Photo by Cameron Wittig
Hippo Campus at the Minnesota State Fair
Hippo Campus is a band on the verge. The MSP-based surf-rock/Afro-pop four-piece did their shyly giddy thing on Conan, sang odes to art-school girls at SXSW, and booked Chicago’s Lollapalooza before any of them had even turned 21. Heck, their ascent has been so rapid they all still live at home simply because they haven’t had time to move out. They met in high school at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and played in rival bands before joining forces because, as drummer Whistler Allen says, they’re just four guys who “play well together.” While that band kismet has led to increasingly bigger gigs like their upcoming appearance at Summer Set Music & Camping Festival, they’re not getting lost in it. Their idea of a good time is the same as it ever was: talking Mitch Hedberg over BLTs at Minneapolis’s Bad Waitress and flirting with the servers. Of course, now that they’re rock stars that’s probably not quite the same as it ever was for the waitresses.
While they enjoyed some time off between tours earlier this summer, we invited them to hang at the empty State Fair grounds, where they opened up about high school trials, their writing process, and taste in record players.
How was your first tour?
Whistler: Some would say it's a rodeo. Others would say it's a circus. Both enjoyable.
Nathan: Classic response.
What would you say?
Whistler: An air show. Sort of a combination.
Nathan: Have you been to an air show?
Whistler: No, but I've seen them on TV shows.
Nathan: It's like spending a month and a half—
Jake: —at the State Fair.
Zach: It was fun. It was a good first experience, a good outing.
Did you write anything new while you were on the road?
Zach: Yeah, there wasn't a lot of room to play music. We were the first of three, so sound check was pretty tight every night. We were lucky to get 30 minutes, so we had to sound check or we don't sound check and there's not a lot of room for writing in there.
Jake: We keep all the creative energy pent up until we get home and then we have a massive release. It's very sexual in nature.
Whistler: So far we've written half a song.
Whistler: It's tough too for us, because our writing style is different from most—I guess not different from most. We even talked to the Mowglis about how they're able to write on the road because their writing style is different from us. We really only work right now as a team in a practice space, so it's hard for us to write as a group in a van without our instruments, or in our hotel room or something. We don't write that way, so it's tough for us to do that. We didn't honestly try. Every once in a while Jake would noodle on an acoustic.
Jake: Wrote lots of poems I'm not gonna show anybody. Tell you that much. Wrote a lot of them.
That's for the best. I think when people hear you—a word that comes up in a lot of interviews is that you're really tight; your sound is really well-formed. Is that intentional?
Nathan: Yeah, Jake's the real hard ass when it comes to sounding good.
Jake: Yeah, I got a whip.
Zach: We were in separate bands before this, and also intensely practiced. We were in a band before that band and played this stage [the Leinenkugel Stage] a couple times! There was a pretty sick rendition of "Sweet Child of Mine" on that stage. So I guess the fully-formed thing came from everybody's previous experiences with bands. Like, we've done it before. So we know what we wanted when we came together.
Nathan: No, it wasn't intentional. We just ended up putting together a bunch of songs we had written, I think pretty quickly over that summer. Our first batch of songs was all last summer. We didn't sit down and realize, let's write six songs, but we did sit down and write, just to create songs that we wanted to release. We had an album previously but didn't end up using any of the songs except for "Little Grace." I figured, if we just put the work in, that stuff will figure itself out.
You came together so young. Do you ever feel like you have to compensate? Earn more life experience to write about?
Whistler: I think we have a lot of life experiences between all four of us.
Zach: I think high school is just as potent of a life experience as anything else, man. People shouldn't discredit youthfulness from high school. It's just as intense to live it as it is to talk about it. Some shit can go down in high school. Real, intense family stuff, you can form your social setting—life on the road isn't that much different.
Do you feel pressure yet for your next album?
Jake: We're getting to this point artists talk about—you start to figure out why you're writing the music, who you're writing the music for. And just naturally, you're changing as people, and so the music you're going to write is changing. Then you have to decide, do we want to go over here, which might make some people feel uncomfortable, or do we want to write the same sort of shit that will make people feel really comfortable? It's just a matter of figuring out what we want to do as a band and the kind of music we want to make. I think we're getting to a point now where we're starting to not worry about it so much. We're just starting to be like, Let's just write songs we just want to write. If people are receptive to that, great; if people are not, then whatever, we'll write more music and maybe people will be receptive to that.
I saw you guys were playing the Red Rocks Ampitheater. That's exciting!
Zach: Can I tell you why I'm pumped? We're playing with Walk the Moon, right? You know Walk the Moon, little band out of Ohio? They're doing alright. We met them previously in London and we found out that they love to play Super Smash Bros., the Nintendo game. We hear the singer and the bassist are big [Nintendo] 64 guys, and Jake, Nathan and I are real big 64 guys. We like to play. So we're excited to show down, because we haven't played them yet.
Nathan: Nothing that has to do with the show is why he's excited.
Zach: They said they'll bring it on their bus, and we get to play it and hopefully we'll win the game!
What's the deal with the Bad Waitress?
Whistler: I wasn't there this morning. We just really enjoy it. The atmosphere's cool, we like eating there, it's a good location. They have a couch section.
So you hit on the MCAD students there?
Nathan: No! We hit on the waitresses.
What do you guys get?
Jake: I get the BLT.
My last question is that I need to buy a record player, and I want to know what kind.
Jake: Do not buy a Crosley. That's all I have to say.
Nathan: How many records do you have?
Nathan: Get a Crosley.
This interview has been edited and condensed.