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In the years between 2018's BAMBI and LP3, Minneapolis' Hippo Campus -- made up of vocalist/guitarists Jake Luppen and Nathan Stocker, drummer Whistler Allen, bassist Zach Sutton, and trumpeter DeCarlo Jackson -- has grown up and into itself. Although the five-piece has been friends since middle school and put out a number of studio releases since its inception, it's the new record, LP3, that's the most honest portrait of who Hippo Campus is.
It's also a study in the nuances of growing up -- coming to terms with mortality, the confusing journey of sexuality, bottoming out, seeing decisions from the night before in the harsh morning light; finding your identity as a person and as an artist -- how that can be a collision of elation and shame, painful and joyful all at once.
LP3 marks a sort of ego death -- and ultimately feeling okay with that. So much of LP3 was written in the chasm between grappling with the value of your own art and the larger, chaotic context of the world. It traverses the end of relationships, of careers, and the chance of meeting yourself as a brand new person. If you take the signifier of "musician" away, what does it mean? And how do you expand your identity outside of work? Here, it's something the band works through. And, in the end, it happens with the same ride-or-die crew at your back to hold you down -- or up -- the entire time.
Over the last few years, the Hippo universe has expanded outward. Luppen and Stocker both put out solo records as Lupin and Brotherkenzie respectively, and the two also teamed up with Caleb Hinz to put out the debut Baby Boys record while DeCarlo Jackson founded, and collaborated with multiple bands around the Twin Cities, including DNM, Arlo, and FPA. Navigating solo projects and new dynamics and the spotlight alone is humbling, bringing up new insecurities and defense mechanisms. It was challenging in its own way to branch outside of Hippo -- and it made the eventual return to the project feel like coming home.
"With LP3, Hippo felt like a very safe space to express those things because you have your best friends around you, rallying behind you," Luppen says. "And each person could chime in with their own experience. I felt like it was a very safe space to be earnest."
Here, Hippo Campus killed what they knew and started again. Death, in all its metaphorical and lyrical forms, looms across the record. Album opener "2 Young to Die" sets this up most explicitly, the push-and-pull of simultaneously weighing mortality and invincibility, of youth, of wanting to kill parts of yourself and be born anew; "Bang Bang," a fan favorite from the live set, explores the death knell of a long-time, fizzled-out long-distance relationship, while "Blew Its" captures the same chaotic burst of energy in Maggie Nelson's prose-poem book; and "Semi-Pro," a pop gem, explicitly charts the death of a career, the meaningless of fame, how dreams change.
What Hippo Campus wanted with LP3 was something all five of them could agree on, the way they'd made music in the early days of the band. As their profile grew, they found themselves compromising on their visions, thinking about how fans would interact with their music, and plagued by an unsustainable industry ecosystem. Now, they just wanted unity.
Luppen explains: "Songwriting-wise, we wanted to place a priority on more personal lyrics and more self-referential storytelling as opposed to larger concepts like we did on Landmark and Bambi. In that way it's similar to what we did on the [Bad Dream Baby] EP, but in a more earnest way. The priority was on finding the feeling that we had in the early days -- when we were really happy making music, you know."
"There's so much insinecre bullshit in this climate that's making everything more and more confusing," Stocker adds. "So being able to distill something down to what it really means in a way that's really accessible and honest and earnest was definitely, definitely the goal."
They also give enormous credit to producer Caleb Hinz (Baby Boys, Samia, Miloe) for his hand in shaping the album. A rising St. Paul producer and another friend since high school, Hinz is a relatively new name in the studio, but someone who ultimately had the biggest influence. He put long hours into the record, and left his fingerprints all over its production -- the distorted drums on "2 Young to Die," the drumkit on "Boys" crafted on a literal trash kit of garbage cans, pots, and pans, or "Listerine," where Allen was playing inside of a makeshift blanket fort. Aside from his experimentation and long hours spent tinkering with the sounds, he also served as a rallying call for the band, pulling them back on track, an encouraging and confident force who helped shepherd the band into the best version of itself.
Luppen also explains it was the first time Hippo Campus, as a concept, got to be "dead." There was an open timeline, no tour lined up, no necessity to lean into the grid -- just breathing room, and the experience of their last five years as a band naturally exposing itself. The five-piece wrote somewhere in the ballpark of 35 songs for the record, the most they'd written for an album since their debut, Landmark. They joke that it was a return to form in "quantity over quality" -- but in a way, it's true. They had the time to simply write, to expel a sonic catharsis, and then use their honed, incisive editing tools to put the best ten songs on the record. "It's finally the album that we always admired from other artists," Stocker says. "It's just airtight."
LP3 is, then, their strongest and most complete work yet -- a freshly-inked portrait excavating young adulthood and identity and, more importantly, how that personal identity fits into a larger camaraderie. It looks at how growing up can just feel like something that's always moving past you when you're trying to grab a hold of it; it's a push-and-pull of letting go or holding tighter -- and figuring out what matters the most. Through cinematic, sonic clarity, LP3 is a sweeping account of courage and tenacity; tender-hearted stumbling that leads you on the right path after all.
Since breaking out in 2018, CHAI have been associated with explosive joy. At their live shows, the Japanese four-piece of identical twins MANA (lead vocals and keys) and KANA (guitar), drummer YUNA, and bassist-lyricist YUUKI have become known for buoyant displays of eclectic and clever songwriting, impressive musicianship, matching outfits, delightful choreography, and sheer relief. At the core of their music, CHAI have upheld a stated mission to deconstruct the standards of beauty and cuteness that can be so oppressive in Japan. Following the release of 2019's second album PUNK, CHAI's adventures took them around the world, to music festivals like Primavera Sound and Pitchfork Music Festival, and touring with indie-rock mainstays like Whitney and Mac DeMarco.
Like all musicians, CHAI spent 2020 forced to rethink the fabric of their work and lives. But CHAI took this as an opportunity to shake up their process and bring their music somewhere thrillingly new. Having previously used their maximalist recordings to capture the exuberance of their live shows, with the audiences' reactions in mind, CHAI instead focused on crafting the slightly-subtler and more introspective kinds of songs they enjoy listening to at home -- where, for the first time, they recorded all of the music. Amidst the global shutdown, CHAI worked on Garageband and traded their song ideas -- which they had more time than ever to consider -- over Zoom and phone calls, turning their limitations into a strength.
Their third full-length and first for Sub Pop, WINK contains CHAI's mellowest and most minimal music, and also their most affecting and exciting songwriting by far. While the band leaned into a more personal sound, WINK is also the first CHAI album to feature contributions from outside producers (Mndsgn, YMCK) as well as a feature from the Chicago rapper-singer Ric Wilson. CHAI draw R&B and hip-hop into their mix (Mac Miller, the Internet, and Brockhampton were on their minds) of dance-punk and pop-rock, all while remaining undeniably CHAI. Whether in relation to this newfound sense of openness or their at-home ways of composing, the theme of WINK is to challenge yourself.
WINK is a fitting title then: a subtle but bold gesture. A wink is an unselfconscious act of conviction, or as CHAI puts it: "A person who winks is a person with a pure heart, who lives with flexibility, who does what they want. A person who winks is a person who is free." YUUKI noted that "With this album, we're winking at you. We're living freely and we hope that when you listen, you can wink and live freely, too."
The lead single "ACTION" was a response to watching the Black Lives Matter protests unfold across America and the world in June of 2020 while the band was in Japan. "Seeing how the world came together during the protests really moved me," said YUUKI. "I wanted to dedicate that song to the year of action." In a sense, the flipside is "PING PONG!": a laserbeam ode to a social activity that CHAI love but cannot currently partake in. In Japan, CHAI would often play ping pong after visits to the public hot springs, called onsen. "PING PONG!" also features YMCK, who brought a gaming feel to the production, which CHAI wanted to match.
"Nobody Knows We Are Fun," meanwhile, was inspired by an at-home activity: YUUKI was watching 2019's Booksmart when she had the idea for the song. (The movie's whip smart protagonists decide to attend a party before high school graduation after realizing, "Nobody knows we're fun!") "I thought, 'We, CHAI, can really relate to that scene," YUUKI said of the song, which the band describe as "a mix of screaming our annoyances -- why don't you guys notice us! -- while trying to be cute and sexy."
CHAI's past albums have been filled with playful references, in the lyrics, to food, and WINK's intimate single "Maybe Chocolate Chips" offers an evolution of this motif. YUUKI wanted to write a self-love song about her moles: "Maybe if people would look at their moles as chocolate chips they would see them positively," she says. "Maybe Chocolate Chips" features the Chicago rapper Ric Wilson, who they initially connected with at the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival, and who brought additional layers of depth. CHAI's adventures on tour -- and love of food -- also seeped into the single "Donuts Mind if I Do," inspired by a bit of serendipity in a hotel lobby where free donuts were on offer with the sign "Donuts Mind If I Do." "Free donuts, how cute. You never see this in Japan," YUUKI thought, looking at the sign. "But what does it mean?" CHAI's tour manager explained that it was a play on "don't mind if I do," which only stoked YUUKI's curiosity further: What does that mean? "I looked it up and realize, you really don't hold yourself back with 'don't mind if I do,'" YUUKI said. "CHAI has always been about living freely and doing as you please," and that spirit of abundance informed this sticky-sweet song.
Towards the end of WINK, CHAI's move towards mellowness shines with two of the sparest and most stunning songs the band has ever recorded. YUUKI wrote the penultimate "Wish Upon a Star" as a lullaby of sorts: What kind of song would I want to listen to before I go to sleep at night? she wondered. (KANA had been experiencing sleep difficulties at the time.) She set out to craft a bedtime ballad that promotes comfort, warmth, and relaxation. Meanwhile, the glowing closer, "Salty," penned by MANA, is a beautiful exploration of nostalgia and memory: a song about "holding onto a memory and putting it into taste" and what taste can do psychologically. "You bite into a rice ball and you taste the salt and immediately you think of that memory," MANA says, noting that she was inspired by her kitchen, where she wrote and recorded it.
With these two songs especially, and WINK as a whole, CHAI came to see the album -- with its home-y feel -- as a collection where each song is like a new friend, something comforting to rely on and reach out to, as the album was for them throughout 2020. "When you can't sleep at night, you can go to 'Wish Upon a Star,'" the band says. "When you need to go down memory lane, you can go to 'Salty.'"
This impulse towards connection is in WINK's title, too. After the "i" of PINK and the "u" of PUNK -- which represented the band's act of introducing themselves, and then of centering their audiences -- they have come full circle with the "we" of WINK. It signals CHAI's relationship with the outside world, an embrace of profound togetherness. Through music, as CHAI said, "we are all coming together." In that act of opening themselves up, CHAI grew into their best work: "This album showed us, we're ready to do more."