The experimental, environmentally conscious Cloud Cult began in the mid-'90s in Minneapolis, MN. The band was initially the solo project of Craig Minowa, who launched Cloud Cult while he was pursuing a degree in environmental science, and also shining shoes and driving an ice cream truck, among other jobs. Minowa spent the bulk of 1995 recording The Shade Project, which included sounds produced by buckets, pans, and couch cushions. Additional musicians were recruited to play the material live, and Cloud Cult pushed the conventions of rock concerts by introducing "live painting" to their sets. During every show, members Connie Minowa and Scott West would complete a painting; the resulting artwork was then auctioned off upon the show's conclusion. Such creative flourishes would soon come to characterize Cloud Cult's music, green-minded philosophy, and live performances.
Following the release of The Shade Project, Minowa busied himself with the creation of Earthology Records. He housed the nonprofit label on his own organic farm, powered by geothermal energy and built partially from reclaimed wood and recycled plastic. In early 2000, he returned to music with Who Killed Puck? After the birth of his son, however, Minowa devoted the bulk of his time to family, recording, grant writing, and environmental activism.
With the sudden death of his son in February 2002, Minowa became reclusive and sought solace by writing a large volume of songs. Lost Songs from the Lost Years was released that summer as a retrospective compilation, and They Live on the Sun followed in 2003, featuring contributions from cellist Sarah Young and drummer Dan Greenwood. Both became permanent members of Cloud Cult, and the band added Mara Stemm on bass in January 2004. Aurora Borealis was released just six months later. For the supporting tour, Cloud Cult's shows included the aforementioned live painters, performance artists, back-screen video, and tables featuring information from nonprofit environmental organizations.