In Tune With Nature
By Christopher Bahn
Since he was a child, Craig Minowa's two driving passions have been music and environmentalism. As the leader of critically acclaimed indie-rock band Cloud Cult, he's built a career that puts both at the center of his life.
Cloud Cult began as a solo project in 1995, while Minowa was an environmental sciences student at the University of Minnesota. It has grown into a group that's earned a devoted cult following for its philosophical and expansive indie-rock on albums such as “Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)”, “The Meaning Of 8” and its latest disc, “Light Chasers.”
During that time, Minowa and his wife and bandmate Connie Minowa have been trailblazers in greening the music industry through Earthology, a nonprofit organization that functions as Cloud Cult's record label as well as, more recently, the umbrella for their environmental projects outside of music, including Connie's green outreach work with local Indian tribes.
Perhaps ironically, Minowa's Cloud Cult lyrics rarely touch directly on environmental concerns. "Initially there was a conscious intention to have the shows be this eco-environmental educational experience. We'd do these mini-Woodstock on wheels," says Minowa. "The audience didn't take too kindly to that. It didn't feel very natural."
He found instead that there was a greater impact to be made by showing how the music industry could put environmentally friendly methods into practice—and not just by talking, but by example. "With [Cloud Cult's first album] ‘Who Killed Puck?’ came the necessity to create a business model that would allow me to pursue my music career in an environmental way. So I started to do that, and created Earthology, which other people started to grasp onto as a model that they could learn from, too."
Earthology allows the Minowas to control all aspects of making their music, from songwriting to touring to manufacturing and distributing their records. It's the latter area where they've had the greatest environmental success. Their first major victory was in finding an alternative to plastic-heavy CD packaging.
"This was 1999, and they still had the long boxes in the stores and were really struggling with this mega-packaging for a relatively small product,” Craig Minowa says. The Minowas began collecting discarded CD cases from college bookstores, which grew into receiving thousands of the plastic jewel cases in the mail, which they would hand-clean for reuse in new products for Cloud Cult and more than 100 other bands from across the country. They also began printing CD inserts with recycled paper and vegetable inks, and working to eliminate the PVC-based plastic wrapping around CDs.
Going green has not been easy, and although their idealistic intentions have never wavered, the Minowas have found that some environmental practices have been more effective than others. To offset the carbon footprint from driving from city to city on tour, the band plants trees (more than a thousand so far).
"And we figure out how much energy we use onstage, and in the recording process and et cetera, and pump that back into the grid with wind energy," says Minowa. "That's as close as we can get right now. It's still a really dirty equation, and it's still less than perfect. No equation in the environmental field is as perfect as you want it to be."
More ambitious plans to use van-mounted solar panels and biodiesel fuel didn't pan out as well as hoped. "We did the math behind it and realized that the amount of additional fuel it was taking to carry the batteries across the country was more energy than what the solar panels were generating. It's an example of the ongoing quest we have in the environmental arena to constantly reassess the solutions we've already come up with, because sometimes the things that seem like good fixes have a hole in the bucket. In order to be effective environmentalists, we have to constantly stay on our toes."
The band also met resistance in convincing clubs to start recycling programs. "There are so many venues that don't do it, and it's so easy to do. ... We went so far as to bring recycling bins with us in our trailer. And that was another steep learning curve: You can't really haul that much recycling out of a club with your gear," Minowa laughs.
The title of one of Cloud Cult's best songs seems apropos here: "No One Said It Would Be Easy." But despite any setbacks, Minowa counts their efforts as a success. "We've gone from people really scratching their heads about why we're doing what we're doing, to a gradual societal awakening that's really exciting to see,” he says.
Minowa says he hopes more bands and record labels will follow Cloud Cult's example.
"It's surprisingly affordable these days to mitigate your ecological impact. You can get environmentally manufactured CDs at a price that's really comparable to the conventional. Even in the days when the entire tour was charged on the charge card—it hits you in the pocketbook, obviously, but there's a lot more to worry about than that. When you're thinking about yourself as a citizen on this planet, it's a natural part of your responsibility."
CHRISTOPHER BAHN is a Twin Cities–based writer and editor who has been covering the arts and popular culture for nearly 20 years for publications including The Onion A.V. Club, MSNBC.com, and Rake Magazine.
Indie-rock band Cloud Cult, launched in 1995 by then–University of Minnesota environmental sciences student Craig Minowa, has become a leader in greening the music industry. Enjoy Cloud Cult’s music video, “Running With the Wolves” below – then check out more online at cloudcult.com.
Running With the Wolves - Video
Minowa welcomes Momentum readers to download the hit “You’ll Be Bright” from the group’s new “Light Chasers” album. Download the MP3
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Last modified on January 23, 2012