Zach Sutton, Whistler Allen, Nathan Stocker, Jake Luppen, DeCarlo Jackson. (Photo courtesy of Pooneh Ghana)
Orange County School of the Arts

Indie-rock band Hippo Campus is shaped by creativity and inspiration

From playing with different bands to practicing together in secret, the boys of the indie-rock band Hippo Campus never expected a future of music festivals, headlining tours and two full length albums.

Jake Luppen, the lead singer, and bassist Zach Sutton met at a music program called School of Rock. They both also attended Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists along with their drummer Whistler Allen and guitarist Nathan Stocker. There they also met their trumpeter DeCarlo Jackson who had been playing with the band but didn’t officially join until 2017.

Throughout school, they all played in various bands but eventually found each other. When they first started, they had a list of artists that they wanted to emulate, Sutton said. They were inspired by bands like Little Comets and Last Dinosaurs. 

“As we’ve kept writing, releasing music and touring, we’ve grown up and our tastes changed,” Sutton said. “We kind of just digest whatever comes our way now.” 

In high school they studied jazz, except for Luppen who studied opera. While some of this training has found a way into their music, Sutton said their unique sound comes from the genres they’ve grown to like. 

“It’s a very collaborative, supportive environment,” Sutton said. “You should never say no to what you write. I like all their tastes so I’m happy to play their songs. I hope they’re happy to play mine.” 

He added that sometimes one person’s idea will highlight their tastes or reflect more of their personality than everyone else’s. This helps each of their songs stand out and bring something different to their discography. 

After high school, Sutton said it was difficult to decide if they should continue with the band. 

“Our parents wanted us to go to school,” Sutton said. “The drummer’s dad had seen us play. He told Whistler, ‘You should stay here and not go to school. You should see this band through.’” 

Throughout their years of making music, the band has been able to learn more about production and writing. They wanted to showcase this on their newest album “Bambi,” which was released in September 2018. 

“When we gained a platform, we realized that we could actually say something with music and people would listen to it,” Luppen said. “We started to write more personal songs.” 

The band looked at the songs they released for their first album, “Landmark,” and found a way to grow from them. 

“We found a new way to be creative and not write the same songs over and over again,” Sutton said

hippocampus 3 credit poonehghana Indie rock band Hippo Campus is shaped by creativity and inspiration
The boys of indie-rock band Hippo Campus. (Photo by Pooneh Ghana)

When writing a song, it’s rare for them to begin with lyrics. They may start with a chord progression or a riff, which may produce a melody, and they later add words onto that. 

“It’s always been a music first process,” Sutton said. “I have no clue how people write words first. It’s a really hard thing to do.”

Luppen said that he’s found most success with improvising a melody or mantra and writing lyrics around that. 

“Lyric writing is very subconscious for us,” Luppen said. “I don’t really ever sit down and say ‘I’m going to write about this.’ It’s more a sit down and start writing and then it gradually unfolds as an ‘Oh shit, this is what I’m feeling right now.’” 

Like most artists, they use music as a gateway to express the issues they face and discuss the personal events of their lives. Even with a growing audience, Sutton said he doesn’t find it too difficult to share these personal events with strangers. 

“It’s been pretty honest from the start so there’s this precedent between the artist and the fans… to be honest and real,” Sutton said. “As the shows get bigger…it’s more pressure to be honest and less contrived.” 

Luppen said the shift from how personal the band gets on “Landmark” versus “Bambi” was scary, but something he’s gradually gotten used to. The reason for this shift, he said, was because the band started to write more individually, which allowed them to become more emotionally vulnerable. 

“For ‘Landmark’, half of the album is sort of ironic and half the album is personal,” Luppen said. “For ‘Bambi,’ it was very directly about my life. It’s still scary that it’s personal but it’s imperative that we do be personal.” 

Regardless of how personal the song gets, however, Sutton hopes fans can find their own way to connect to their songs. 

Recently, the band found that they had songs that they didn’t feel fit on the “Bambi” record but they still felt attached to them. They decided to release them among their two demo records. 

The first one consisted of demos of songs off the “Bambi” record. Luppen said they released them to show their audience their production process. 

“The songs changed so drastically from our demos to the final version,” Luppen said. “Seeing songs and how they’ve evolved gives you a closer relationship with the songs because you can see them in all the stages.” 

The second demo record was the unreleased, leftover songs that Sutton said they didn’t have the time to go back into the studio to do them properly.

“I loved those songs,” Sutton said. “In a perfect world, I would’ve done them in a studio.” 

Even though they couldn’t release them in completion, the band still finds ways to appreciate the songs, such as playing them on their “Bambi” tour. 

Having been on writing, recording and touring for about four to five years, the band is preparing to embark on their final leg of the Bambi tour late in the fall before taking a break. 

“The energy will be a bit different since this will be our last tour for a while,” Luppen said. “But it will be a casual and fun energy. I want it to be a celebration of everything our fans have been through and everything we’ve done.” 

Luppen added that he gains a lot of inspiration from seeing live music. After seeing Tame Impala and Idles recently, he said he felt very inspired to play live music and bring a carefree attitude to his own shows. 

Sutton finds inspiration in the social relationships he’s been able to create with the bands he’s toured with.

When they toured with the L.A. based band Sure Sure, he said their creative and collaboration inclined music, and self recording really intrigued the members in Hippo Campus. 

“We fell in love with that and they were an inspiration to us,” Sutton said. “We always talk about going back to L.A., hanging out with them and recording music.” 

While they’re inspired by the people they’ve seen live and have built relationships with, they hope they can do the same for others. 

Sutton said they encourage anyone who wants to play music to do so. 

“Just keep playing your instrument,” Sutton said. “If you really love music and you love your instrument, just keep doing that.” 

Luppen and Sutton’s biggest piece of advice for aspiring artists is to keep writing songs.

“Do it alone, do it with friends, do it as much as possible because the more songs you write, the better they’re going to get,” Sutton said.

He wants everyone to continue trying and to never give up on their passion.

“We never really wanted to be a famous band,” Sutton said. “We just wanted to play music together. It was a leap of faith but also a reassuring ‘I’m going to love this, so why not do it?’”

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