The balancing act of a growing band: A chat with Hippo Campus before Saturday’s Strange Matter show

by | May 20, 2016 | MUSIC

On paper, the members of Minnesota quartet Hippo Campus should be riding high at the moment. They should be soaking in the success of their first two EPs 2014’s Bashful Creatures and 2015’s South. They should be marveling at their ability to play to bigger and more fervent crowds every night. They should be chomping at the bit as they finalize the blueprints for what will become their first full-length album. But — as you may be able to tell — they’re not.

On paper, the members of Minnesota quartet Hippo Campus should be riding high at the moment. They should be soaking in the success of their first two EPs 2014’s Bashful Creatures and 2015’s South. They should be marveling at their ability to play to bigger and more fervent crowds every night. They should be chomping at the bit as they finalize the blueprints for what will become their first full-length album. But — as you may be able to tell — they’re not.

Show up to a venue early for their show and you might see the band racing on cheap Razor scooters, recklessly weaving in and around their sound tech as she sets up for the night’s performance. They’re entertaining themselves with simple tricks and near wipe-outs that surely must have even the most liberal club owners shaking their heads in disbelief. It’s a chance for the band to unwind and disconnect from the strain of the balancing acts that are dominating all facets of their career at the moment. It’s not that the band is ignoring all that’s around them as their popularity continues to flourish and more critical acclaim is thrown out at their earnest energy and carefree approach to music — it’s that the band is focusing on making sure this momentum continues in the future. Hippo Campus has a clear shot at making a lasting impact and they’re certainly giving it their all, even if it means having to constantly balance their career in a precarious way.

“Things are going great,” singer and guitarist Jake Luppen remarked, “but we really are all about getting our priorities in check right now and seeing how we can feasibly do that.”

To Luppen, the priority is to finish the band’s first proper album, which is becoming wildly anticipated by those wondering if the band can continue to put out quality music. It might seem that it’s an easy thing to shift focus too, but for Hippo Campus, focusing on the record means ignoring another vital part to a young band’s career: the road. “We just can’t write on the road in the way we want to,” Luppen revealed. “It’s a very hard thing to balance for us because the way we create music has all of us in a room just collaborating off of one person’s idea. We really need to be home to do that, but obviously we can’t because we want and need to be out touring and playing in front of people.”

Luppen continued that it was hard to find that balance, but something the band was coming close to attaining. “The road’s just always going to be more inspiration for us,” he described. “We stockpile all this inspiration and then just go home and release all of it at once into the music. But we have to get home to get there. But we also have to continue to play shows and get our music out in front of people. We’re getting there slowly and I think it just takes time to learn how to balance them.”

Stabilizing their road life and studio work isn’t the only balancing act Hippo Campus has to work with though. Their album — which they hope to have completed in time for a late 2016 / early 2017 release — has the band slightly veering off into a new sound and while it’s a natural progression, the quartet is still cognizant of ensuring they keep it familiar enough for the supporters they’ve accrued so far.

“We’re just consciously evolving,” Ludden stated. “We initially started Hippo Campus to make our friends dance. Our tastes have evolved a lot since then and our musical tastes now are not necessarily the kind of music we make.” Ludden elaborated that while the band might be known for their happy riffs and ironic, cynical lyrics, they’d like the chance to attack more emotional music that really drives them as music lovers at the moment. On top of that, they band would love to add to Hippo Campus’ already robust sound, “We’re looking to bolster the sound for sure,” he remarked, “but we’re also well aware of doing too much at once. Every progression has to be natural. You never want to go way over left or way over right even if you feel that way. You have to get there in a seamless way and that’s what we’re trying to do so as to not shy away from the music we’ve already made.”

As the band looks to phase out their Afropop elements in exchange for new and bolder tones, they’re hopeful their fans will stick with them and understand that their hearts belong in this new sonic space, rather than rehashing something they feel they’ve moved past. “People use to ask The Beatles this all the time,” Ludden recounted. “They’d say, ‘How did you progress this much from album to album?’ and they’d reply back asking ‘How could we not? We’re different people.’ That’s become a mantra for us in a way. Just to constantly improve and progress.” Adopting it as a mantra doesn’t instantly erase all doubts and troubles though and Ludden himself clarified that it’s still been a big challenge for the band moving forward.

“All these band go through this period,” he detailed. “You write all these songs and they have no audience other than yourself and maybe a few others. So you just make the music you want to make and suddenly, people like it. But then there’s the question of do you continue to write the music that people have liked up to this point or do you naturally let your music advance? We’re trying to not force anything one way or another, even if that means we end up without a dance song on the new record. We’re not going to write one for the sake of writing one at all. Our new stuff is not drastically night and day different, but I think it will be a surprise for a lot of people in a very positive way.”

But there will always be the naysayers there to tear the band down for daring to try something new, even if they were at one point the most ardent supporter of the music. “If fans are turned off by us evolving and changing, what did they really see and love in the music in the first place,” he questioned. “If you really love a band, you want to see them progress and grow. If you stop writing for yourself, then the music isn’t going to mean anything to you and then it won’t mean anything to the people that you ultimately make the music for. They look to see how dedicated you are to the music and if you really believe what you’re saying. In this case, we are extremely dedicated and I think people will love it.”

The band’s ever-growing influences is mostly responsible for this stylistic shift, something that is yet another balancing act for the group as they try to incorporate often contrasting ideals into a cohesive vision. It doesn’t pertain solely to music either as Ludden is quick to point to the band’s current reading habits for exposition. “I read Infinite Jest about a month ago and it made me a little bit clocked out afterwards,” Ludden laughed. “I love David Foster Wallace; he’s just brilliant. I’ve been into post-modernist stuff lately. I can’t name a million books in that genre, but it excites me. Like the way David talks with irony and cynicism. There’s so much honesty too that’s really moving. It’s definitely been informing us as a band.” Ludden’s not alone in finding literary inspiration as he revealed guitarist Nathan Stocker devotes much time to classic writers from Ernest Hemingway to Tom Robbins, and that classic versus modern influence is something that shines through in their musical tastes as well.

“Like everyone, we love the classics,” Ludden revealed. “The Smiths are big for their ability to make sad things happy and even a modern band like Little Comets is great in that regard. Their music is talking about adultery and other stuff, but the music is just so happy. Makes you want to dance all your worries away.” Ludden has a laundry list of other current bands shaping the band’s direction and mindset, including the sparse indie outfit Frankie Cosmos, but what’s really exciting him, and the rest of the band members, is the vast world of hip-hop and all its twisty routes.

“We’ve gotten into hip-hop so much recently,” he gushed. “That music is at the forefront of music and is clearly what’s leading the industry. It’s just the most creative genre and it always pushes so many boundaries. It’s ridiculous not to tap into that.” For Hippo Campus, tapping into hip-hop means integrating the rhythmic elements of the genre into their sound with the ultimate goal of it being a purely visceral element that’s apparently from the start of the song, but Ludden also said that there was much more to take from hip-hop as a musician. “It’s a direct descendant from jazz,” he explained, “and that has always been the most creative genre. You just get these amazing artists doing incredible things under this umbrella of hip-hop. Kendrick [Lamar], Drake, Kevin Gates; they’re all great. Even Vince Staples and Danny Brown need to be studied. You see how innovative they are and it just inspires you to want to be more than guitar rock.”

Between inspirations, furthering their sound, and figuring how to effectively split their time, the band has no respite from juggling crucial obligations. It’s a wonder how the band ever stays sane outside of their pre-show scooter showcases. “Sleep,” Ludden answered. “I love sleeping and it really keeps me going. I spend most of my time trying to get as much sleep as possible and it’s important when you have all these things you’re trying to do at once.” It may seem like too much, but to Hippo Campus, it’s exactly what they signed up for and is pushing them to where they need to go. “We’re getting closer to balancing it all, but I’m sure something else will come up down the line. It’s what we want though and it’s ultimately what’s going to make Hippo Campus a band you can’t overlook. That’s the goal and we’re definitely on our way there.”

Hippo Campus descend on Richmond Saturday night as part of the XL102 Discovery Series at Strange Matter alongside Riothorse Royale and local favorites Manatree. Tickets are $12 with the doors opening at 7 PM. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.

Amy David

Amy David

Amy David was the Web Editor for from May 2015 until September 2018. She covered craft beer, food, music, art and more. She's been a journalist since 2010 and attended Radford University. She enjoys dogs, beer, tacos, and Bob's Burgers references.

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