THE HALOCLINE EP
A strange thing happens when freshwater and saltwater rub up against each other. In the ocean, when left undisturbed, the two kinds of water will separate into strata that are all but indiscernible from above or below—and when a deep-sea diver is swimming upwards, thinking they’re just about to come up for air, they’ll actually hit another layer of clearer, fresher water that separates them from the atmosphere. It’s a beguiling effect that scientists call the halocline.
For the band Hippo Campus, the idea of the halocline has taken on a profound meaning. Having just graduated high school in 2013, the four members of the band teeter in that precarious place between being a kid and being a fully independent adult; though they have been kicking their legs as hard as they can to rise above murky waters of adolescent angst, a whole new echelon of complications lingers just overhead.
The quartet have grasped “the halocline” like a mantra, using it as their handle on social media and as an inspiration for their lyrics. “It’s the illusion of growing up,” says Hippo Campus’s guitarist and co-lyricist, Nathan Stocker. “Like, you don’t ever, really. It’s just all these things that happen that sort of signify adulthood, suddenly.” And with that idea in mind, they’ve figured out how to perfectly capture that mixture of longing, aimlessness, and eternal hope that consumes all young people transitioning from adolescence to adulthood on their debut EP, Bashful Creatures, and its follow-up South.
“We really liked high school,” bassist Zach Sutton notes, laughing. As their backstory unravels, it’s easy to understand why: The four young men in Hippo Campus first met while attending the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, a rigorous charter school in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota that prepares music students for the fast track to college conservatories and it quickly positioned music at the very center of their young lives.
“Music is such a vague thing. It’s very subjective, it’s very sentimental, it’s very abstract,” Nathan muses. “So a lot of people probably don’t have any sort of training to actually talk about it, you know. And so going to a conservatory, we were able to develop our tongue, I guess, so we could communicate more easily. Not necessarily when we jam, because that’s all feeling. But when we’re trying to decipher what it all means, that’s where the language can come in handy. It’s a pretty mutual understanding.” Nathan, Zach, and drummer Whistler Allen all participated in the school’s jazz program, while Hippo Campus’s lead singer, Jake Luppen, studied classical music and developed his voice by singing opera.
“Studying classical music allows you to adjust your voice to get multiple tones, similar to a guitar or any other physical instrument. It's like another way of singing.” Jake notes. Anyone who has heard Luppen sing knows exactly what he’s talking about: he approaches melodies in swooping lines, making octave jumps and sudden high notes look effortless. The playful elasticity of his voice is at the very center of Hippo Campus’s bright, optimistic, and emotionally resonant sound, and his melodies play a starring role.
In addition to their prescient lyrics and buoyant melodies, Hippo Campus have quickly earned a reputation for their rock-solid live shows and the impressive way they can build toward enormous crests before breaking apart into glistening four-part harmonies. Even in the Twin Cities, where the band quickly trampolined from playing all-ages shows to sharing stages with the town’s largest acts on the city’s biggest stages, it’s not uncommon to overhear the exasperated question, “Who are these guys and where did they come from??”
In the course of just over a year, Hippo Campus have skyrocketed. In the Twin Cities, they became darlings of their local radio station, 89.3 The Current, playing the station’s 10th anniversary bash at First Avenue in January. The first time they toured outside of Minnesota at SXSW, they created such a buzz that they wrapped up their week playing “Suicide Saturday” for none other than Conan O’Brien on his show CONAN. And this summer, they’ll continue a tireless touring schedule opening for big-name acts like Walk the Moon, Real Estate and My Morning Jacket and playing in front of tens of thousands of music fans at Lollapalooza.
The band is still in the midst of a transition period, but now they’re not only figuring out how to make the brave leap into adulthood—they’re dangling between being hometown heroes and becoming breakout stars. As they literally grow up in front of their audiences’ eyes, Bashful Creatures and South are the sound of the four young men from Hippo Campus finally coming up for air.
“There were a lot of questions when we were writing Bashful Creatures,” says Jake. “I think we were asking a lot of questions through the songs, and just with ourselves in general. Is this what we’re doing? Zach and I were in college, figuring a lot of stuff out. It was just a very formative time, and a lot of those songs represent those growing pains. There are a lot of themes in there with brotherhood—that was a big part of us banding together and writing this music, to kind of push through this really crazy, formative time in our lives to just be like, This is what we want to do.”