So much energy in us: How Cloud Cult stay committed to the environment

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Cloud Cult
Cloud Cult (Graham Tolbert)
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Craig Minowa on the opportunity and environmental challenges of vinyl
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Imagine you are a musician fronting a band, performing before thousands of fans, literally in the spotlight. It's easy to imagine that performing on stage feels like being at the center of the universe.

For Craig Minowa of Cloud Cult, though, it's different. "In our backyard when I was growing up, there were a couple of trees that were great climbing trees," he recalls. "I just felt at the center of the world when I was at the top of those trees."

It's a memory that has helped center Minowa ever since.

As the frontman and main songwriter of Cloud Cult, Minowa and his bandmates have become known as much for their environmental approach to the music industry — from seeking to make CD manufacturing more environmentally friendly to their approach to touring — as they are for their lush musical arrangements, filled with sincere, heartfelt lyrics that address some of life's most pressing questions.

Since the release of their 2001 album, Who Killed Puck?, Cloud Cult have put out 10 studio albums, including their much-anticipated February 2016 release, The Seeker. Along the way, they've toured North America and Europe, winning the ears and hearts of legions of fans captivated by their music and philosophy of putting the Earth first.

Mark Allister, a professor of English, American studies, and environmental studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., is also Cloud Cult's biographer; his book, Chasing the Light: The Cloud Cult Story, was published in 2014. Allister praises the band's longtime commitment to the environment. "From the beginning," Allister says, "Craig Minowa with Cloud Cult was trying to have a carbon-neutral footprint. He just wanted to do everything as environmentally as possible."

Minowa graduated with a degree in environmental science from the University of Minnesota. Prior to starting the band, he worked with nonprofits in the environmental field. By the year 2000, songs Minowa had been writing formed the basis of Who Killed Puck? "Suddenly, I have an album that I want to put out and I recognized that there's no way to actually manufacture it with the tools that were available at that time," he says, referring to the CD industry's reliance on plastic jewel cases sealed in shrink-wrap.

"Record stores weren't going to sell the CD if it wasn't in shrink-wrap," Minowa continues. "But the shrink-wrap for CDs at the time was polyvinyl chloride, which creates carcinogens when you manufacture it and it creates carcinogens when you dispose of it, particularly through incineration, so that was not an option for us at all."

In response, Minowa founded Earthology Records, which took an environmental approach to CD manufacturing. He also created a website for Earthology that became the top hit in Internet searches for "jewel case recycling." The process revolved around Minowa, his wife, Connie, and other members of the band gathering empty cases at college bookstores and other collection sites. To circumvent the PVC shrink-wrap for their own products, Earthology contracted a company in Illinois that developed a biodegradable wrap.

While Cloud Cult may not have been the primary catalyst for changes in CD packaging, the efforts of Earthology certainly were among the vanguard of the revolution. "The green business model got to be trendy," Minowa says. "Now it's wonderful: you can get 100-percent post-consumer recycled paperboard, you can get veggie inks, you can get plastics made out of recycled plastics or made out of plant matter. The options are cost-competitive to what you have to do with conventional CD manufacturing."

For example, Jason Isbell's 2015 album, Something More than Free, was released on CD in a folding paperboard case; the only plastic is the CD itself. "What Jason Isbell did and lots of other bands are doing now is they're not wanting to put out into the world something that's a bad product environmentally," Allister observes. "I think Cloud Cult were just one of a number who helped drive that thinking."

Beyond tweaking their physical product to be eco-conscious, Cloud Cult also had to consider the operations of a working band — namely, touring, which Minowa recognizes as "a difficult beast to tame in an environmental way." One simple practice he and the rest of Cloud Cult follow is bringing their own containers and utensils to hotel continental breakfast buffets, many of which use disposable Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery.

On a larger level, Minowa looks at the band's entire energy consumption on tour — from fuel used, to energy consumed in hotels and onstage. Then, using a calculation of how much energy has been consumed, Cloud Cult make a donation to Native Energy, a firm that uses contributions to build sustainable energy sources — including wind turbines, solar energy, and biomass — while investing the profits back into American Indian reservation communities. "The grid as a whole can be looked at as a giant battery of sorts," Minowa says. "When you're consuming that energy, you're drawing from that grid, but you can choose to put back into that grid — in a sense, recharging that battery."

To counteract Cloud Cult's CO2 footprint, Minowa determines how many trees it would take to absorb the band's carbon dioxide output. He then multiplies that figure times four, working on the assumption that only about 25 percent of all planted trees survive. Although Cloud Cult have worked through organizations like American Forests to fund reforestation projects, last year, Craig and Connie led an effort to plant trees at their Earthology Park in Viroqua, Wis. "We found the areas that needed the trees the most, and we hand-planted them," Minowa explains, adding that they were assisted by student volunteers and Cloud Cult fans who came in specifically for the planting project. "It was kind of exciting to have that dirt-under-the-fingernails experience."

Although Minowa and Cloud Cult have overcome many environmental challenges, obstacles remain. Minowa cites, for example, the booming popularity of vinyl, pointing out that records are pressed on virgin material made of the same dioxin-producing PVC as the earlier form of CD shrink-wrap. He also notes how T-shirts, a popular merchandise item for touring bands, cost 400 percent more when manufactured organically as opposed to conventional methods. "It's still that manufacturing that we've got to wrap our heads around, but we'll get there," he insists, his voice conveying optimistic resolve. "We'll figure it out!"

Allister commends the band. "Cloud Cult are just really honorable, principled people with all their environmental matters and in how they treat each other," he says. "It's inspiring, there's just no doubt."

Billy Bragg, a musician who, like Cloud Cult, seeks "more relevance than spotlight and applause," has said he likes audience members to leave his gigs thinking, "Yeah! I had a sense of community!" Minowa can relate to Bragg's words. "When we go onstage and look out there at the audience, that's the power source," Minowa says. "That's the fuel source, everybody out there. […] That's the only way we're going to survive all the challenges in front of us — hope and optimism, and then a strong power of love behind us."

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the March edition of The Growler.

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