There’s a singular kind of self-aware charm that surrounds the 5-man indie rock group Hippo Campus. Hailing from St. Paul, Minn., the band didn’t take long to win over the audience at their Friday afternoon set at the Governors Ball music festival. They led with a song with less name recognition than hits like “Buttercup” or “Way it Goes” — “Doubt,” a standout from their newest album “Bambi.” The song was written by lead singer Jake Luppen, whose vocals sounded even more vibrant and meticulous in person. He grabbed the mic and weaved his way around the choppy satire of its opening lines: “Good guy, it’s a toss-up / so sweet, but she’s a little fucked up.” As Luppen launched into the back-and-forth self-deprecation of “Doubt,” he flashed his signature goofy grin. Even on the more earnest choruses, he couldn’t quite wipe the smile off his face.
Hippo Campus wasn’t afraid to show off how much fun they had on stage. They transitioned into “Bambi,” the lead single off their newest album, with was met with screams of recognition and the bathing of the stage in on-brand pink lights. The lyrics seemed to fit Luppen perfectly — self-aware and precise, he leaned in and out of the push-pull notes on the chorus. Eyes trained on the crowd, he danced around the stage as though there was nothing else he would rather be doing.
Closing out “Bambi,” Luppen took his sunglasses off for the first time during the set and warmed up the crowd with a cheerful “Thanks so much for coming!” He seemed entirely comfortable. The band moved through their discography with similar energy, alternating almost evenly between songs off “Bambi” and their older album and EPs. They seemed to enjoy showing one another off, smiling affectionately as they shared the spotlight.
Known for performing instrumental sections in the middle of songs and taking their time, they integrated guitar solos and trumpet riffs into sprawling numbers without losing too much steam. Drummer Whistler Allen was integral to sustaining the crowd’s energy, as was the evident passion each performer doled out evenly to both vocal and instrumental sections.
After warming up the crowd with some of the sugary, warm-tinted indie pop that had first made them famous, the band turned to their more introspective discography. On the aptly-titled “Bubbles,” Luppen flooded the audience with gurgling sound and sang the syncopated hook: “You could call me irregular / I'm a basic fix for a better man / Seasons change I'm a maniac / For a better known with a bitter end.”
Beneath the sunny hooks on many of their songs, a note of profound honesty in the lyrics drove the second half of the set. The band has described their newest album as a conscious move toward greater vulnerability, and said that a shift in their songwriting process was essential to this new direction. Instead of cooking up choruses as a purely collaborative effort, on “Bambi” they decided to write self-contained songs on their own, and then present those songs to the group to allow each song to have a specific voice. That individuality elevated their songwriting in a lot of ways, and somewhat unintentionally also positioned them as an interesting voice in the conversation on male mental health.
“In the past we might have been apprehensive about being super-vulnerable, but now we’re more aware of how important it is to come forward about dealing with depression or anxiety,” Lupen said in an interview with Billboard. “Because if more men are able to do that, they might be less likely to express those feelings as anger or violence.”
Turning a corner, Hippo Campus gave the eager audience a surprise — a performance of an unreleased, currently untitled song supposedly “coming out soon.” Something of a departure from their more signature mellow-electronic sound, it featured a louder, more heavy-hitting bass guitar that was complemented by the stage’s flashing strobe lights. Perhaps this leaning on Hippo Campus’s more rock-heavy influences signals a shift for the band; however, it’s not without their signature, open-book songwriting.
As they neared the end of the set, it was difficult not to feel that there was something genuinely fresh about their shiny, self-aware brand of indie rock. They integrated their experimental instrumentals surprisingly well into the live show and blended an easy charisma with insightful, self-deprecating lyrics. All in all, Hippo Campus’s live show was a delightful take on fun, traditional indie rock ballads — with impressive sonic creativity and lyrical insight.
—Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at email@example.com.