Jake Luppen found out his dog was being put down on Valentine’s Day. The pup was a 13-year-old Havanese named Cookie. She’d been a gift to the Hippo Campus frontman from his parents in the midst of a contentious, drawn-out divorce that took up the bulk of his teenage years. He was allergic to her.
“She was one of the few things that got me through that time. And I haven’t really gone to therapy or anything, or, like, confronted a lot of the trauma I went through,” Luppen tells Billboard with a wry laugh. “So it was all kind of just pushed down, and when I found out we were putting the dog down, it all cropped up. And then I was like, ‘I think I need to write a song right now about all this sh-t.'”
His romantic Valentine’s Day plans ruined, Luppen channeled that resurfaced well of trauma into music, eventually birthing “Bad Dream Baby,” the lead single from Hippo Campus’ upcoming EP Good Dog, Bad Dream, which is slated for release Aug. 6 via Grand Jury Music.
The manic banger is at turns both deeply personal and wildly zany, bouncing from the death of Luppen’s dog to ruminations on Britney Spears and her battle to end the legal conservatorship she’s lived under for the past 13 years — a period that almost perfectly matches up with the late Cookie’s lifetime. (“I’m worried about Britney Spears/ It’s pretty f–ked up how her dad runs her life/ I wish my dad was more involved in mine/ But not like that, really not like that, yeah,” the singer croons in an unassuming baritone on the second verse.)
Unlike most millennials, Luppen admits the pop icon and her music were “pretty peripheral” during his fundamental teenage years, due in large part to a strict Mormon upbringing in suburban Minneapolis after his mother converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was just four or five years old.
“Being raised Mormon, I wasn’t allowed to consume a lot of things that were sort of controversial,” the 26-year-old says, referring to Britney’s catalog of hits and sexually charged music videos. “So it was more of just like, I would kind of hear it on the radio.” It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that Luppen would dive into what he calls his “Britney phase”; consequently, he now regards “Toxic” as “one of the best songs ever.” (“I think the production on that is so incredible,” he gushes about the icy second single from 2003’s In the Zone. “It’s so fresh. If that dropped tomorrow, it would be, like, the coolest thing.”)
Despite having a rather belated personal relationship to Britney’s music, the Princess of Pop’s fraught relationship with her father made it into Hippo Campus’ new song after Luppen sat down to watch The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears.
“My mind was blown,” he recalls of his reaction to the harrowing documentary, which has since been nominated for two Emmy Awards. “Cause I, like, vaguely remember Britney shaving her head, you know? And I remember people just…sort of turning her into a punchline. I only realized over time how f–ked up it was that a bunch of my memories with Britney Spears involve the industry completely turning on her.”
After absorbing the special, Luppen continued to follow the developments in Britney’s ongoing legal crusade, and was shocked along with the rest of the world by the pop star’s explosive testimony during her recent June 23 hearing, coincidentally speaking out for the first time in more than a decade just eight days after Hippo Campus released “Bad Dream Baby.” “I was like, ‘crazy timing!'” he states of Britney breaking her silence. “But just hearing her talk about it is heartbreaking. It, like, turns my stomach to hear, you know? It’s just… it’s awful.”
After applauding Britney for using her voice, Luppen points out that “Bad Dream Baby” also marks a “more personal approach” to his own songcraft, and that vulnerability has spilled over into his life outside of the studio. For the first time, he’s speaking publicly about finding his place in the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I haven’t really talked about it in an interview before,” he reveals. “But it’s definitely something I think I’ve known about myself since I was a kid, and I’ve always been scared to be outright with it…. As far as, like, identifying in any which way, I think I’ve been scared to accept my own queerness ’cause it felt like I wasn’t queer enough. But it also feels like I’m not straight enough.”
Luppen is cautious when expounding on how he identifies, pausing frequently to weigh his responses and repeatedly apologizing for seeming nervous. After thoughtful consideration, he settles on labeling himself “queer” before disclosing that — since he’s consistently been in exclusively long-term, committed relationships with women throughout his adult life — he doesn’t want his coming out to be perceived as pandering or queerbaiting in any way.
“It’s definitely scary to talk about because I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” the rocker (who’s currently dating indie pop darling Raffaella) admits. “I think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people, just ’cause people have seen me publicly with women, you know? But I do think it’s an important part of myself that I could do a better job of embracing and not feeling shameful for.”
That shame, Luppen surmises, stems from a multitude of sources: his childhood spent steeped in Mormonism’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, society’s increasingly antiquated view of sexuality as a binary construct and the toxic judgement sometimes placed on queer men.
Combatting those wellsprings of shame is exactly why the singer-songwriter is ready to come out now. “It’s important for people to hear my experience, and [understand that] sexuality is a spectrum and that people can exist where I exist,” he says. “Where it’s like, yeah, you’re attracted to everybody. You might be in relationships with women; you might have relationships with men at some point. But that doesn’t make you any less queer.”
With the release of his band’s latest EP just weeks away (and another already-completed album further out on the horizon), the indie rocker confesses to feeling “overwhelmed” on the precipice of this new chapter, but always grounds himself by returning to the music.
“I’m proud of these songs,” Luppen declares. “I feel very comfortable with my identity as an artist right now. I feel like these songs and the songs that we’re releasing after are the best work that we’ve done, and the most personally fulfilling sh-t that we’ve made.
“So as far as an artist, I feel like I’m very Zen. I feel very good with what I’m creating,” he concludes before pausing to add one final thought: “Free Britney, man. Free f–king Britney.”