A Conversation with Nathan Stocker of St. Paul-Based Band Hippo Campus
“You’ve got tact and I’ve got bravado
I’m a ghost and you are a shadow … ”
So ends the dreamy, ethereal lyrics of St. Paul-based Hippo Campus’ song, “Epitaph,” about a woman named Mary. There’s very little we know about her—but the pensive, curated pieces of her that the lyricists expose seem to show more about them than her.
Having just played Chicago’s Lollapalooza—with thousands of fans screaming their names and tender song lyrics—much has changed for Hippo Campus in the years since high school back in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they all met. They’ve signed with Grand Jury Music out of New York City; released a brand-new full-length album, “Landmark”; and are gearing up for an international tour that will carry them through the fall—but not before the band plays LouFest first, September 9 and 10 in St. Louis’ abundant Forest Park, alongside Snoop Dogg, Cage The Elephant, Weezer and more.
The four members of Hippo Campus—Jake Luppen (guitar/vocals), Nathan Stocker (guitar/vocals), Zach Sutton (bass) and Whistler Allen (drums/vocals)—met at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. “Actually, we were all on Match.com—no, I’m kidding, I’m sorry,” says Nathan Stocker over the phone, about 30 seconds in. “We were seniors and had been in different bands up to that point. We had been writing music for a little bit together, sketching ideas.”
Stocker toured a few local colleges after high school, ultimately deciding to pursue songwriting instead. At age 23, tattooed and contemplative, Stocker’s sharp awareness stretches across the external and internal, and not without humor. Fans have picked up on it, too. In the pastel-hued music video for the song “Violet” on YouTube, in which each band member is assigned a different color, one comment reads: “This video makes me wanna shop at a whole foods market, read poems from the book “milk and honey” and put white Christmas lights around my room for decoration lol anybody wanna go to the thrift store with me and listen to the smiths on the way?” Another quips, “ok but that green guy be cute.”
Some take a more reflective tone. “I thought the name Hippo Campus was just some hipster nonsense but in psych class today I learned there’s a section of the brain called the Hippocampus and it deals with memory and emotion and I think that’s fucking awesome.”
Keep reading for our full interview with Stocker.
What is it like to perform live in front of thousands of people? Do you get nervous?
It’s a free fall. It’s like skydiving, sort of. It can go really well, or really terribly. The more and more you do it, the more the effect wears off. No matter how high you jump, you’re going to have to hit the ground alive or dead, at some point. Yeah, I absolutely get nervous. I’d be worried if I wasn’t, honestly. If I’m not nervous I have no adrenaline, and if I have no adrenaline I’m not worth anything.
What is touring like?
It depends on the tour. This summer has been really erratic. We’ll be out for two weeks, then home for two weeks. Then we’ll play two shows—for the summer months. That’s our experience. Touring-wise, at the beginning of the year we released the record, then we were on the road for two months straight, hitting the entire U.S. I miss that a lot—I love doing that. So we’ll do that, then come home. We miss the road when we’re home, and when we’re on the road we miss home. It’s never complete satisfaction.
Where do you find inspirations for songwriting? What are the songs about?
They’re really direct interpretations of the environment we’ve been in, on and off the road. Personally, the way I’ve been doing it is that they’re all kind of taken from poems. A lot of it is direct stimuli, and trying to rework things in my head. Most of the content is not as conscious as some consumers would expect it, or want it, to be. Nine times out of ten when I’m writing something, I’m not really trying to procure a vision that I have in my head. It’s more letting everything around me speak for itself, and letting people know the way I look at it. I think Jake would say the same thing.
Your songs almost have a Walt Whitman-esque quality to them, with lines like “Just two days after the first of June/ A pine with arms brushing off the dew/ Unlike a sky copious with death/ Precipitation of heart and head,” in the song “Monsoon” off of your latest record, “Landmark.” It’s beautiful.
That’s high praise, thank you. “Monsoon” I wrote one day when we were in the studio, and it wasn’t until later that night when I realized it was about my sister’s death. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’ It was a really emotional process—sometimes they come from anywhere and everywhere: learning how to be an adult, growing up, figuring out what I find value in and feeling the pressure of all the noise that’s going on, good and bad in this world, on social media and the news. It’s hard to get away from.
In our case, it’s kind of difficult because we’ve already distanced ourselves from what we know, because we’ve been everywhere. We’re just figuring it out like anybody else.
How did you process such a trying loss?
There comes a point where you have to choose how you’re going to live. For me, choosing to accept that death is a part of life became a new normal for me. It became a part of every day. It didn’t really weigh me down as much as some people might expect. My family as well, we all chose to celebrate the life that my sister had, instead of wallowing in what she could have been.
She was killed in a car accident at 18. She was so young. But she also lived well. She didn’t waste the time that she had.
There are a lot of complexities, because we’re all different and we all process things differently. To have a reason to do what I do—I think she’s constantly a part of that. There’s also the whole conversation about death being a part of life, or if you’re really dark, life being a part of death. They might go hand in hand.
What does living well mean to you? How did your sister embody that?
Part of that is you have to convince yourself that it’s true. Everybody has their flaws. We’re all human. Nobody lives perfectly. But I think one of the more direct signals that somebody lives well is that they were remembered—the legacy aspect of it all. But besides that, she was my sister. So even if nobody knew who she was—I interacted with her on a daily basis. For her, living well is the fact that I’m still talking about her right now.
We grew up in a musical family, and I started playing drums around that time. It pushed me to keep doing that. It was a sort of refuge, I think.
What is it like to be living your dream as a full-time musician?
I think starting out, I glorified and idolized all these bands. With YouTube becoming a thing in 2006, I was able to utilize the internet in a way that may have tailored my perception in a light that isn’t completely true. I’ve just been rolling with that ever since. I love music and I love playing, but it’s less about doing what I love and more [about] basing it off of instinct. It’s a gut feeling of, “I need to be doing this.” That way I can separate them. Five years from now, if I’m still doing this and operating under the assumption that I love doing it, then my happiness is on a slippery slope. It could all fall apart. I don’t want to pair my happiness with that.
So many artists tread this path and deal with the many well-known pitfalls of life as a musician. How do you avoid those?
Being in the limelight at any degree and at any level can get really tricky, really quickly. None of us are public figures, and we shouldn’t be. I can barely make breakfast for myself in the morning. Really staying true to who we are as human beings, and our social duties. Part of it is being true to us and how we’re running this band, and our business—because it is a business. And being open to change is also important.
Do you think social media is a help or hindrance?
Social media is a great marketing tool. It’s really good for getting your shit out there. But at a certain point, it’s noise. When it starts taking over for you, that’s when it can be destructive. And it gets in the way of more tangible interactions you could have outside of your phone screen. It’s also bad for your eyes. I like my eyesight. I like being able to look at things.
You’ve mentioned your predilection for “babes.” Can you elaborate?
I’ve never meant any disrespect. At the beginning, that was a very hormonal thing we were going through. From my perspective, I don’t like makeup. It’s synthetic. And I’m not trying to be like that guy that’s already gotten past commercial stuff, because I’ll still see an attractive woman on Instagram or something, and I’m attracted to her because she’s posing really hard, and [whether] if it’s fake or not, I’m still attracted to that image. But real life? Having interactions with people, I see the value in embracing the way that you are without those things.
I think that the tides are changing. Hopefully. It could just be the filter of Instagram and Twitter. It’s been like this for a long time. I don’t know if it’ll ever be this way or that way in terms of our society changing. There’s beauty in that, but also we can always strive to be better. Trying not to feel pressured is easier said than done. I also see these dudes on Instagram and I’m like, “Dang, they’re so ripped. I should try to do that.” I can’t do that. I play too many video games.
How do you balance the dichotomy between the kind of sensitivity that is required to write music that means something and traditional cultural expectations of masculinity?
I thought the process of becoming a man would be much more stressful. But I’m more stressed about pressures put on women, and what it’s like trying to live as a woman in this society. I have nobody in my life who’s, like, imposing typical early 20’s guy tropes on me. I don’t know. I’m not really stressing about that. At least for us—maybe we’ve proven something where it’s like, “They must be doing it right,” however true or untrue that is. I have other things to worry about. Like, where am I going to live in the next six months? Or hanging out with friends and understanding that family is really important. Maybe that’s what it’s about—that manhood is realizing those things. Putting those pressures and feelings into songs—that’s my job. My job isn’t to worry.
All images courtesy of Hippo Campus.