Hippo Campus: The Best of What's Next

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Mumbling sleepily and drawing out extra syllables in words that don’t need them, the four dudes in Hippo Campus sound hungover in Portland, Ore. They affirm that they’re not, but even if they were, none of the members of Hippo Campus are old enough to drink legally. Guitarist and vocalist Jake Luppen, guitarist Nathan Stocker, bassist Zach Sutton and drummer Whistler Allen formed the pop-rock group in 2013 and all graduated from high school within the past couple years at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.

Not only did that Twin Cities community unite the four young members of Hippo Campus, but it also seems like the whole of Minnesota is nurturing them in a way that’s rare among many urban scenes. In fact, it was Duluth-based Trampled by Turtles that first told Paste about this up-and-coming group. Drinking Cigar City brews after their set at Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, members of the nu-grass band gushed over their young peers with obvious hometown pride.

After acknowledging the bias of sharing a management team with Trampled by Turtles and other Minnesotan acts like Low and Lizzo, Hippo Campus maintains that its local scene really is as tight-knit as it sounds. Says Luppen, “There’s just a lot of support from Minnesota musicians … A lot of people think it’s really hard in the Midwest to make it as a band and that there aren’t a lot of opportunities. But I feel like Minnesota’s changing the game when it comes to that.”

Luppen references the band’s recent network television debut on Conan as an example. “There were a lot of tweets from local acts we’ve looked up to congratulating us and supporting us like from Jeremy Messersmith, Trampled, and Low. And Atmosphere actually tweeted about us, which is pretty amazing.” He continues, “It’s a great scene and super supportive. Everybody’s got each other’s backs and you don’t find that in a lot of places.”

The band’s performance on Conan followed an exhausting, but explosive few days at South by Southwest. Both set the precedent for Hippo Campus’ debut EP Bashful Creatures, set to be re-released by New York’s indie label Grand Jury on May 5. The local influence still pervades, though, as Low’s Alan Sparhawk produced Bashful Creatures in Sept. 2014.

“Every time I work with [Sparhawk] I want to go back and listen to more of his music and understand more,” Allen exudes.

Although the songs on Bashful Creatures don’t sound like Low (as someone muttered in the background that, “it’s kind of depressing music to grow up to”), Sparkhawk does lend his expertise though minimalism. Hippo Campus’ six-track EP is filled with reverb, falsetto and clean-tone guitars that circle and weave in controlled melodies. Each instrumental and vocal line has a clear purpose. No excess noodling made the cut.

With a pop-rock sound evocative of Vampire Weekend, Hippo Campus could also fall in line with bands like Howler (also from Minneapolis). Lead single “Suicide Saturday” hooks in listeners with mimicking bass and guitar riffs and a chorus that alternates lyrics with some ever-reliable “oh oh oh’s.” The band’s lyrics offer an impressive timelessness as well. The bridge to “Souls” could have come from a “Born to Run”-era Bruce Springsteen song, as Luppen sings, “We moved in packs together, bounded by our oldest brothers / The night was ours for taking, rolling cigarettes and sneaking out / We sung our songs of youth and promised that we’d never lose it.”

Judging by the musical technicality, songwriting skill, and production choices, the Hippo Campus guys take their burgeoning musical careers pretty seriously. But at the same time, their personal antics serve as a reminder that they are, in fact, boys in their late-teens and early-20s.

Each band member has a nickname that’s been with him since the beginning. Luppen, who goes by “Turntun,” explains that he once called Allen “Beans” because of a ‘50s gangster hat he wore. Sutton goes by “Espo” (for a city in Finland) and Stocker was dubbed “Stitches,” but not because he has any. As for the band name, Stitches came up with it in high school.

“I was in psychology class in high school and we were reading about the brain in one of the textbooks,” he begins. “That word came up and I was like, ‘Hm. Look at that. That’s a nice word! Maybe we should make it two words for the hell of it.’ And lo and behold, that’s what happened.”

Even the van that the band currently tools around in earned the nickname of “Crackers.” And so the boys and Crackers will be rolling throughout the U.S. this summer on upcoming tours with The Mowgli’s and Fences, Rubblebucket and Vacationer, and even opening for My Morning Jacket. They’ve even confirmed a festival appearance at Lollapalooza in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, boys will be boys on the road. They take turns checking off tour van activities: fist fights, arm wresting, cursing like sailors, and eating crackers in Crackers.

According to band’s Instagram, the motto for the current tour is, “Never let anyone dull your sparkle.” After repeating it with a few other sparkly attempts at personalization, Allen offers one last epithet: “We’re poor, fun-lovin’ fellas that just want to have a blast.”