Bands often claim to show off their truest and most authentic selves, but this hasn’t always been the case for Hippo Campus.
Landmark was the result of angsty teens striving to make their friends dance, and then the group felt they had something to prove with the twisted introspection of Bambi. Aptly titled LP3 – no, seriously – their third full-length release finally evidences a state of self-acceptance for the five-piece.
Although every project from the Minnesotan indie rockers tends to be a curveball for listeners, LP3’s lead single “Boys” touched a new level of vulnerability with reflections of sexuality, mental state and creative burnout exposed against a backdrop of swelling instrumentals. Dominated by a cathartic riff, the loud way in which this self-analysis manifests itself gives an immediate insight into the writing process.
“With these ten songs, I hit the comfortability point that I’ve always felt in the past, but [this time, I] chose to just run with it,” frontman Jake Luppen comments. “It’s been tough to do that in a lot of ways, but I have to decide that I’m making shit that actually matters. I feel like I’ve grown a lot and I need to put that in song form; a lot of people go through these things, but not a lot of people have a platform to talk about them.”
However, it’s not just the lyrical themes that have become more truthful to the band behind them, nor is this restricted to the sonic tone throughout – a reevaluation of the core ethos driving Hippo Campus’ momentum was the key trigger. “We’ve spent a lot of time internally dissecting what we want, why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” lead guitarist Nathan Stocker adds. “Obviously, pushing ourselves musically has always been a goal, but having clearly defined what we’re looking for within ourselves and this fucked up industry that we’re in… Being able to apply that to our songwriting and the image of the band has helped to distill the essence of ourselves as individuals within that entity.”
The merging of multiple minds has proven a complex challenge in the past, with debates behind the scenes cramping the safe feel of the long-term collective. As Stocker continues: “More people, more egos – the bigger the family, the harder it is to coordinate everything going on. In the past, the album processes have been divisive for us because we were struggling to find our place. That struggle for us was injected into every decision we made as a band and it got really hard to all feel united. Maintaining your sense of individuality while literally being a product was really fucking difficult.”
“We’ve had to access the songwriting that we had at the beginning of the band and capitalize on what brought us together in the first place; a love of the kind of music that only we can make,” Luppen elaborates. “We honed into the production side of things hard [with Bambi] and got pretty far away from what was at the core of our band but with this record, we’re trying to return to form.”
Returning to form doesn’t seem to make sense for a band that’s constantly reinventing itself, but a push into even further experimentation turned out to be the crucial moment. By first separating, allowing each other to explore individual roots and expression before returning to fuse back into their five-piece unit, a newfound perspective blossomed from a much needed creative release.
After Stocker began releasing music under long-held pseudonym Brotherkenzie, Luppen soon followed suit with his own solo project, Lupin. “Doing other things on my own, outside of Hippo Campus, just gave me an outlet to do all the weird shit that didn’t have a place here. It makes the band make more sense in my brain. It defined it,” he emphasizes. “I understand what this is now, and it doesn’t have to be anything that it’s not. Hippo Campus is what happens when the five of us come together and work on music, and it doesn’t have to sound any crazier than what it calls for.”
Deeply personal internal conflict induced by external events then caused the musicians to question many other things, including the problems they once considered important. “We were really worried about the way that we were perceived, and then shit hit the fan and the music industry didn’t exist. We spent all this time worrying about our place in the industry and then it all just went away,” Luppen asserts. “It was very confusing – like wait, what do we do? Does any of this matter at all? And then, falling in love and realizing that it’s all bullshit, you know. It’s all made up and…“ Although the lead vocalist’s phone dies here in almost comical timing, the reassessment of his own concerns is evident.
Stocker steps in to resurrect this train of thought: “Our personal lives definitely informed everything but it’s still happening, it’s a day to day process. It never ends. Until death do I part… with myself? It’s about accepting that and embracing that – I’m going to make the most of this space which I have been blessed to inhabit for the short amount of time I have here. “
Not all change comes directly from within though, and onboarding a ‘new’ producer facilitated a stimulating environment by providing a comforting feel – but it turns out he’s not so new an addition at all. “We’ve known Caleb [Hinz] since high school. He was the kid that always had a laptop making beats, so we knew him as a producer of electronic music first,” Luppen explains. “With every other process, we’ve had some engineer who is ten years older than us so it always felt like there were parents in the room, in a way. With this record, we removed the parents from the room and it was just us.”
While handing a major responsibility over to a friend could externally be seen as a risky move, it was actually the safest choice to secure the grounded energy Hippo Campus were searching for, and Luppen recalls recognizing this while recording the Baby Boys debut LP Threesome alongside Hinz and Stocker. “I feel like he understood us – the high school versions of ourselves – which is a very important dynamic of our band,” he clarifies. “He understood our roots, where we came from and what we were trying to do. At this point in our lives, we try to surround ourselves with people who know us at our core – we wanted to go back to what made Hippo Campus special and Caleb knew that better than anybody.”
It almost feels as though LP3 has served as a belated coming-of-age journey for the actually well artistically travelled outfit, with Hippo Campus once again finding its place where they’re not only happy with their identity, but their output too. Despite the acclaim the last two records received, Luppen in particular struggles to give a stamp of approval on his own past work. “We’ve all moved into this spot where we’re writing real shit and have something to say. Not that we didn’t before, it’s just that it felt like we were still exploring,” he admits. “There’s obviously still a lot of ourselves to explore moving forward, but we’ve entered that age where we’re going to make really impactful shit that we’ll always look back on fondly.”
Stocker wholeheartedly agrees that life lessons have turned the page on a new chapter for the Hippo Campus discography: “Whatever comes along in the future, both for the band and myself, the acceptance of whatever comes is one of the biggest things I’ve learnt in a new way over the last two years. Applying that to music and what we do as a band is immensely important, and hopefully that translates and resonates from here on out.”
Overall, despite the vast waves of change each and every aspect of the Hippo Campus ship has sailed through to date, it is the affirmed fundamentals which have prevailed on LP3 and reinforced the band’s desire to move forward. The separation between art and artist was forcefully wedged wider than ever before while this record was forged, and when the identifier of ‘musician in a band’ was stripped away, Hippo Campus were stimulated to ultimately lay bare what they want for themselves; to rediscover their motivation.
“Our greatest asset, and also our greatest weakness, is that our relationship and purpose has really been the same since high school. We started the band to make our friends dance and have a good time,” Luppen reminisces. “We’ve gone through this ‘what is Hippo Campus?’ ethereal thing and, at the root of it all, we just wanted to make music and have fun together because we knew it would click.”
He concludes: “We are still pondering our place, but it always comes back to this one specific place – the old rehearsal room we had, which is on the cover of Landmark. I think Hippo Campus is that room; it’s us when we were 17, insecure as fuck, making songs. That room has moved into each studio we’ve been in, each spot we’ve been and everything that we’ve created together – to me, that’s all that matters at this point.”