The old second album paradox. It’s plagued artists who’ve made a splash with their debut record as long as there have been debuts. Deliver more of what put you where you are, or challenge yourself and ask those that loved your first album to come along for the ride?
In the case of Minnesota’s Hippo Campus, it wasn’t just a winning first LP — last year’s Landmark — that they had to live up to, but a series of addictive singles and EPs that preceded the full-length, dating back to 2014. Their formula — lead with an insistent riff, roll in clever verses and bursting, sunny hooks that belied often conflicted observations — proved damn near irresistible for a sizable, passionate and heavily female fan base. But it also boxed them into something of a corner. Hippo Campus had achieved a signature sound, but when faced with that sophomore fork in the road, with the encouragement of their go-to producer BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Low), they veered left.
“BJ asked us, ‘Do you want to make another Hippo Campus record? Or do you want to make a record under the name Hippo Campus?’” recalls guitarist Nathan Stocker. “And that was an important distinction. Were we going to do what we were ‘expected’ to do, and maintain a certain sound? Or did we just want to be creative people, harvest what we can during this period of growth — and move forward?” The result is Bambi, the boys’ sensational second album, out Friday (Sept. 28). While not a hard left — this is not MGMT doing Congratulations or Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk — it blows a hole in the idea that this is a one-trick Hippo. With a new embrace of synths, layers and nuance, it’s simultaneously bolder and more tender, with guitar jangle giving way to gentle grooves, and frontman Jake Luppen’s use of falsetto more extensive and effective than ever.
There’s no better evidence of the turn than the album’s title track. Released last month and accompanied by a gorgeous, Kyle Sauer-directed surrealistic video, “Bambi” is a soulful musing on “serving” oneself — opening up to those closest to you — that’s especially meaningful to the band. It’s named after Luppen’s aunt, whose cabin-styled lake house has figured prominently in Hippo Campus’ history, as a place for writing, recalibrating, and mending fences when there was band strife going on. Dealing with internecine tension — giving voice to papered-over issues within the band and in Luppen’s own romantic relationship — figures prominently on the record. Hippo Campus have never been shy about dealing with “big” questions — growing up, masculinity, misogyny, divorce and even death have all been explored in past songs — but a Midwestern reticence for heart-on-the-sleeve sharing has kept Luppen, until now, from delving too deeply into relationships, of the big and small “r” varieties. That’s changed, on tracks like “Doubt,” “Honesty,” “Why Even Try” and a remarkably atmospheric, almost post-rock opener “Mistakes.”
Ten days before Bambi’s birth, Hippo Campus came to New York for promo and an intimate album preview gig. We sat down with the band’s “core four” — Stocker, Luppen, bassist Zach Sutton, and drummer Whistler Allen, along with their de facto fifth member, horn player DeCarlo Jackson — and just as we began a wide-ranging conversation at Brooklyn watering hole Spuyten Duyvil, what song should come on, but Mott The Hoople’s ageless anthem “All The Young Dudes.” Perfect.
Guys, welcome. How different does the lead-up to this second album feel? Jake, I saw you recently compare it to having a second child — that you know what to expect now.
Jake Luppen: I think Landmark was a really big learning process for us. We spent a really long time on it, like a year and a half making it, and there was a lot of second-guessing. So when this process came around, we wanted to expedite things, work quicker, not second-guess ourselves. So this record was made in four, four and a half months. We intentionally kept it shorter. I think we just learned how to use our time more wisely. We knew how to work with BJ. It was the second record we’d made with him, so we kind of had a language established, and it was just easier to communicate this time. The hard stuff was really just balancing feelings and emotions within the band.
Was there a moment where you made a decision to take chances, use synths, be more expansive, and not just deliver more of what might have come to be considered the signature Hippo Campus sound?
Nathan Stocker: Yeah that was a thing. We spent those four months just like going, going, going, and the music that we made we honestly felt like reflected us during that time. And that was what we needed to do to be most honest with ourselves. To say, “This is us. We like this, and we want to do this.” Which is not to say we don’t love our old sound, but it’s just a constant thing of moving forward.
There’s a lot of vibes on here we have never heard from you before. That two-minute ending coda of “Passenger” may be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever done.
Zach Sutton: Oh thanks! That almost got cut!
Stocker: Yeah there’s this weird process of rejection, where you have to forcibly reject something that you had before — it’s like building muscle or something. And so with every song there’s an instance where something was rejected and something else came out. And that had happened a lot during Landmark as well, and [2017 EP] Warm Glow. But you’ve got to break something down to make it grow again.
Sutton: We just made a choice to go a very different route, and make an album under the name Hippo Campus. And so it wasn’t necessarily, “What can we be to be totally different?” but more like, “What does this song call for?” And the music we were making was calling for a different sound.
Obviously when you make a significant change, there are gonna be people raising concerns, and often those people are on the label or management side. Do you guys experience that?
Luppen: Yeah I think we have. But our standpoint on songwriting is I think we want people to know us for great songs. It’s never really been about the sound, it’s always been about great songs. And that’s why I think people will understand this record. Because yes, we are experimenting sonically with what we’re doing, but I think the integrity of the songs remain.
How has BJ’s role in making the records evolved over time?
Luppen: It’s complicated, man.
Stocker: His role has completely informed us on the way that we look at music now, and the way we look at studio work, the way that we interact with each other, and just think about palettes and everything.
Sutton: He’s really pushed us. He has this great skill set in getting you out of the comfort zone. And in that space you learn so much, and you grow so much faster, because you’re forced to make these decisions. In that regard I think he’s one of the best producers. And he also keeps scrutinizing. He’s like, “Is this the best we can do? Is this the most creative thing we can do?”
You went off and wrote songs individually this time, then brought them to the band, rather than hashing everything out together?
Luppen: Yeah, on Landmark there was a lot of compromise, for sure. And I think this time writing songs individually changed things. We weren’t necessarily forced to compromise our ideas. Like one person could really fulfill a vision.
Stocker: At least in the initial stages, before things got flipped around.
Whistler Allen: When we brought them to the band they were semi-considered somewhat done. And we kind of fleshed them out a little more. But as soon as we got them to BJ, or to the production stage, actually creating the album, they had the possibility of being very changed.
You’ve called Bambi a more introspective record. Which is interesting because you’ve talked about some heavy stuff in past songs. Is it that this one is more relationship-oriented?
Luppen: I definitely would say it’s more personal. Being able to write the songs individually I think was a big part of that, where you could really get into that space.
Allen: I didn’t really write any lyrics for this, but it seems like the lyrics for this album are a lot things that are happening more now and more in the moment, as opposed to what has happened in our lives in the past. We’re figuring out what’s happening right now.
Stocker: I would say a lot of the concepts on Bambi, they are personal, and they reflect a lot of what we’ve been going through as individuals, as a collective. But they also have in my opinion this sense of principled elements of humanity that we are still dealing with, as growing people. Like, what does it mean to be in love? I mean Jake keeps being pressed on this because he’s been in the longest relationship, and that’s what “Doubt” deals with, and others, but “Why Even Try” — that one is more representative of a friendship that we had, and it asks, “if it’s broken, why try and fix it?” I think one of the phrases we’ve used too is “relationship maintenance” and a lot of what “relationship” is referring to in that phrase is us. So it’s very much within us.
Sutton: I would like to think we do a good job of checking in with each other, and doing that kind of therapeutic process among the five of us. But these songs were kind of sometimes the first time that we really got to know what was going on within the other person’s head. Because when you’re so close as friends, you don’t necessarily sit down and — you’d think you would open your heart completely, but when you’re musicians and constantly traveling and don’t have the time. And so something like “Bambi” might be the first time that you…
Stocker: Like, you don’t have time for that right now.
“On to the next show, we’ll talk about it later” kind of thing?
Stocker: Yeah, and that’s where the issue of toxic masculinity figures in, I think, in terms of just holding things in? And then we show a song to each other and we’re like, “What’s up, dude? Are you good? Are you mad at me?” You know?
Did that happen with any song in particular?
Stocker: I think that it’s constantly happening. And it’s because of this tendency to keep things in, keep it bottled up, you know?
Hippo Campus is not a band that lacks in female attention. I mean I’ve seen you live and I haven’t done a gender count of the crowd, but…
Allen: I’ve seen the stats on Spotify. It’s very female, for sure.
So how do you think that affects the people view the band, people who write about music, for instance?
Luppen: Yeah, well I think the industry as a whole — I mean there have been so many articles written about this…
Allen: It’s like there’s a law where it’s like, “We’re not allowed to like a band whose fan base is like 90 percent female” or something like that.
Sutton: Like, “That’s a chick band.”
Stocker: Yeah no it’s just a wrongful association, and it’s something that’s been done before. I mean the entire “boyband” aspect — I mean, we are a band of boys.
Allen: It’s not really something that we can…control?
Luppen: And I think what people often fail to see too is that a young woman’s relationship to her music is one of the most beautiful things. It’s so intense, it’s so personal. Very vulnerable.
I came across a piece that actually used the phrase “indie rock’s answer to a boyband.”
Stocker: About us?
Yeah, talking about you guys. And I was like, “Wow…”
DeCarlo Jackson: Aren’t all indie rock bands boybands? Or am I tripping?
What they mean was five cute guys who…
Stocker: Like a One Direction type of thing.
Right, who attract a certain audience, and say “Oh, he’s the Harry Styles, he’s…”
Stocker: Be careful of who you think I am! [Laughs]
I have nothing against them! Or him!
Stocker: But I mean, thinking about all the other bands that do what we do, and they are way prettier than we are!
[Laughs all around]
I think some of your hardcore fans might disagree with that.
Stocker: But it’s a weird — I don’t know. It’s out of our control. But we don’t mind that our audience is this. We think they’re the best. And anyone that doesn’t want to listen to us because young women listen to us — whatever, maybe they’re jealous.
Somewhat related — it’s been almost exactly a year since the Harvey Weinstein story broke and lit a spark that took us into what we call #MeToo. We’ve seen Hollywood men, politicians like your former senator Al Franken, musicians from R. Kelly to Tekashi 6ix9ine, to Louis CK and now a Supreme Court nominee facing a reckoning. How has this moment affected you guys individually or as a band?
Sutton: For the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, we did this little merch drive and donated whatever profits we had to them and they invited us to this event. And there was this speaker there who works with [women’s advocacy group] A Call To Men, and he gave this great speech on all those people you mentioned, Al Franken, R. Kelly — they’ve all done things that are sort of symptoms of a larger diagnosis, which is — and these are his words, just toxic masculinity. Objectifying women, treating them as sexual objects, like even saying, “I want to hit that!” is a common thing. So, in saying that, you physically demean them, and you objectify them. And we were like, “Okay, that’s a great starting point for us to, you know, proscribe the way that we should act.”
Luppen: For so long it was so bad that it really needs to be exposed at a high level, so that there’s not any tolerance — I mean we haven’t taught kids about this. We haven’t done anything to make it better until now, and it’s only because it’s blown up like this.
It’s a fundamental reset for many guys on how they view and interact with women.
Stocker: Yeah. We hang out with a lot of girls, and every one, every fuckin’ one has a story. It’s terrible! Everyone is either, “I was raped,” or “I was sexually harassed” — and it doesn’t matter to what degree, everyone has something to tell.
Jackson: Even if it’s being catcalled!
As far as catcalling, I don’t even know what being catcalled would feel like, and I think a lot of guys might wonder why it would feel bad.
Jackson: That’s because like, being a man, you don’t have to be used to being consistently and systematically like, degraded. I was talking to my girlfriend about this actually, and it was like — men can’t even feel the effects of something like catcalling, because if a girl just yelled out at me something about how I looked, I wouldn’t be inherently like, mad.
You might possibly be flattered?
Jackson: Yeah possibly. I like getting compliments, so I would be flattered.
Stocker: But that’s not a reflection of a…feminarchy? I don’t even know what you would call it.
Jackson: Yeah totally, cause there is none of that. There’s no way that that one girl who yelled at me from out of her window is looking at all men as an object to be fondled. But a man doing that to a woman is looking at all women as an object to be fondled.
Allen: And us being in the position that we are in professionally, it is — I don’t want to use the word “scary” because what do I have to be scared of? But we should all be talking about this, and questioning and feeling things about it. And in our line of work, it should be a topic that’s considered in our songs, in what we portray, it should be a part of what we do.
Back to “Bambi”—it’s one of the great videos of the year. It’s so simple, but weird and makes you wonder what’s going on. Kyle Sauer directed it. It seems to me to be each of you kind of dealing with your own issues, symbolically.
Stocker: My addiction to trash.
Well. It’s hard to know quite what the garbage thing is all about.
Stocker: No yeah, it is that — it’s symbolic of all these anxieties — these weird like, indulging in things that aren’t healthy for you, and how that all relates to each other.
Did you each choose your own “thing”?
Stocker: We got to pick from a storyboard, like what we were all gonna be. But immediately though, I was like — garbage! I want the garbage! I just feel dirty. All the time.
Luppen: There was an element of apraxia, which is where people look at an object and forget what it means? And how that’s related to “Bambi” is that we spent a lot of time trying to write this song that was super difficult to write and figure out. So when I look at the soap and I don’t know what soap is…it’s like that.
Sutton: We just kind of divvied it up. He suggested that someone take a plant, and I said, “I’ll take a plant.”
DeCarlo, you’ve got these books and pages flying all around?
Jackson: Oh, I actually just have telekinesis. So I only had to turn on my powers! So it was a good situation for me.
And Whistler, you know it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder.
Allen: You know, I didn’t even realize that until I was doing it, and then I thought, “Technically, that’s bad luck.” But that’s kind of the stuff that I do! It fits me.
So Jake, you said something recently that was spot-on about where the band fits in — or doesn’t — in the music landscape. You said, “indie people think we’re alt, and alt people think we’re indie.”
Jackson: Aren’t they the same thing?
To some people, yeah, and it’s all subjective. But when, say, programmers think “alt” they think Imagine Dragons, Walk the Moon — whereas “indie” tends to be like Vampire Weekend, who you got compared to early on…
Sutton: Mitski. Car Seat Headrest.
Sure, yes, to be more current. But you guys do sort of straddle both worlds, no?
Luppen: Yes, and I think that’s what allows us to make a record like this. Because an alt band wouldn’t make a record like this and I don’t know if an indie band would make a record like this. So I think us existing kind of outside of those two things just allows us to do whatever the fuck we want to do. And I think there’s also like, what we were talking about before, an element of misogyny where like it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around us having primarily young female fans and taking us seriously.
And Nathan, your comment about how being “confused” and not having all the answers is okay, was nice to see, in a time when everyone is expected to be perpetually “on-brand.”
Stocker: Right, I think that’s been an emphasis of what we do since the beginning. Like with “The Halocline” [their epic, WU LYF-recalling 2015 signature song] which is the perfect symbol still for what we do, strangely enough, I don’t know fucking why, it’s like the illusion of air, but why? It’s not this or that. It’s a constant human struggle to figure that out. And we feel bad when we don’t know — but why? What, somebody’s gonna figure it out someday and then everything will be fine? No. That’s not how this earthly experience works. And I think embracing that is the first step in realizing the better part of yourself. There is no end goal. It’s just to get — the statement is that there is no statement. It’s just a constant snapshot of wherever we are. These are the moments that influenced us, and that’s it. And I’m not saying there is no statement for the record, I was more talking about humanity. Fuck music!
Hippo Campus’ Bambi is out Friday. The band’s fall tour begins Oct. 5 in Milwaukee.