“There’s a moment in growing up when it becomes clear that the road you walk is your own to cultivate.”
A surprisingly profound sentiment for a band of 21-year olds. Nevertheless, it’s a sentiment that animates much of landmark, the debut album from Minneapolis’ Hippo Campus.
From the resplendent “Way It Goes,” a guitar led gallop about the Instagram-filtered church of cool, to the propulsive “Boyish,” a horn-kissed rumination on children of divorce, landmark is shot through with a woozy dissonance between precocious wisdom and old-as-time coming of age stories. The result is a messy, brave, and earnest whole — not to mention, a tectonic shift forward for a young band still discovering itself.
Of course, that should come as no surprise. Hippo Campus — comprised of vocalist/guitarist Jake Luppen, guitarist/vocalist Nathan Stocker, bassist Zach Sutton, and drummer Whistler Allen — have done their fair share of growing up since forming in late 2013. Their pair of 2015 EPs, Bashful Creatures and South, catapulted a freshly-formed band onto sold out tours, radio airwaves, late night TV stages, timelines, feeds, and glowing screens the world over. After a 10-month stretch of work informed by their surprising ascent, Hippo Campus’ first full-length showcases not only their trademark ear for ringing melodies and impeccably constructed pop frameworks, but a desire to dig deeper — both into their talent and in their selves — for inspiration.
landmark’s recording, helmed by BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, etc.), primarily took place at Sonic Ranch, with finishing touches applied at Pachyderm Studios in the band’s native Minnesota. The ranch, a residential studio located on a 2300-acre pecan farm near the border between Texas and Mexico, represented a big shift for four young men from the northern Midwest’s cooler climes. “You’re just in the middle of the desert, and there are these pecan trees for as far as you can see,” says Stocker. “It’s pretty surreal — kind of like a dream.”
Dreams are where the mind’s deepest desires manifest, so it’s fitting landmark is rife with up-close lyrics that reflect the struggles of crash-landing into an always-on world. “It’s our most honest release yet, but it didn’t start that way at all,” says Luppen. “There are two halves to the record — the first half represents our first stage of writing, where we’re showing off our ironic side and criticizing the culture of social media, and the youth culture that we’re a huge part of now. It’s a world we’ve been forced to plug into, whether we want to or not, and we talk about our qualms with that world.”
Perhaps nowhere on the album are those qualms more evident than on “Western Kids,” one of landmark’s most upbeat numbers, but also one of its most contemptuous: “I just love this, I swear I’ll go viral, from the burbs to the streets now it’s a revival,” sings Luppen, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “The spirit is found in the idealistically idle, the age of excess.”
Meanwhile, “Sun Veins,” the distortion-heavy track that opens the record, is a direct response to the expectations heaped upon the band as they grew: “‘Sun Veins’ represents an intense period in my life when I wanted to burn everything down, and it represents this moment of absolute clarity,” says Luppen. “I’m talking about a person, but at the same time I’m talking about myself and us as a band. Throughout the past year, I thought that I had to be different and that the band had to be different, but it turned out that we had to look more inward and find ourselves again.”
Indeed, landmark invites introspection and close listening — even its most upbeat songs are rich with details, like the whistling break that lands in the middle of the galloping “Simple Season” or the spangles of guitar that slice through the clamor of “Tuesday.” Elsewhere, the second half of landmark is dominated by a somber stretch that includes the lush “Monsoon,” which slowly blooms into a quiet freak-out of reverb and synth, a revelation in the context of the band’s catalog. “It was a breakthrough — we could use the studio and make something transcendent,” says Luppen.
Transcendence doesn’t come easy. It’s usually the payoff to a long journey. And while Hippo Campus’ journey is still being written, with landmark, the band has never seemed more confident in the road they’re walking.