll fly out—there’s 10 of us—and rent a camper and go. I would have liked to have something smaller, but there is no 15-person van.

Wait, you have 10 people in here plus small children?

CM: Normally, the rest of the band goes in the [15-passenger] van with a trailer, and then Connie [wife, onstage painter, and background vocalist] and Nova and I go with the nanny in a minivan. We kinda need that separation because we have a very different sleeping situation with a toddler. He gets up at 5 or 6 and we are on the road by 8, and when the show is over for us we go straight to bed, because we are going to be up super early. The rest of the band, they are up later at night but they have more time in the morning.

Our previous cellist has a couple of boys and they tried traveling with the band for awhile. You want to be driving for sure during nap time; there is more diaper stops and things like that. When you have so many band members, it’s just not good.

How does Nova feel about it?

CM: He does really good with it. He likes to travel. He’s gotten really used to being on the road and so when we are not traveling places with the band, he tends to want to be on the go anyway.

So, is he around now on this tour?

CM: This was going to be the first trip where Connie was going to come and we were going to leave him with her family [in Minnesota]. We’re only out four or five days. This was going to be the first time we were both going to be away. As we got closer we realized that we were really not ready for this. So, now she is staying with him, which is a very good thing, because I think both of us would just be sitting here going “What are we doing here? We both want to be with him! This is not what we want.” It works for where it’s at right now.

Our two kids [ages 6 and 3] are very into all of your music, especially “Travel Safely,” “Transistor Radio,” and “Happy Hippo.” Do you get feedback from others that kids love your music? Any ideas about what to attribute that to?

CM: Yeah, we feel blessed that it’s kind of multigenerational. I don’t know what that is. I know that with the loss of our son [Kaiden, at 2 years old, in 2002], there as a lot of writing that was influenced by him and to him. Probably there was that kind of childish element in there.

prof cloud-cult_2502010’s Light Chasers seemed to represent a rebirth. It is exciting to listen to that progression.

CM: It has been a natural process that seems reflective of inner challenges. The grieving process was an obvious thing that had content that needed to be addressed. With Light Chasers, Connie had the baby on the way. There really was a whole new process of looking at parenthood again, and the excitement of instead of sending a child off into the cosmos, a child being brought from the cosmos back to you. There was a lot of lyric writing when he was first born where he was up late at night and you’re just rocking on cold winter nights, and just thankful you have this beautiful baby in your arms.

Scott, along with Craig’s wife, you are a full member of the band as a painter and backup singer. Other than creating original paintings live onstage at every Cloud Cult show, what else do you do artistically?

SW: I’m a full-time painter in the studio, so I do gallery shows and commissions and a little bit of the side freelance contract illustration. I spent 15 years being the creative director for apparel companies, designing apparel, doing editorial illustration, book illustration, and all sorts of stuff. Now it’s a pure focus in painting.

Cloud Cult has really opened the doors to exposure of the art of painting. A lot of people don’t necessarily get exposed to painters, and that’s part of what it is to create a painting. So, this has been a wonderful opportunity to be part of that.

When I am working on the paintings, and I know Connie feels that same way, it really is a type of visual instrument. A lot of times when people see the show, they see the show performed and really get into the energy of it, but I think sometimes the painting opens up the creative process of how a song is created. There is a parallel there. The audience gets to see the visual instruments, and that process of creating because we are starting from scratch every night.

Is that scary sometimes?

SW: In the early days it was. It’s different and exciting and scary every night I do it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with the music that Craig’s written and connect with the audience and the energy of night. You just make the best of it.

Is there any place out there to go back after a show and check out your onstage work?

SW: When we do some of the longer tours, I document them on my blog and post the painting each night, though I have been a little slack on that recently because I have been focusing some of the studio work. There is a direct correlation between the two, as far as developing characters and finding out the meaning of things while I am on the road. Then I can formalize the narratives when I get back to the studio. They feed each other.

Do you have your own gallery?

SW: Someday…that would be nice. I have a love of such a diversity of arts that I would like to expose people to things they are not getting an opportunity to see.

When it comes to the stage show, do you and Connie participate in the formulation of that? Where does the big show (video, lights, spinning canvas, etc.) come from?

SW: Craig directly coordinates that, but it is something that has developed over the last 10 years of seeing what works. There have been a lot of versions of what the stage show has been in the past, and it has developed to where it is now. We have so many wonderful fans that have contributed a lot of beautiful and amazing work.

It’s such a gift to inspire that kind of creativity. It’s an honor to have people out there being so inspired by Craig’s writing or the artwork they are seeing from Connie and I. I feel like it’s collaborative. Craig’s coordinating what you’re seeing come to fruition, but I think its a collaboration not only from us and the rest of the band but also from the fans. That’s the truth about what a Cloud Cult show is: It’s as much about the people and the energy coming together with us as it is with us and our energy up on the stage, performing.

Craig, speaking of onstage energy, I understand that you folks recently did something with an orchestra?

CM: We played at Orchestra Hall [in July 2011 in Minneapolis], which is where the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra plays. They offered us the show and said that if we orchestrated ourselves well enough that we would get a follow-up offer to work with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. So that’s the hope.

It was a sold-out show and it went really well. The director was there, and he actually canceled his family vacation to come to it [chuckling], so, hopefully…

I’m wondering about the big-picture plans for the band with a baby on the way.

CM: We’ll take time off when the baby is born. I guess the hope with the Orchestra Hall situation is that if we do something with the full orchestra, then we’ll have the charts [the sheet music for all of the different individual parts]. Once you have that and once you’ve done something with an orchestra of that size, then you can book other orchestra halls around the country.

And if you’re doing a tour like that, then it’s a lot more feasible for you to do it with your family, because you’ve got earlier shows, you’ve got bigger presentations so the shows pay a little bit better and you can justify why you’re dragging your family around the country.

Talk about your work with National Geographic. Does that translate into taking a break?

CM: I’ve got six hour-long documentaries to do for them between the beginning of August and the end of September. I’ve done some with them in the past and they just want the Cloud Cult vibe: be honest and genuine and don’t feign anything at all.

It’s worked out really well. When I was getting into music, my goal was to do scoring—actually specifically with National Geographic. So, yeah, it’s been really nice. I’ve really enjoyed being able to get up in the morning and go to the studio and be creative but not necessarily be the centerpiece. You know, then it’s 5:00 and you can go have supper with your family.

Who’s playing the instruments? Is the band playing and you are just writing the music? Is it all you multi-tracked?

CM: Actually, when you hear movie soundtracks, the orchestras are often simulated string sections. You buy software that samples almost every tone you can make with a bow. Then, when you are writing the parts, you say “I want a really sharp staccato here,” and you pull up that kind of bowing and then you can really get kind of flavoring. You go through instrument after instrument. When you layer, it you can’t really tell that it’s not an in studio recording of an actual orchestra.

Last question. When you are thinking about films and lights, do you put boundaries on yourself? Do you worry about being too ambitious and getting a little Spinal Tap-y?

SW: [laughing] I think we’ve been Spinal Tap-y in the past for a few moments. We’ve worked some of those ideas out. I definitely think that, budget and logistics permitting, we would like to see the visual show grow. We really want to put on a show. We want it be an experience, something that people walk away from and they say that really did see something different.

I think the biggest thing I did was a 4- by 12-foot painting on stage. It just got ridiculous because I felt like I was on speed, running back and forth. I think with the painting we are trying to stick true to the art form, but there is more to do with the video and light shows to help enhance that experience but not take away from the music.

It’s actually kind of stripped down tonight, but I think there’s room for growth in the future, like Craig said, in working with an orchestra or in further developing video-syched up with the sets.

CM: Normally when we travel with our own van and trailer, we bring our own screen and stuff, but this time we couldn’t bring a screen in. Since we are only on tour for three dates, and two of them already have screens, tonight we were like, “Let’s just buy a sheet.” [laughing]

SW: [laughing] So I guess tonight might be slightly Spinal Tap-y with little sheet off to the side showing the video. Plus we don’t have the spinning easels, so I feel like I am painting without a guitar. I guess it’s kind of like we used to do stuff in the past. We just put our hearts into it and do a great show. | Tony Van Zeyl

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