Maintaining a healthy all-ages scene can be a challenge for any community, but over the past few years the Twin Cities’ ratio of talented high school bands to respectable all-ages performance spaces seems especially skewed. In just the last two years, some of our most celebrated young acts—Bomba de Luz, John Mark Nelson, Observer Drift, Jack Campbell, Rocky Diamonds, Allan Kingdom, and budding internet phenom Spooky Black, and even Howler—seemed to emerge fully formed, busting open like blooming flowers that had germinated away from prying eyes.
It’s become so much of a pattern these past few years that I can’t help but wonder: Why do these gifted young artists have to turn 18 before they can break into the wider local music community?
While us olds try to figure out ways we can better serve the the youth around us, plenty of bands are going ahead and making waves among their peers without any help from outsiders. Which is exactly how the four-piece rock band Hippo Campus, made up of ’13 grads from a charter high school in St. Paul, managed to emerge with a debut song and video that are at a higher quality than many of the veteran bands performing around town.
“There’s so much talent in younger bands nowadays,” says Jake Luppen, who leads Hippo Campus along with co-frontman and guitarist Nathan Stocker. “We have a bunch of friends who are doing the high school thing like we were doing last year. They’re all really talented, but it seems like a lot of venues prey on the fact that they’re so young, and make them sell a bunch of tickets. It’s a really big problem. These booking agencies, they don’t compensate for performances. You play shows for free unless you sell a bunch of tickets.”
“Once you’re older, obviously, it just changes your experience,” adds drummer Whistler Allen. “I don’t know—especially being in high school, and meeting the other bands, we were treated like crap. It’s sad and disappointing to see like the differences before we play, how the guys treat us. After we play, they come back and greet us, like, ‘That was awesome!’ But beforehand they just treat us like crap. Like we don’t exist, or we don’t matter.”
Stocker—who goes by the name Stitches, and is the oldest of the group at 19—sits back in his chair and looks down pensively while his bandmates lean in to hear what he has to say. “I haven’t really been in the music scene that long,” he says, shrugging casually. “Sometimes I think I know a lot more than I actually do. So, I don’t know. I think the more people that can come see live music, I think the better. I think that’s as simple as it should be.”
The four members of Hippo Campus are tucked into the couches in the corner of the Bad Waitress on Eat Street in Minneapolis, and throughout the interview they finish each other’s thoughts and feed off of each other’s frenetic, restless energy. The band met up between recording sessions for their almost-finished debut album, The Halocline, which is being produced by the guitarist Dustin Kiel (who most frequently performs with Dessa), and are clearly raring to get back into the studio to knock out the last few takes and start mixing it into the final product.
Though they have only been performing together for a year, the four musicians in Hippo Campus have already spent time refining their skills in other bands—Lussen and bassist Zach Sutton played together in Whistle Kid, while Stocker and Allen were in a band called Northern. The four met up at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and became fast friends, which eventually led to them forming an exciting new project.
On the band’s one and only single, “Little Grace,” Sutton leads the quartet through a buoyant, beachy guitar jam that could easily be mistaken for a Vampire Weekend B-side, if only because his voice closely mirrors Ezra Koenig’s tone and inflection. But just don’t tell the band that they share similarities with that chart-topping indie band.
“We hate them,” Sutton says, copping a fake grimace.
“We personally love them,” says Allen, “like who they are, but that’s probably the one band people are always saying, ‘You sound like Vampire Weekend!’”
“It’s the clean guitar tone and using rims on drums,” Stocker notes, and Allen and the rest of his bandmates laugh. “Anytime you use rims, it’s ‘Oh! You guys must listen to Vampire Weekend.’”
In reality, the band says the are most influenced by Bombay Bicycle Club, Last Dinosaurs, Little Comets, and the defunct Manchester group WU LYF, who also had an enduring philosophical impact on Hippo Campus.
“WU LYF—it stands for World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation. They’re fantastic,” Stocker says. “They put out one record, and basically they built their whole following and gained credibility for how little people know about them.”
Stocker says that he finds it disturbing how easy it is to reveal too much information online, and that Hippo Campus have adopted some of WU LYF’s strategies in terms of shielding their true personalities from their fans. On stage, the band uses code names—Stitches, Beans, Espo, and Turntan—and they keep their online presence brief and cryptic.
“We’re just trying to retain some mystique,” he says. “We don’t want it to be a frivolous thing. We don’t want our relationship with our listeners to be effortless, because it’s just too easy. And it’s kind of arrogant, but there should be some sort of effort to finding out things.” He stops, leaning back into his chair once again. “Anyway, it’s just what I think.”
“It’s so much more interesting when an artist doesn’t present everything,” Sutton says, nodding. And with that, we wrap up our interview and leave the rest of the details of this promising young band to the imagination.
Hippo Campus play the Varsity Theater on Tuesday night, May 20, as part of the ongoing Communion series along with Neolore, Bootstraps, and Busy Living. 7 p.m., $5 for MPR members (online only)/$9.50 advance/$15 doors, 18+. The band’s debut album is due out in late June.