There comes a point in every band’s existence when the youthful exuberance and playfulness of their early days gives way to something more refined and considered. The very best bands though retain both, and as buzzy Minnesota five-piece Hippo Campus ready their second album ‘Bambi’, they’re showing that you can have fun while still focusing on the big issues.
‘Bambi’ is a significant step forward for the band and arrives into a world drastically different five years since they formed in 2013. Their debut album ‘Landmark’ was full of bouncy enthusiasm and boyish charm, but this time they felt compelled to do something a bit different and go that little bit deeper.
“There’s a lyric in the new song ‘Bubbles’ that goes, “Burn the room”,” begins singer Jake Luppen, in the downtime between two sold-out London shows acting as a warm up to their appearance at Reading & Leeds. “This album is basically us burning what we did on ‘Landmark’. I think that’s a mantra for this record.”
The fuel provided for their symbolic torching took some different forms. Primarily it involved a change in working methods. “Our process changed quite a bit for this record,” explains Jake. “In the past, we’d always written songs as a full band in the room. We made three records – the two EP’s and ‘Landmark’ utilising one facet of the band where we were able to all jam together. For this album, we decided to try a different process which was we each wrote songs and brought them in. We were able to spend more time crafting chord progressions and melodies.”
Hippo Campus are a band that revel in using the studio and technical wizardry as a means of expression and creation. You can hear it in the sensory shocks of songs like ‘Bubbles’. The element of surprise is always present. To do this though the band benefited from increased confidence and, importantly, independence to realise their ambitions.
“We’ve finally been able to accumulate a lot of studio gear on our own,” says Jake. “We were able to work outside of just a studio setting. We moved into a practice space and set up gear there. In addition to working with producer BJ Burton in his studio spot, we were able to take songs back to our space and spend more time on them. ‘Bambi’ was almost completely put together in our rehearsal space with just us five.”
Emerging from their cocoon in their own creative hub came a newfound clarity of focus. “We could see our vision out more fully. If we could work on our own we could see that vision through to where we want it to be. We also had more time to experiment with sound.”
More importantly than just the sound of the album though, ‘Bambi’ is the product of a period of self-reflection where the five guys in the band examined who they were, where they were going and the people they wanted to be while they get there. It was a tough process emotionally.
“We talk about mental health a lot more than we did in the past,” reveals lyricist Jake. “I think that’s down to how personal and vulnerable we felt when writing these songs. There are themes of anxiety and depression. In addition to that, I felt more confident personally to be able to write about my relationship and how mental health has impacted that. How being in a band and touring for the past three or four years has affected us. We wrote about friendships in the band and how they’ve changed as we’ve grown up.”
The band were also conscious of social and cultural changes that forced them to examine themselves and their music.
“The Me Too Movement was something that came up right when we were writing and recording this record,” says Jake reflectively. “It really made us think about our place as white men, which is largely the problem in the world right now. We had to interrogate our purpose and how as five guys we can be better for the world right now. We went to a talk on toxic masculinity, and it was very revealing how much that had played a part in everything we do including writing. It forced us to be more vulnerable on this record and not be afraid to talk about mental health issues.”
The band found solace in their wherewithal to be better socially conscious people close to home.
“Nathan [guitar] talked to his grandpa, and his grandpa said: ‘In order to make great music, you have to be a good person first’. That’s something that stuck with us for a while, especially over the past few years when we’ve been focused on bettering ourselves as people.”
Buoyed by a desire to look deeper into themselves, ‘Bambi’ is a more honest reflection of Hippo Campus. An honesty that is reflected in the care they put into creating it.
“There was a strong emphasis on the lyrics for this album. There have been patches on songs when I’ve gone back three months later and wished I had spent more time on the lyrics. As far as this record goes, there’s nothing yet, but I’m sure there’ll be something that will stick out in a couple of months. I wanted to place an emphasis on making sure that all the lyrics were well crafted, that they were mature and tangible.”
The real magic in the album though, is how darkness can be tempered with light and lucidity. “It’s that juxtaposition of melodies that are major,” explains Jake. “We typically write melodies in a major key. Our lyrics are always a bit darker though, especially on this record. The lyrics reflect the darkness while the melodies have this light and fluffy feel to them. It creates this weird, uneasy space.”
The lyrical uncomfortableness fits in with the awkward, socially uncertain times that the band were thinking about. The album fluctuates from blissful calm to chaos and disorder, much like our ever-changing world.
That desire to shake things up and disorient has always been present in Hippo Campus’ music, and ‘Bambi’ is a progressive, experimental yet hugely accessible realisation of this. “It comes from a desire to be better,” exclaims Jake. “It should be massive I hope!”
The band are only just getting started, though.
“We have a desire to push things. I believe that every record should sound different. I already know what the next record should sound like, and it’s so different from this one. I think you should always be challenging yourself.”
There’s certain to be lots of challenges ahead, and the Hippo Campus of 2018 seem in a good place to meet them. Older, wiser, but no less exciting they’re a band looking to represent the times.
Taken from the October issue of Dork. Hippo Campus’s album ‘Bambi’ is out now.
Words: Martyn Young