As he explained the pros and cons of attending a performing arts high school, Hippo Campus guitarist Nathan Stocker’s train of thought was derailed by an all-too-familiar tune that came over the restaurant speakers: Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk.”
“Hey, that sounds like ‘Little Grace,’ ” bassist Zach Sutton coyly interjected, naming Hippo Campus’ own radio hit to address the elephant in the room at the Bad Waitress cafe.
An overabundance of Vampire Weekend comparisons is about the only bad thing that has happened to Hippo Campus since June, when Sutton — the quartet’s youngest member at 18 — graduated from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts a year behind the other three.
The positives since then have included: write-ups by NME and Interview magazines; a second-place showing in City Pages’ Picked to Click poll; a best-new-music pick on Spotify; steady airplay on 89.3 the Current; a management deal with the team behind Trampled by Turtles, Low and Lizzo, plus a string of steadily exciting gigs, mostly at all-ages events.
At the Vita.mn August Music & Movies series in the Lake Harriet Bandshell, young fans swarmed the stage and demanded an encore. At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Third Thursday party in September, the quiet museum courtyard came alive with teens dancing between the sculptures.
That’s a lot of attention for a quartet that’s just getting around to hosting a release party for its debut — a six-song EP titled “Bashful Creatures” that’s the most perfect, ceaselessly blissful, no-filler local album of the year. Saturday’s show at 7th Street Entry with “secret openers” sold out weeks ago.
“We’ve been kind of careful not to rush things, and I think that’s paid off so far,” said singer/guitarist Jake Luppen, a cheerily affable, lanky, pink-cheeked ex-Mormon who looks like he stepped out of an Archie comic.
Named after a storage compartment in the brain — “I thought it would help people remember our band better,” Luppen deadpanned — Hippo Campus actually had a full-length album ready for release this summer. The band was unhappy with the results and decided to shelve the record, though, save for the sunny, swirly version of “Little Grace” heard on the Current and now on the new EP.
After pretty well tightening down its live show to perfection over the summer, the band headed to the famed Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minn., to record the EP in a quick two-day session in September with Low frontman Alan Sparhawk as producer. “Alan talked about just letting the songs exist how we play them live,” Luppen recounted.
“We did it really fast, and it worked,” said Sutton, who laughed about Sparhawk already being gone when the band woke up in the studio’s bedrooms on the third morning — “like a superhero who just swooshed in to help us and then vanished.”
“Bashful Creatures” similarly whirs by in a high-energy blur, from the jittery opening track about a girl with different colored eyes, “Sophie So,” to the closing title track about self-centered kids. “It’s sort of about our generation,” Luppen confirmed.
Luppen’s sunny demeanor and high, wailing voice is part of what earns Hippo Campus the Vampire Weekend comparisons. Even more discernibly similar are the clean, needling, melodic, Afropoppy guitar parts. The members credited the latter quality to their music-ed classes.
“I think that sound comes from practicing pentatonic scales a lot,” said Luppen, who said he had never listened to Afropop before it came up in write-ups. “But I do now, and like it a lot.”
Stocker added, “We just like that clean guitar sound, and we play off the melodies a lot. It’s not really anything too complex or thought-about.”
Two of the three Woodbury natives in the band — only drummer Whistler Allen hails from the western ’burbs — Luppen and Sutton played almost the exact opposite style of guitar work in their early-teens cover band, Blatant Youth. They specialized in 1980s and 1990s hard-rock covers and actually earned a surprising number of gigs in suburban bars such as Pickle Park and Neisens. (Go ahead and look them up on YouTube; a “Sweet Child of Mine” clip from the 2010 State Fair is my favorite.)
“You haven’t lived until you’ve had a drunk guy scream ‘Play some Primus!’ in your face,” Luppen joked of those years, which were pretty serious in shaping Hippo Campus.
“We’ve only been playing as Hippo Campus since last summer , but we all came into it with a pretty wide range of experience for guys our age,” said Stocker, who also played in the more HC-like band Northern with Allen. One of the best things about going to an arts high school, he said, “was just getting to play music with each other almost every day, in addition to learning all the more technical stuff about music.”
Mostly still living at home with their parents, the band members will spend a lot more time with each other soon enough. Luppen and Sutton will put their University of Minnesota classwork on hold after this semester, and the group will hit the road. It has already picked up tour dates early next year with a midsize indie-rock band to be named later.
But first things first: “We need to find a really cool van,” Sutton reported, “preferably something with a fridge.”