The Campus Welcomes You – an exclusive interview with Hippo Campus

Sometimes, in order to grow, you need to take a step back. For Minnesota-born indie group Hippo Campus, the need to recenter themselves and move into a space of silence and calm came after many years of releasing music and touring non-stop. To put it short, they were simply burnt out. And then COVID 19 hit and forced the band to just stop for a second. Like many others, the quintet used the given time to work on music and find out who they really want to be and what they want to achieve as a musical act. Now, two years later, they are back, and not only with new music, but with a fresh sense of self.

“It was a crazy time. It was actually Whistler’s birthday when we stopped working on the album. We were working on ‘LP3’ for the first couple of months of 2020, and then the cases kept climbing and we were like, “okay, we’ll just take it easy, we’ll take the weekend off and we’ll just finish the record on Monday, okay?”, remembers Zach Sutton, bassist of the American star quintet. “And then it turned out to be six months later that we ended up seeing each other again, all together in a room. You know, in Minneapolis there was a lot of social unrest as well, because of the George Floyd murder. So in our hometown, I felt like everything, like the whole world had been turned upside down. I mean it’s still upside down. But we found a way to keep going, with the music and with each other.”

While the pandemic was a tragic, dreadful time for the whole world, and hardly anyone’s preferred vision for the future back at the very beginning, it turned out to be somewhat of a very needed blessing in disguise for the group. The five-piece – made up of vocalists/guitarists Jake Luppen and Nathan Stocker, drummer Whistler Allen, the aforementioned Sutton and trumpeter DeCarlo Jackson – needed time away, both from the music industry and each other, to gain a new perspective on the present and future of Hippo Campus. And it gave them just that, including a heightened appreciation for their crew and everyone keeping the industry afloat while everything around them was sinking, as drummer Allen tells: “As artists, having the luxury and the privilege to be able to relax and not have to think too much, at least in our situation, was huge. But with our crew and all the other crews and bands that maybe struggled a bit more, it’s nice to know that they have the ability to now go back out and keep doing what they love. It’s heart-warming to see everybody back in action. Especially our crew, because that’s their livelihood.”

Now, with the indie hitters returning back to the stages all over the globe – both in America and across the pond in the UK and Europe – the band was offered a massive payoff for their work with excited crowds celebrating the band’s new musical expertise in every city they visited. And with over two years in the making and more than 35 individual songs penned down for it, it is safe to say that ‘LP3’ is Hippo Campus’ most honest portrait of who they are yet – and what’s not to love about that. During their time off, each member took the time to really self-reflect, both on the level of Hippo Campus and a more individual one. What they gained was a better understanding of who they are as both individual bandmates and a musical group, and the ability to translate that into their new album, as Sutton reminisces: “I think each record asks the same question at the beginning of each process, like “what do we want to be?” Or “what kind of album do we want to make?” I think the process of making each album was an attempt of answering those questions. We’ve asked those questions at three separate times in our lives and we had three different answers each time. I think that’s the question that anyone is truly asking themselves when they make music, like, how do they extend themselves through music to express their human experiences? But it’s always a communal effort. It’s always a joining of all of our preferences and production aspirations, and hopefully, it comes out as good music in the end.”

With five guys huddled in one room, it wasn’t always easy to find common middle ground. But that’s where the time off helped massively, as all members of Hippo Campus are well into adulthood now, making their own experiences, owning houses and cats, and continuing to grow together, but also separate from each other. In a sense, ‘LP3’ serves as an enhanced amalgamation of their previous albums, with their signature earnestness but an improved sense of lived-in expertise. It’s been four long years since their sophomore album – with a brief EP titled ‘Good Dog, Bad Dream’ released last year – and it seems after all this time, the Minnesotan friends wanted to go back to their roots. “I think we wanted to tap a little bit back into the original version of us, this band that wrote all of their stuff in a room together. So we wanted to mesh that together with what we had done for ‘landmark’ and ‘Bambi’, where we worked with other producers. ‘Bambi’ was a lot of writing separately and coming together after and we didn’t really want to do that. The idea of collaboration was the goal and the thing to reach for,”, drummer Allen explains. “We’re an emotional group of dudes, so emotions can sometimes get in the way and are usually always there with us.”

Always based on the theme of camaraderie and walking through life, not by yourself, but supported by the people that mean the most to you, the group decided to involve one additional voice in their latest musical endeavour – long-time friend and collaborator and third person in the pot of the band’s experimental side project Baby Boys, Caleb Hinz. Seamlessly leaving his fingerprints all over the record’s production – for example through the distorted drums on ‘2 Young 2 Die’ or the drum kit on ‘Boys’ made up of literal garbage cans, pots, and pans – Hinz brought his unique touch to the album, while still letting the record be a true Hippo Campus release. One that came with a couple of updates and changes, as ‘LP3’ glistens with a more personal storytelling as opposed to their previous works, with the quintet taking an open-hearted dive into their experiences of the past few years, the highs and lows of growing up and trying to find their identity in adulthood and place in the world. “The new album set a change lyrically from the last two records in that it was less poetic prose, less like vague writing. Early on in the recording process, we realised that specificity can be universal and we wanted to start talking about our lives in a more tangible way,”, expresses bassist Sutton, while giving a bit of an insight into the backstories of some of the record‘s tracks. “A lot of the LP deals with literal emotions that we were going through or just crazy days we wanted to write about. Obviously, Jake coming to terms with his sexuality takes up a large part of the lyrical content, especially on ‘Boys’. But it is just a more personal look at our daily lives and the ebbs and flows of what specificity can feel like.”

During the production of their record, each member of the five-piece also took some time out to pursue their own solo projects – something the group had been nurturing and supporting from the beginning. Frontman Luppen became experimental act Lupin, guitarist Stocker became Brotherkenzie, and the pair released an album with the aforementioned Hinz as Baby Boys, while drummer Allen, bassist Sutton and trumpeter Jackson each produced their own music and started collaborating with other bands. And while separating might seem like a risky move to some, it actually allowed the indie rockers to explore their individual roots and express their creativity in their own unique ways, before they got back together as Hippo Campus. “With each solo project, it feels like a really healthy outlet for the types of music that we naturally make as individuals, but which don’t quite have a home in Hippo Campus. We all love what we make, but there’s always a compromise, always a collaboration. One person’s artistic saying can’t really define the whole direction of the band, so that’s how all these solo projects turned into really cathartic places to go,”, tells Sutton, before delving into the benefits the separation had on the overall production of their latest LP. “I think having those outlets before making this album made the process a lot easier and healthier, because we didn’t get hurt or offended when a song didn’t work out. For example, if I brought in a song, I wouldn’t be hurt if it didn’t work out because I know there’s another home for it somewhere. And I know that Hippo Campus isn’t the full extent of my identity or anyone’s identity. It’s a place where we go to work and collaborate.”

For a band that seems to constantly reinvent itself with each release they decide to bless the world with, it comes as no surprise that sailing the ship of growth and creative expansion has always been the five-piece’s move of choice. Just like their music, each member has gone through vast waves of change, while the signature fundamentals have prevailed over time and made them stronger as a whole. But at the end of the day, it’s an appreciation, understanding, openness and honesty for and with each other that has taken them where they are now, as Allen reflects: “How we grow together is the special question because we can’t grow the same way as each other, even if we want to. But a lot of therapy, a lot of hanging out, and a lot of communication can help. It’s a hard one to make sure of because there’s a lot of uncertainty in a group of emotional humans that have to make something together. But that’s part of the magic, not knowing what’s going to happen next, while also knowing exactly how that person next to you might react and feel. That’s one of the more challenging aspects of being in a band, but in a good way.”

At the end of the day, that feeling of friendship and togetherness has managed to push Hippo Campus to the forefront of today’s indie scene. Pairing swishes of electro synths to their signature indie pop stock, mixed with often sweet, always sincere lyrics and top-of-the-ranks instrumentals, they’ve forged their own path that has ultimately led them to a space of ease and sense of self. And it’s this way of wearing their hearts on their sleeves and being their truest forms that seem to capture their dedicated fans year after year. But even when laid bare away from all the success, it’s the sheer love for music that brings the young friends together and provides their music with its special glow, as Sutton concludes: “I think we’re lucky enough to have music as a place of catharsis as well as a place of work. Music is always, first and foremost, an answer to people who just want to express themselves or have fun. But we’re lucky that that has graduated to being our job. The place it occupies is pretty much 90% of my life, whether it’s work, catharsis, or just writing something down – music is always a part of it all. So, the only areas that it’s not a part of is eating and sleeping.”

Written by Laura Weingrill / photography by Tonje Thilesen

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