This time last year, I met quirky Minnesota-born Jake Luppen whilst he and the rest of Hippo Campus were on tour with Jarrow’s own Little Comets. Now back in Leeds less than 12 months later – albeit this time as headliners – I meet a different Jake alongside his counter parts, “Espo”, “Beans” and “Stitches”. The band have been hard at work on their debut album, Landmark, and it appears to me that through doing so they’ve mastered three things: who they are as a band, the message they want to send to their listeners, and the on-stage experience they want to share with the crowd.
Working on Landmark over the past year alongside producer BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Francis & The Lights, Low) has been, as Stitches describes, “A learning process… BJ was like a big brother. First we had to learn how to work with him, then he pushed us to new limits and new heights.” Luppen interjects; “[Burton] encouraged us to use different palettes, creating a mentality of what sounds serve the song best rather than which instrument we necessarily play. He made us put our egos aside.” The impact of Burton seems to have pushed Landmark into achieving its full potential.
The reason I’m so interested about the impact he has made is due to when we last met, Luppen told me about his love of Bon Iver, and given that BJ Burton has also worked alongside Justin Vernon, the input he’s had on Landmark is intriguing. Burton has caused a development in the band, from producing the kind of music that was comfortable to them to being pushed to play something new, more in line with the music they love.
When first hearing ‘Suicide Saturday’ on a Hew Stephens broadcast, I originally saw in Hippo Campus a happy-go-lucky, alternative guitar band, playing upbeat and euphoric grooves. Whilst that may still be the case for parts of Landmark, the Minnesota boys have created a new, deeper layer to their music. There’s something very honest and vulnerable about the music they’ve now written. “Lyrically especially”, Luppen emphasises, “it’s a lot more introspective. In the first EP there was a lot of generalisations about people our age. Whereas now there are a lot of songs that are very personal I guess, even hard to listen to at some points – just like, scary.” I’m taken back by just how meaningful this is to the four of them, and it’s not until later in the evening that I’m able to learn the full extent of how personal Landmark really is to Hippo Campus. As the stage lights fade into a deep blue and a distorted loop of “it should’ve been me” rings out, the band performs a truly moving version of their recent single ‘Monsoon’. The rendition comes to its heartfelt conclusion and after three minutes of angelic falsetto Luppen almost appears to be in tears as he cowers over the loop pedal. “Thanks for being so quiet guys, that was a beautiful moment”, he praises the ordinarily rowdy Leeds crowd that spontaneously silenced for the entirety of the track.
Now that I understand the new levels to the music Hippo Campus are producing, I’m intrigued to know more about something that struck me as strange in their social media in the run up to their tour and album release. I very quickly learn that a frustration at the 21st century “cool culture” on platforms like Instagram and Twitter is deeply ingrained into the four of them. Working so hard night and day to present yourself as something you’re not for the praise of people you hardly know in an almost Black Mirror fashion is at the core of their angst; “We want to use it [Instagram] less mindlessly, but it’s hard seeing as it’s designed to be so mindless”. Recently the band spammed followers with a series of blank white squares posted on their Instagram. “People don’t want that, but it’s interesting. And then we deleted it all last night.” adds Espo. “It’s also kinda meta – the internet is constantly changing so why does Instagram have to stay the same? Why don’t we delete posts? It’s not a scrap book. People started unfollowing us when we posted orange squares or then if we post a snippet of a song there’s only small reaction compared to if there’s a photo with our faces in which automatically gets thousands of likes – like what the fuck is the point in that?”
“Sex appeal”, one of them interjects, in an attempt to light-heartedly cool the mood from what’s becoming an increasingly fiery topic. Nathan has a final word on the topic, saying “Social media, how could it not be such an influence on a lot of the music that’s made today?” Hippo Campus just have their own way of dealing with it.
The band go on to explain to me the thinking behind Landmark’s instantly recognisable album artwork, something they’d been drip feeding on social media before deleting it all. The cover was designed by an old friend from home who’s been responsible for all of the band’s artwork – “We got this idea of recreating our old rehearsal space… all the different objects in the room are representative of different songs on the record. Hence the calendar for ‘Monsoon’ and the tree for ‘Boyish’. It’s super cool and I’ll never get tired of looking at it, it’s a comforter.” Nathan goes on to say, “it’s like a… like… like some kind of landmark?!” The four of them laugh ironically at the clichéd tone of the comment. “We didn’t know what to call the album until the artwork was all done, and then it just sort of worked.”
Finally, Luppen praises the new British fan base. “It’s been a really great tour; we’ve had some awesome responses, Manchester was really great… we can’t wait to get back home and go country-wide” Hippo Campus are loving every second of their four-month tour, and why not? The boys have been honest, open and light hearted with me, and I leave the cramped dressing room with a feeling of hope for what’s to come for the Twin Cities band with a lot to give.
Hippo Campus’ debut LP Landmark is out on the 24th of February.By Tom Cadman