An Interview With Hippo Campus: The People’s Band

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There are certain bands that are meant to be heard live. You are meant to hear the lead singer’s sarcastic quips, meant to see the guitarist’s and bassist’s mid-song guitar duel, meant to feel the lyricism of the songs invade your mind, and ultimately, meant to sit back and listen to some damn good music while it all plays out before your eyes. Indie pop-rock band Hippo Campus is one of those bands, and believe us, they are well on their way to headlining major stages across the globe. 

Self-described as a band “that people really connect with,” Hippo Campus is comprised of four 21-22 year olds: vocalist Jake Luppen, guitarist Nathan Stockar, bassist Zach Sutton, and drummer Whistler Allen. They’ve amassed a strong following over the past three years by dropping a few EPs and hitting the road with bands like Walk the Moon and Saint Motel. 

On March 1, they released their debut album, Landmark. The record is chock-full of catchy tunes that are reminiscent of the band’s signature progressive, sunny sound. Hippo Campus has spent most of 2017traveling for their very own headline tour in support of the new release, but have since postponed shows due to lead singer Jake Luppen’s case of the flu.  

I spoke to Luppen hours before they took the stage in Washington D.C. to discuss their new album, why everyone is so wrapped up in their age, and how they’d like to be perceived as a band of the people.

Ones To Watch: Congratulations on your first album! How does it feel to finally have it out now?

Jake Luppen: It feels awesome. Obviously, we’ve been working on it for a long time. The whole process took 8 months so it feels good to finally have it in the world. It’s definitely a little bit weird to have something you’ve been so close to for so long be available for everybody to listen to, and to gain their own experiences from, but I think overall it’s a really great feeling.

OTW: Let’s go back to the beginning–you guys met at a fine arts high school. Were you in two separate bands at the time?

JL: Yes, Zach and I were in a band called Blatant Youth and Nathan and Whistler were in a band called Northern, and we used to play shows together in high school.

OTW: When did you guys form Hippo Campus? Were you still in high school?

JL: Yes, we were still in high school. I think it was the beginning of senior year when we technically formed in secret actually. [Laughs]. We didn’t really want the other members of the other bands to know because we weren’t sure if it was gonna be a real thing or not, but Nathan and I throughout junior year had been jamming on and off for a while.

OTW: That’s a little scandalous! [Laughs].

JL: I know, it was scandalous. It was terrible when the other bands found out. They found out in the worst way possible, or at least Zach and I’s band did.

OTW: Oh no! What happened?

JL: Zach left his Facebook open, and we had a Facebook group. The other guys from Blatant Youth saw it, and they were pretty upset with us for not telling them about it.

OTW: So you guys formed your senior year. When did you start to gain recognition for your music?

JL: That wasn’t until probably about halfway through my freshman year in college. The local radio station sort of caught on to what we were doing, and they started spinning us, and that’s kind of how we gained some traction in Minnesota. We played a few college gigs too. We were in this one battle of the bands, which we finished second in actually. [Laughs]. But it was mainly the local stations that kind of got us some local attention.

OTW: It’s really difficult to make the decision of choosing to pursue your dreams over your education. What had to happen for you to ultimately leave school?

JL: I was attending the University of Minnesota. I went there for a year and a half, and Zach went there for half a year. Basically we got our first tour offer and I was sitting in a philosophy class, and I remember opening my e-mail and our manager sent over the first tour offer. 

I texted my mom, and I was like, “I like college but I think that I need to pursue this. I think I need to leave and try out touring and stuff.” It all went over pretty well.

OTW:: Let’s talk about the songwriting on the album–it’s really well done. It feels very intricate and thought out. What’s your favorite song lyrically?

JL: I think “Vacation” is probably my favorite song lyrically on the record.

It’s kind of the most raw and the most real. It’s honestly the least thought out, I would say…those were pretty much kind of the first words I wrote. It directly deals with the struggle to write the record and maintain relationships within the band while writing this record, because it really tested all of us. I think it’s just kind of an informative song–you can hear a lot about the record, and the way it was made in the song.

OTW: Is there a particular topic that you like writing about or that you’re drawn to?

JL: I think it varies. It’s all about what you’ve experienced, and what’s honest at the time. I think with this record, obviously we had two years of touring experience after having never done that before. It made that pretty easy to write about on this record. We kind of undertook writing about some social themes, especially with people our age and the way social media influences us. 

That’s another thing we had to immerse ourselves in, is this world of social media–and as an artist, whether we want to or not. We have to engage our fans at this level. So that was definitely something interesting to write about–this world we are kind of forced to be in when we don’t necessarily want to be in it.

OTW: Does anyone else write lyrics as well?

HC: Yeah, Nathan will write lyrics with me.

OTW: The album feel very cohesive but then you have two writers, which can bring up different thoughts and views. How do you maintain that cohesiveness?

JL: We usually split it up song to song, so you can point to a song, like “Monsoon,” Nathan would write the majority of the lyrics to that one. But “Vacation,” I wrote majority of the lyrics to that one, as well as “Way It Goes.” It’s just like that but there’s usually maybe a line or two where one of us will serve as an editor or something like that. It allows things to feel cohesive, but it allows you to have some sort of editor or moderator, and someone to bounce ideas off of which has been helpful. This is the first band where we’ve both kind of done that in, and it’s been nice. 

OTW: I saw you perform at SXSW, and there’s a natural chemistry between you guys and the audience. Has it always been that way, or is that something that has progressed?

JL: I think the live shows have always been our bread and butter. It’s been the thing that keeps people coming back to us. 

I feel like it’s kind of hard to understand what we’re doing unless you’ve seen it live because it’s kind of a different experience. You see a lot of bands that don’t look like they’re having fun when they’re performing, and it just makes it taxing to listen to. A show should be a fucking good time. I mean obviously you should be able to play and be able to perform everything, but you should just be fucking having fun. That’s what people are there for. It’s always been important to us–to have a good time at the end of the day.

OTW: How do you cope with that, specifically as the frontman? Are you an extrovert or an introvert, and how does that translate on stage?

HC: Honestly, I think I’m more of an introvert. I think in my personal life I don’t really have that frontman persona–I really don’t like being the center of attention.If someone had just met us at a party, they’d probably think Nathan or Zach is the lead singer because they’re louder, and I guess they can deal with attention probably better than I can. I can recognize that I can do it onstage–it’s weird. It’s like playing a character. I sort of like play a version of myself.

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Photo: Hippo Campus Facebook Page

OTW: That’s why I asked because I feel like you have this alter ego thing going on onstage, and it works really well.

JL: Nice, yeah totally. You kind of have to do that. It’s good to have that separation because otherwise your head could start getting fucked with pretty easily if you don’t have a divide. If you carry this artificial reality that is the stage offstage, shit can start getting super weird. It’s kind of nice to have the divide. I think it’s that for all of us. We have a sort of divide between our offstage and onstage persona.

OTW: Is there any advice or tips that have helped you guys when performing live?

JL: I like the one that goes, instead of talking a lot at our shows, just shut the fuck up and play. I think there’s something nice about that. It’s fun to engage people, but at the same level, sometimes it’s nice to just have the show be entirely about the music, and not be about any single one of us saying weird things. It’s about being thankful to be there and saying that, but I think it’s good advice to just fucking play music. You don’t always have to fill any sort of awkward space with talking. It’s alright to just be present, and hang out and have a good show.

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Photo: Connor Siedow

OTW: You guys have played shows with a lot of really cool bands like Modest Mouse, Walk the Moon, and Saint Motel. If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?

JL: For me personally, I’d love to tour with The Shins. I fucking love The Shins. They’re one of my favorite bands. A tour with Death Cab for Cutie would be pretty amazing. Obviously the big ones like Radiohead. They would be an amazing band to play with. Sylvan Esso. We’ve only hung out with them once, but it would be cool to tour with them at some point.

OTW: You guys are playing a lot of festivals this year, including Bonnaroo, FPSF, and Lollapalooza. What’s the highlight of that lineup this year?

JL: I think they’re all going to be pretty awesome. One of my favorite shows we’ve ever done was at Lolla two years ago, so I’m very much looking forward to coming back again. Bonnaroo should be awesome too. It’s our first time. It’s our first time at FPSF too, but I’m really looking forward to Lollapalooza. I think that that should be fucking awesome.

OTW: What do you think sets Hippo Campus apart from other indie bands?

JL: It’s hard to answer this question without sounding egotistical. We occupy this weird space right now. I really want to have a good answer to this question because it’d be good for people to hear it, because it’s like alternative people pigeonhole us as an indie band, and indie people pigeonhole us as alternative. I think inherently we want to be an indie band, or inherently we’d want to be like a press band, but I think that what we’re doing resonates with people, as opposed to like publications or tastemakers or anything. 

We’ve gotten some good press, you know, but I think what makes us different than a lot of indie bands is that it’s just resonating with real human beings on a different level than I’ve seen. If you went to our shows, you wouldn’t expect there to be that many people there, enough people who are deeply affected by it. 

I guess what makes us different is I feel like we’re a people’s band. We’re not a press band, and we’re not really a radio band. We’re just kind of a band that people really connect with, and I’m fucking proud to be that because that’s what is most important. 

Hopefully I didn’t sound too much like a dick. [Laughs].

OTW: No way, that was awesome. I think you summed that up really well. Is there anything now that has to happen for you guys to feel like, “We’ve made it”?

JL: I don’t think we’ll ever feel like that. I think we’re all pretty hungry individuals, so it seems like things are constantly growing, but nothing is really ever good enough to settle on, and I hope that’s something we all maintain. It’s important to not get comfortable. It’s very easy to get comfortable in this business at a certain level but I think it’s a goal to always grow and to always push and stuff because we can always do better. I think we’ve tapped into like 30 or 40% of the potential that we have writing and performing. I feel like there’s a lot of room left to grow.

OTW: A lot of people tend to emphasize your age. Do you think starting out young limited you guys in any way?

JL: Not really–if anything it benefited us. I guess it limited us in the way that every article will start off with, “Fresh out of high school, youngsters..they have a sound way beyond their years.” If I had a nickel for every time that we had “a sound way beyond our years,” I would be quite rich. It’s beneficial in the way it gives us an excuse at times. People are like “Oh well, they’re growing,” which is fucking true. We have to remind ourselves of that. I’m happy people want to write about us, but if we never had another article that started with “local youngsters” or whatever, I would be very happy with that.

OTW: Well shit, that was my headline!

JL: Fuck! [Laughs].

OTW: Who are three artists on your Ones To Watch list?

JL: This band called Whitney are pretty new. They’ve kind of come up as like press darlings. I’m really excited to see what they do in the future. I think there’s a lot of room to grow, and I think they’re a really cool band.

There’s a band from Minnesota called Remo Drive who I will always shout out. It’s like emo rock or punk. Emo revival is the right genre now. Anthony Fantano blogged about them and brought up a few of their music videos that have over 200k views now and shit, so I think they deserve more attention now than what they’re getting in kind of the local music scene, as far as like radio and press and stuff. I think that they’re gonna fucking blow up.

This band called Happy Children is another band too that I think is gonna do really well. They’re great homies, and Whistler actually produced their EP. So shout out Happy Children. Shout out Remo Drive. Shout out Whitney.

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