More about: Hippo Campus
“I don’t know, I just really want to be TikTok famous,” Zach Sutton, bassist, keyboardist and one-fifth of beloved indie-rock troupe Hippo Campus admits furtively a few minutes into our transatlantic Zoom call. “I think we’ve really been crossing our fingers and hoping that we wake up one day and become one of those bands that’s just blown up on there,” he laughs.
As the band gear up to release their latest EP Good Dog, Bad Dream – the first taste of new music from the Minnesota quintet in more than two years – it’s a telling insight into the rapidly changing landscape of the music industry amidst technological developments and Gen-Z hysteria. “It seems like the formula for songs that do well on TikTok is impossible to understand” Sutton says. “It’s not just the biggest pop stars and fun old songs from the past that blow up on there, anything can be so funny and so popular and sometimes it’s just like…shitposts.”
But, while some artists have begun unpicking and playing up to the app’s algorithms in the pursuit of a quick blast of virtual glory, Hippo Campus have taken a more insular approach: digging deeper within themselves with the hopes of creating a record that more accurately reflects their “truest selves.” “I think during 2020 we all discovered a lot about ourselves in terms of what we’re shooting for sound-wise and songwriting-wise,” explains lead guitarist and vocalist Nathan Stocker. “A lot of that was rooted in a made-up concept of what we look like to everybody else and we kind of saw that our truest selves – the truest image of ourselves as individuals – hasn’t always been portrayed in a way that is most honest.”
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Hippo Campus have long fallen victim to preconceptions about their image as a band from outsiders. With a large, dedicated and predominantly female fanbase, they’re one of countless groups of young, conventionally attractive men who have been condemned to the box of ‘boyband,’ with their music written off by ‘serious’ music aficionados. But, the past year has allowed the band to re-evaluate, shake off anxieties and misconceptions and realign their trajectory.
The result is Good Dog, Bad Dream, a raucous five-track extended play that veers away from the well-trodden path of sunny riffs and synth-soaked choruses that Hippo Campus are used to. Stumbling into a spectacular chasm of craggy beats, warped reverb and blistering, punk-tinged vocals, lead single ‘Bad Dream Baby’ leads the charge.
“This EP is the first thing that we’ve ever made entirely ourselves,” says Sutton. “This was something that we did without a producer and it was something to channel a lot of our creative energy into during the pandemic, it’s a very visceral thing and I think it could have only happened because of the circumstances around it.” Affording the quintet the time and creative energy to devote to forging out their new chapter, and quite literally manifesting in the form of isolation-themed lyrics – “I don’t even care what my best friends are doing” muses Luppen on ‘Bad Dream Baby,’ “I wanna go back to partying / Even though I’m old” – the coronavirus pandemic was inevitably one of the circumstances in question. When they weren’t binge-watching Gilmore Girls, playing poker or learning to solve a Rubik’s cube – something Stocker has got down to a fine art, “I can do it pretty quick,” he brags, “like five minutes” – the band spent much of their time in quarantine making music. “I think that’s why this EP is so direct,” says Stocker, “just because of the pandemic.”
Respiratory viruses aside, a new approach to production also afforded the band the space to experiment with a freer, more honest and more rambunctious sound. As well as the band’s first release without long-time Hippo Campus producer BJ Burton, Good Dog, Bad Dream is the first bit of music to come out of the band’s new Minneapolis studio, a space that allowed the five-piece to “come together and really dive into whatever [they] wanted to work on at the time.” “I think all of our music is always us being our truest selves,” muses Sutton, “but it’s just now that we’ve been positioned in such a way with the pandemic and the studio, it’s totalled up to be something different, something very honest and very direct.”
It wasn’t just a newfangled studio and freedom on the production side of things that led to Good Dog, Bad Dream’s sonic progression: the EP’s subtle shift in direction is evidently indebted to the tight bond between the five-piece as friends too. While other musicians inevitably had some influence on the final product – Alanis Morrissette, The 1975, Imogen Heap and The National are amongst a handful of the artists Sutton and Stocker manage to cite – the overarching inspiration behind Good Dog, Bad Dream seems to be the band itself. “I feel like the inspiration [for the EP] came less from our response to the music that we were listening to and more our response to how we all make music together, both individually and as a group,” says Stocker. “A lot of it came from responding to each other’s music, to each other’s skill sets and what we all bring to the table.”
Bouncing off one another, and with “a lot more nodding of heads than shaking” compared to usual, the project came together naturally and without the pressure of tight deadlines or eagle-eyed outsiders. “I think we also felt we had more agency,” says Stocker, “as a group of friends making songs and just having fun for once, instead of having to have this really drawn out message and vision for this big rollout.”
The image of a bunch of friends having fun and making music also follows through in the band’s revamped visuals. Like a group of listless teenagers bored in a basement on a summer’s day, the music video for latest release ‘Bad Dream Baby’ sees the fivesome rattle through a chaotic performance of the track, concluding with Luppen smashing his guitar through a drum kit. Deftly emulating the live experience from the comfort of their studio, the rowdy live atmosphere was all part of the EP’s design. “Performing together in a room was the next thing we wanted to do as a band because it had been so long since we had been able to do that,” Stocker explains. “And ‘Bad Dream Baby’ is very Reading and Leeds. A big tent, everybody’s singing this riff, that kind of vibe.”
Despite the live atmosphere apparent in the EP’s foundations, the band admit they didn’t find it particularly difficult to write and release new material in a live music-less world. As the pandemic forced an involuntary hiatus on live music – and while some artists struggled to piece together new tracks without being able to gauge fan reactions in real time – Hippo Campus saw the break from touring as a help rather than a hindrance. “The pandemic made it really easy to lose all of the buffer between artists and fans,” says Stocker. "All of the façades faded away and it was nice to have that break from constantly having to worry about things translating live. We just wanted to be more direct, and that’s what this EP is about.”
But, amidst all this newfound honesty (and for a band whose last studio album, 2018’s Bambi, was released into a vastly different world) the mood in the Hippo Campus camp is remarkably laid back. “I think there’s a level of worry inherent in anything that you release as an artist,” Stocker acknowledges with a degree of nonchalance, “But it’s just about reminding yourself and reminding those around you that you can’t negotiate your honesty with anybody. It’s the one thing that shouldn’t have to be forgiven.”
The band’s composure about the release has also been aided by a smoother logistical process than they are used to. “In all other previous Hippo Campus releases it has just been a massive shit show,” says Sutton, “Like with Bambi, we pushed out the single way faster than we should have and the whole album was a miscommunication. This is the first time it’s actually gone well, where we don’t have to do anything and we don’t have to cram or rush.”
“With ‘Bad Dream Baby’ we didn’t even know it was being released,” he adds, “the release day came and we were completely preoccupied with other things, then it was like: ‘hey guys, it came out, say something on Instagram.’ It was a little bit like, ‘oh oops,’ but it went really smoothly. And we’re gonna keep things smooth, we’re gonna have to get used to things not being a shit show.”
While this forthcoming EP does take the band in a new direction – both logistically and in terms of its anarchic, slightly more sinister sound – Good Dog, Bad Dream isn’t an arbitrary project. “I guess this EP is the first door into the mansion that we are still building,” Stocker says, “it stands on its own but it’s not like we just did this randomly. It’s definitely part of a bigger picture of things to come.”
Unsurprisingly, the band throw a shrewd curveball when we ask if LP3 is a part of this picture. “We have a box set coming out,” Stocker says with a smirk and a subtle hint of sarcasm, “Five payments of $19.99 for six unreleased albums.” Sutton chimes in: “And we’re also coming out with our own patent of the vaccine. It’s called the Hippo & Hippo and it’s got a 16% success rate, it’s incredibly effective.”
“In all seriousness,” Stocker concedes after reining in a snigger, “We have been working on an album. It’s almost done and it’s tight as fuck. It’s just really, really good.”
Good Dog, Bad Dream EP arrives 6 August via Grand Jury Music.
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More about: Hippo Campus