The St. Paul-based indie-rock band Hippo Campus's 2018 sophomore album, Bambi, is easy on the ears with its slickly produced vocal hooks and jangly guitars. But frontman Jake Luppen touches on the heavy subjects of mental health, suicide, vulnerability, toxic masculinity and the #MeToo movement.
This results in a "Pumped Up Kicks" type of effect, where happy-sounding music is paired with incongruously gruesome lyrics. On bouncy summertime jam "Suicide Saturday," for example, Luppen sings: "Cocked her father's gun, like the oldest son / She could try, she could try it / Blessed by the bed where she laid her head and calmed to a dull roar."
"Suicide Saturday" also features one of Hippo Campus' signature instrumental traits: Guitars and vocals repeating the same phrase back and forth, or playing it simultaneously. It's a trick employed on many of the band's most popular songs, including "Buttercup" and "Way It Goes."
Guitarist Nathan Stocker says he's been consistently drawn to that songwriting mechanism since Hippo Campus' 2017 debut album, Landmark.
"Some of my favorite vocal melodies are ones that are doubled by guitar," he says. "I never think of myself as a lead guitarist. Everything exists on this one plane."
Hippo Campus is on the road through the end of the year and stopping at Knitting Factory on Saturday. Speaking from Lawrence, Kansas, Stocker explains that his simple-yet-melodic guitar style is due partially to watching YouTube videos of acoustic fingerstyle guitar players like Andy McKee and imitating the parts he liked.
"That kind of shit blew my mind," he says. "I think Guitar Hero also deserves credit, as well. Even beyond guitar players, but for our generation, that exposed everybody to different ideas about the music industry and what it's like to dream about being a rock star. It had such a wide array of songs that kids otherwise wouldn't have known about unless they went to the School of Rock or their parents listened to it."
In addition to such screen-based influences, Stocker has a background as a piano player. As a result, he thinks of the guitar as having "two voices," or rhythm and lead parts occurring simultaneously.
"I pictured the guitar neck as a piano, pertaining to intervals and stuff like that," he says.
The Dodos, an indie-rock band out of San Francisco, have also had a big impact on Stocker's guitar playing, both in terms of the tones and level of intricacy he adopts. He's somewhat of a minimalist who preaches the importance of leaving blank space in songs and "not hiding behind a mask of reverb and tremolo."
"A lot of my playing is just chilling in my room," he says. "Developing my own voice has always been more important than playing fast or being super precise. A lot of that comes from looping and playing with myself. Not in that way, but, you know, yeah — guitar masturbation, in a certain way, has helped me out a lot."
Moving forward, however, Stocker and his bandmates aren't interested in a solitary creative process. Hippo Campus is due to take an extended break early next year, but Stocker expects the band to steer toward broader horizons once they're back together.
"We're going to spend some time re-evaluating our goals within the songwriting process," he says. "In terms of sonics, we're all interested in more experimental stuff. In terms of songwriting, we want it to be less isolated, not just these two people writing together."
The "experimental stuff" will probably involve a more thorough exploration of the electronic, math- and post-rock elements that color Hippo Campus' pop songs.
"It's weird, trying to balance what a song needs with what you want for the song," Stocker says. "I think the need to experiment has always been there, so now we're going to lean into our want to experiment. So, that's kind of exciting." ♦
Hippo Campus with the Greeting Committee • Sat, Nov. 16 at 8 pm • $25 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 244-3279