In an industry where artists are usually discovered on a streaming platform rather than onstage, building a live show or even having stage presence seems no longer necessary to “make it.” But for this series showcasing artists with upcoming concerts in the Portland area, we are lucky to have Hippo Campus, a Minnesota indie band that rose to fame mainly due to a knack for electrifying live performances.
Although the band owes more than a little success to Bandcamp.com, where its first few EPs were released, Hippo Campus gained most of its fame through local shows, radio stations and college gigs in their native Minneapolis. Its rise through the college circuit isn’t surprising, as the band’s sound contains both the exuberance and the nerdiness of a college (wait for it) campus. The name “Hippo Campus” not only brings the location of college to mind, but it’s also a part of the brain that only a few STEM kids, bio majors or people who Googled the name would know about. Founding members Jake Luppen and Nathan Stocker dropped out of the University of Minnesota to tour full time, but the bright sound and endearingly smart lyrics of Hippo Campus make it one of many bands helping to redefine the term “college rock” in the 21st century.
The band’s early EPs “Bashful Creatures” and “South” capitalized on high-energy guitar riffing and explosive hooks, a fitting sound for a band that rose to fame through live performance. Its indie-punk vibe would make crowd favorites like “Violet” and “Suicide Saturday” sound generic if they weren’t executed so tastefully (think if All-American Rejects were English majors). It’s their shout-worthiness that makes them infectious, but the band’s aptitude for lyricism, ambience and warm guitar harmonies turns a catchy hook into a song actually worth memorizing. While Luppen’s voice boils over on several tracks, his ardor feels decisive on the coming of age soundtrack, “South,” where he rasps, “I walk the same way my father told me / Back straight and chest out just like a soldier.” Where Hippo Campus’ early work sees the band struggling between anthemicism and detail, “South” is a gem that beautifully splits the difference.
It finds more of that balance on “Landmark,” the band’s debut album released last February. Despite the LP’s winter release, “Landmark” emits an aura of summer, as the band expands on the hazy warmth of its early work and sheds some of its punkier tendencies. The fifth track “Simple Season” needn’t talk about about backyards and daffodils for us to know which season it’s talking about. It’s the twinkling guitar/whistle combo and the poppy bounce of a drum set that make the track an especially summery highlight.
The carefree confidence of “Simple Season,” “Way it Goes” and “Tuesday” are the band’s bread and butter, but that attitude would be exhausting if not for “Landmark’s” more reserved tracks. “Epitaph” sees the band exploring new terrain, drawing influence from electropop outfits like The 1975 and Francis and the Lights for a buoyant, rippling synth ballad. A song about songwriting, “Epitaph” satirizes pretentious language while reveling in it; just after Luppen flaunts the couplet, “The river is an organ and the meadow is a curse / for a strange inclination that fortune is a curse,” he calls himself “a poor excuse for poetry trying to play it cool.”
Despite his self-criticism, the frontman’s poeticism and leaping vocals help turn Hippo Campus’ records into infectious live performances. They also helped the band gain comparisons to another group of college dropouts, Vampire Weekend. But while Ezra Koenig’s Ivy League literacy embraces its own pretentiousness, Luppen only nudges against his, which works in favor of Hippo Campus. If the promising young band has a singular essence this early in its career, it rests in the poignance that can be found in admitting (and celebrating) one’s normalcy. One of the most profound lines of “Epitaph” is one of its least pretentious: “I’ve got nothing more than my problems, just let me know when you’ve found them.”
When the band pairs that self-awareness with the crowd-rocking sound of its early EPs, Hippo Campus is at its best, both on record and in concert. On the final track of “Landmark,” “Buttercup,” Luppen’s melodies are no less catchy than its early tracks, and the rebellious ode to independence explodes into a shout-along chorus to finish off the album. Or, as bassist Zach Sutton put it in an interview with online music publication Highlark, “it goes frickin’ HAM at the end.” Moments like these are a given for its genre, but the band’s seasoned brand of live-oriented production sets Hippo Campus apart from other young indie rockers; all that energy translates into actual charisma. It’s best not just heard, but seen and felt.
Hippo Campus will be performing at Port City Music Hall in Portland this Sunday, February 11.