On a Tuesday night in early September, I flew solo to pop rock four-piece Hippo Campus’ headlining show at Berklee’s Cafe939. While the Twin Cities band’s catchy, hook-filled Bashful Creatures EP had served as the soundtrack to my summer commute to Manhattan, I knew little of the group’s history or performance style. That evening turned out to be a revelation; I watched with a perpetual feeling of holy s***, as four guys who looked younger than I am perform with more energy, chemistry and technical proficiency than I’d witnessed at the majority of shows on my laundry list of concert attendances.
Two months later, a couple friends and I ditched class and other weekday obligations to see Hippo Campus perform in Brooklyn, where we scheduled a post-soundcheck Q&A with the band to follow up an Artist Profile I’d written previously. After four hours on a bus, three hours of traipsing through rainy Manhattan, and two rounds of drinks at a Brooklyn diner that seemed straight out of a David Lynch film, we finally arrived at the venue. Stepping through the doors of gastropub/rock venue Baby’s All Right felt like stepping out of a time machine; mismatched wood paneling paid homage to the heyday of rock and roll, as Louis Armstrong faded into Willie Nelson through the overhead speakers.
Passing a dozen or so 18-20 year old fangirls—who had lined up an hour before doors were scheduled to open—we entered the green room to find the four lanky, hip, early twenty-somethings slouched coolly around a dining table. Over plates of pseudo-Asian Fusion cuisine, the art school grads talked to us about the whirlwind of success they’ve enjoyed this year, and the dynamics of a band whose members are deservedly living out their dreams at ages where most of us have yet to figure out our professional ambitions.
Together, Jake Luppen (lead vocals, guitar), Nathan Stocker (guitar), Zach Sutton (bass) and Whistler Allen (drums) reflected a characteristic dichotomy of well-articulated acumen and boyish antics. Their largely insightful interview responses were peppered with inside jokes and tomfoolery, including reversed interviewer-interviewee roles, a group sing-a-long of the Holes theme song, and a dissection of their questionable entrée selections (e.g., a tofu concoction labeled “Larb”). The band transitioned fluidly between meditativeness and sarcasm, employing the mob mentality of high school boys at a cafeteria lunch table who use irony as a security blanket. But despite the group’s charade, it was evident that the boys of Hippos Campus feel wholly grateful for their past two years of new experiences, having drawn inspiration and lessons learned from the places and faces they encountered.
Going into your senior year of high school, you probably didn’t expect the coming years to be what these past two were. At what point did you realize, This is what I need to be doing, I’m going to make it happen—and how did that come to fruition?
Stocker: I think it’s a constant reinventing of the feeling that we should be doing this; it wasn’t just a one and done kind of thing. It has been pretty constant, and all we have control of is hanging onto that feeling and just sort of committing to it.
You’ll be touring with Little Comets in the U.K. soon, and you always cite them as one of your influences. How did you hook up with them and how did you react?
Sutton: Funny story! We were on tour with Modest Mouse out in the U.K.—that was pretty sick. We were playing a show in New Castle, where [Little Comets] is from, and I think it was you (points at Stocker) who jumped on the old Twitter machine and then beep-bopped on over to their door handle and knocked.
Stocker: Knocks on table for effect.
Sutton: Who comes to the door but Little Comets, obviously. We put them on the list to come to the show, and it was just sort of serendipitous—it was really nice of them. It was just the bass player, and we got beers with him after the show and vibed. We went back to the U.K. after that for Reading and Leeds [Festival] and they were playing the same stage as us, and bing-bang-boom, Bob’s your uncle!
Apart from your influences as a band, what shaped your musical tastes growing up?
Luppen: I listened to a lot of Snoop Dogg circa early-2000, and really felt the vibe there…and then went into more Ace of Base, and then Ace of Base went into Led Zepplin, and Led Zepplin went into Pink Floyd, and Pink Floyd went into Vampire Weekend—
EO: But you don’t like being compared to Vampire Weekend?
Stocker: I think it’s the quantity more than anything.
Luppen: I think when people compare us to Vampire Weekend, they don’t dig enough into either Vampire Weekend’s sound or our own sound to interpret it as anything past that, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Vampire Weekend is f***ing awesome, Hippo Campus is okay!
Sutton: My parents played a lot of Enya when I was growing up. Celine Dion, Cher, the go-tos from the early 2000s… But I always had a big musical [appreciation] for B.B. King, and always enjoyed AC/DC, which went into metal, and then indie.
Stocker: I listened to Lori Line, Norah Jones… And then Disney Hits—you know, those compilations with kids singing... I grew up around the church as well, so I was always around church music.
Allen: [I listened to] a lot of drum and bass music... Mos Def, a lot of Baha Men—I don’t know if you guys know them, they did that one dog song… *NSYNC, Nelly’s Country Grammar album—that’s top notch.
You’ve toured with some pretty major names—I can’t imagine finding out at 20 years old that I’d be touring with Modest Mouse…Have you picked up anything from those more established acts?
Sutton: Maybe what not to do? Because they’re all really established bands, so it’s easy to see what you don’t like when they’re setting up 90% of the stage, and [Stocker] is hiding behind a keyboard, and one of us doesn’t get a monitor…it’s a s*** show.
Allen: It’s easy to see the negative things in life before you see the positives, but you’ve got to remind yourself that, in the end, you’re opening for bands who’ve been around longer than you’ve been alive, you’re in the U.K., you’re f***ing 20 years old and you’re traveling the world playing music.
Luppen: You know the band WALK THE MOON? They’re really good at playing their instruments, and I want to be good at playing my instruments, so I took that away from them.
Allen: They teach us to be outgoing, and to not be scared depending on who they are or what they’ve done in their lives—they’re just people. They don’t sit down and tell us these things, but just being around them allows us to realize that we can easily walk up to the Isaac Brocks of the world and make whatever conversation we want to without any sort of hesitation. If you treat them like human beings, they’ll treat you like human beings. Hopefully.
You hadn’t been playing shows outside of MN until this past year or so. Is there a favorite city that you’ve played?
Luppen: Yeah, we f*** with Chicago pretty hard. We love Austin, TX. New York and D.C. are great.
Sutton: I think all in all, we really love playing Minneapolis, because it’s our home and we have a really supportive fan base there. It’s nice to go back to your own bed after a show, too.
Luppen: You have no idea—so nice!
Your strategy has been to tour and play as many shows as possible. Have you been able to write while on the road, or at least draw inspiration for writing?
Luppen: Draw inspiration, for sure—come up with sort of sketches, just write each on our own. But the way we write is very organic and collaborative and of the moment, so we have to all be in a room and just sort of let the song manifest itself—whatever that means—so we have to wait.
Sutton: On the horizon, look out!
What things do you draw inspiration from—like movies or books, or other non-musical creative mediums?
Luppen: Books are always great, just to read the way someone else writes and have that influence the way you write or your writer’s choice. Politics are also great. Our songs aren’t political yet, but it’s great to recognize what’s going on in the world around you and be learned in that. But just being on the road in itself, seeing all these different places, seeing all the different sights and meeting all sorts of people is inspiring in and of itself.
Stocker: We were just at a Vietnamese restaurant and read a really crazy book by Shel Silverstein called, “[The Missing Piece Meets] the Big O.” Two days later we went to Grand Rapids, and the name of the pizza place we ate at was “Big O’”… Stuff like that sort of pops up. It can be anything; you just have to be ready for it.
If you could do anything now—whether it’s to tour with a certain group, or play a certain city, or try a new musical direction—what would you do if you could just have your say?
Sutton: Well, seriously, we just want to write an album, and do a really knock-out job. Something to take home from the bank, something for the books. Just sit down, feel it out, get out all the pent-up vomit that we haven’t been able to yet… That’s the serious note.
On a less serious note, hang-glide into a stadium full of men that resemble my father, and I’m in assless chaps, and they’re chanting, “Go, son, go!”...and in the middle of the arena is the entire world population of redheads...and I’m also dressed as Uncle Sam. So formal, informal—I hope they all work out.
Fifteen minutes later, those witty, too-cool kids we chatted with in the green room stepped out on the Baby’s All Right stage as composed professionals. Their sound was impressively tight; the boys’ collective talents would have indicated a long history of headlining shows in major cities if only their apparent age demographic and fledgling stage presence didn’t give away their rookie status. And judging by the energy of the crowd and observed glances between friends, fans responded to this juxtaposition with the same holy s*** sentiment that I had experienced two months earlier.