Jake Luppen is the frontman of Hippo Campus and records solo as Lupin.
(Photo Credit: Graham Tolbert)
They emerged from different scenes, but Naeem and Jake Luppen go way back. Both spent time in Minneapolis and share friends there, including producer BJ Burton, who comes up in their conversation. After years as the driving force behind Spank Rock, Naeem recently released a left-turn of a solo album called Startisha. After years fronting the indie-pop band Hippo Campus, Luppen just released a self-titled album under the name Lupin. In stepping away from their other gigs, each gained the freedom to explore their personalities more intimately.
Naeem: Thanks for asking me to do this.
Jake Luppen: Of course, thanks for putting out one of the coolest records of this year.
Naeem: Oh, shit. Thanks. Last time I saw you, we shared a hot tub together.
Jake: I remember asking you about that “Startisha” song. I just never heard anything like it. I was like, “Is that coming on under Spank Rock or what?” And you’re like, “No, I started this new project under my own name.” Did you decide to put it out under your own name before you started the project, or was it after the project was done?
Naeem: It was after the project was done. I was really wrestling for a bit if I was going to use my own name or not. I had been thinking about it for a few years, but I didn’t really want to. And then when it was done, it kind of just became really clear, I guess.
Jake: There are two distinct voices that I hear. I almost hear like that Spank Rock voice, like when you’re rapping, and the Naeem thing when you’re singing. It’s like this crazy dichotomy. Spank Rock still exists within this thing, but… Did you think about that consciously?
Naeem: It’s really good for me to hear that, because I was trying to be the most myself possible, and hearing Spank Rock in there means that that music was really genuine as well. So I’m glad to hear that. With every song I was just trying to write from whatever feelings and whatever my voice was at the time. I don’t have much control of my voice. You’re like a proper singer, you know?
Jake: I’ve definitely gone through phases where I was really into the idea of singing, and taking care of my instrument and practicing a whole lot. And then there’s phases where I’m like, “Oh, that’s so fucking boring.” I really admire how you use it in the most expressive way, especially on this record. Every time you vocalize it, every time you’re singing, there’s so much emotion and expression.
Naeem: I had to rely on emotion because I couldn’t rely on hitting notes. I got to make people want to believe this somehow, you know?
Jake: Was there a point that you started writing more melodically? Like, did you just start rapping more melodically and then that worked into the singing? What’s your relationship with singing?
Naeem: The first song I really sang on was this song I did with Andrew WK. It’s called “Gumball Joe” or something like that. [“Pop a Gumball”—ed.] I was really excited to sing in this really deep, crooner, rock ‘n’ roll voice, this menacing voice. That was the first thing I did. I think every rapper wants to sing. I think rappers only rap because they can’t sing.
Jake: I think singers only sing because they can’t rap! I’d love to be able to do that. But it’s not my thing at all.
Naeem: I’m sure you’ll be rapping in no time, Jake. I can see it coming.
Jake: For the good of the universe, I should stay singing.
Naeem: I think doing that collab, that kind of tipped me into the zone of wanting to write more melodic songs. But that was back in 2009, and I kind of put it away for a bit, and I really wanted to focus on it this time. My poor engineer, he just had to listen to so many unlistenable takes.
Jake: As a producer, I love working with singers who aren’t true singers. You’re searching for something totally different out of a take. You’re not searching for precision or notes. Even with somebody who’s a non-musician, you have to approach in a totally different way. How can we still make it artistic and fresh? You start talking in concepts instead of notes, and it becomes more interesting.
Naeem: I’m finding my voice by not doing the thing I usually do. So many songs are trying to sound like Prince, or James Brown, or David Bowie, and I just miss it every time. That’s what Naeem is right there, the really shitty version of Bowie.
Jake: Bowie probably felt the same way! He’s a great singer, but it’s nuanced in a very particular way.
Naeem: Speaking of nuanced voices, I feel like your voice sounds so much different on your new stuff than on Hippo Campus.
Jake: In Hippo Campus there’s a lot of genre restriction. I have to think about playing live. When we tour, we tour hard, so I have to think about live performance when I’m writing that stuff. Can I sing it night after night and be able to throw down? I want to put on a great show. With this record, I just wanted to push it as far as I could and not even think about live shows. With this project, I’m kind of pushing my voice to the places that would usually make me uncomfortable.
Naeem: Really? Because it’s a pretty clean falsetto. It sounds really great.
Jake: I’ve been smoking cigarettes for the past year, doing everything I can to damage it.
Naeem: What are you doing smoking cigarettes? Young people don’t smoke nowadays.
Jake: It is crazy how much it’s changed my voice. That stuff can really change your voice in a cool way, but obviously I don’t want to put in 30 years of smoking. I’m quitting.
Naeem: You’ll end up sounding like Bob Dylan. What other substances help you in the studio to get your voice to a certain place? Do you drink a lot? You’re from Minnesota, so you must drink a lot.
Jake: There’s definitely a number of White Claws that went into making this record. As far as artistic… I really love mushrooms. They’re like a spiritual reset. I feel like I’ve taken mushrooms at the beginning of a lot of projects, and it always sets the tone in a cool way. I really dig mushrooms. What about you?
Naeem: Strangely enough, I didn’t use any drugs in the studio while making this music. I was really trying to get to somewhere a bit personal, so the only thing I would do sometimes, like if I really needed to finish a song, I would go to this bar in Philly called 12 Steps Down and have a whiskey and coffee and try to finish lyrics.
Jake: That’s such a romantic thing. Classic artist at the bar, writing.
Naeem: I felt like a lunatic! Like it’s 11 and I haven’t eaten yet. I never really recorded on mushrooms or anything, but I had this idea that I wanted to do like a five-day fast, only listening to somebody like Nina Simone. And then after the fast, eat a little bit of food, do some mushrooms, and then make a record. I haven’t done it yet. Sometimes I’m afraid to get witchy like that.
Jake: Let’s do it together! That’d be so sick. Have you ever fasted before? I never have.
Naeem: No, I haven’t. I tried to do one of those liquid, juice fasts. My friend Santigold invited me down to Florida one year. She’s like, “You need a break!” My life was falling apart. I was having troubles with an ex-boyfriend and all this stuff. It was really wild. She’s like, “Come down here, we’ll just hang by the pool, drink juice, have a cleanse, you’ll be all good.” I was down there like three days and I had to leave. It was so difficult, trying to deprive myself of anything that felt comforting. I didn’t get through the fast, I just actually flew back home. [Laughs.]
Jake: No more fasts! I’d be similar. I was raised Mormon, so the first Sunday every month, everyone would fast. I have a weird relationship with it. It brings back Mormon memories, so I have a hard time separating that.
Naeem: I don’t know anything about the Mormon religion. I didn’t know fasting was part of the Mormon religion. I know it’s part of Islam, I know it’s part of Judaism a little bit, right? I didn’t know that the Mormons did it. Can you tell me in a lot of detail about fasting as a Mormon?
Jake: I was Mormon from when I was five until I was probably 15, but we were really bad Mormons. It was just me and my mom. I was a good Mormon for a number of years, but we were never that strict. You’re not allowed to drink caffeine or smoke cigarettes or have premarital sex or date. It’s really serious. From what I can remember about fasting, it was just the first Sunday of the month you would fast the whole day, and you’d also tithe that day. You’d pay like ten percent of everything you made to the church, essentially. That’s kind of what I can remember about it. A lot of what Mormonism is about is self-control, at least with substances and food and everything. It’s about gaining control over yourself so you can prove that you can withstand hunger in the name of God. It’s an exercise that you’d pick God over eating.
Naeem: How did that feel as a kid, to choose God over eating?
Jake: As a kid it was pretty easy. I had grown up in it. I firmly believed that everything was true. I used to cry in church. The same Sunday that we’d fast, everyone would go up and bear your testimony. You’d get up and basically say, “I believe in this thing and here’s why.” Everyone would listen. For me it was fulfilling. I felt a part of something. This is all before I had music. Right when I started playing music when I was 11 or 12, it was like this whole other thing that existed that fulfilled me in a similar way. It was a community, but it wasn’t judging or based on a thing, like an all-seeing power. I feel like music kind of replaced religion for me.
Naeem: That’s really interesting, man. I always say that music was my religion growing up. When my parents took me to church, I never believed in it. It seemed so theatrical, I was like, “This has to be fake.”
Jake: You were just way smarter than I was.
Naeem: It feels weird when you watch your elders, or everyone around you, participate in this real strong belief. To hear your elders say it all the time, like “Thank the Lord.” It was always based around Jesus and God, and to not believe it definitely felt alienating to me. I didn’t understand why I didn’t believe it. It was kind of scary. So I don’t think it’s about being smart. It was just a hunch, Jake. My family played music all the time. My grandmother always played music in the house when she was cooking or cleaning; music was playing like 24 hours a day. I had this little Fisher Price radio, and I used to want to hear music so much that I would put the speaker under my pillow and listen to music while I fell asleep. Whatever new albums my mom and dad would bring in the house — they would bring like the new Tracy Chapman in — and I would just read all the lyrics and listen and digest it until I could sing the album without looking at the lyrics anymore. I did that with everything from Tracy Chapman to Michael Jackson to Prince. Prince definitely, because he put some spirituality and world-building into his music and referenced a lot of Christian things, I was able to use his words as guidance. Like you would use the church or whatever. But luckily he ws singing about dance, music, sex, romance. Do you have a religious spirituality anymore? You just replaced it with music.
Jake: I think about it sometimes. When I was about 15, some people came over from the church. In Mormonism, the men hold this thing called the priesthood. They have powers of healing. I guess it’s kind of like clairvoyance, too. They’ll do this thing called blessing you. They’ll put their hands on someone’s head, and they can ask for guidance or whatever. I got one when I was 15, and they told me, “If you serve your mission” — you know Mormon missionaries? — everything in your life will fall into place, and if you don’t, everything will fall apart. I do think back to that sometimes. Maybe if this is a real thing, then I’m kind of doomed for some suffering. At the same time, it’s weird how touring paralleled that. When I was supposed to go on my mission, when you’re 18 or 19, I kind of went on my own mission. We were in Utah once on tour, and all these missionaries were in the airport getting ready to be shipped off. It seemed like a freaky thing, like I’d taken this other path. That fulfills me. My mom still practices. I say, “Mom, I have my church and my thing that fulfills me and my community.” I’d say it’s replaced religion for me.
Naeem: Your mom is understanding of it?
Jake: Yeah, for sure. She would love me to be practicing again, and it brings her peace. I’m happy that she’s back in it. Every time that she practices, she’s a lot happier. She used to be a musician. She toured for like 10 years, and then her voice got taken away from her. She has this thing called spasmodic dysphonia, so she physically can’t sing anymore. I had religion, and then when I found music… We kind of shifted. I think she understands.
Naeem: That’s an amazing anecdote. Music and religion can kind of be interchanged.
Jake: Music started in church, you know? It’s such a hand in hand thing. Concerts are like church, it’s so similar.
Naeem: I think church only survived because of music. If it was just about worshipping these gods and these fables that… You couldn’t do it without music, I don’t think.
Jake: It helps you believe in something you can’t see. Music is so primal. It makes sense why they’d use that in a religion.
Naeem: I kind of think that music is the only gift that humans give to the world. We just take everything from the world. [Laughs.]
Jake: Damn, that’s beautiful.
Naeem: We shouldn’t keep harping on religion, I just didn’t know you were Mormon. That’s cool to find out.
Jake: I’ve never really talked about it before.
Naeem: Why is that? Embarrassment, or just because it’s not part of your life?
Jake: Not embarrassment. I just never had a need to talk about it. And people haven’t really asked about it.
Naeem: What do people usually ask about? I had no idea Hippo Campus was such a big band! It’s crazy. I feel like I’m talking to Justin Timberlake when he broke up with N Sync and did his first solo album. But what do people ask you guys about? What’s it like being in such a big, successful band like that?
Jake: It’s just kind of surface level shit. How did you get your band name? How’d you meet? It’s always questions like that. No one really ever digs deeper. Nobody assumes you have a crazy past or anything. They don’t ask about the art that much. It’s like: What’s a funny tour story? C’mon guys, there’s more here!
Naeem: You’re saying that music writers don’t care about music or the artists at all? [Laughs.]
Jake: It’s a crazy idea! I feel like they do. I have more respect for it. Yesterday I was researching you a little bit because I wanted to get more in touch with who you are. There’s so much you could dive into. I have a newfound respect for it. It’s hard, but how often do you get to listen to somebody’s record so intently and take notes on it? Maybe I’m just a nerd.
Naeem: I was looking things up, too. Your birthday is May 20. What’s up with the new record? Did you do everything with BJ [Burton]?
Jake: Yeah, I did everything with BJ, and my friend Caleb [Hinz]—we have a band together called Baby Boys—worked on some of it. His producer role is more throwing stems at stuff, whereas BJ execs the whole shebazz, which is cool.
Naeem: Did BJ work with Hippo Campus as well?
Jake: Yeah, BJ made Landmark and Bambi, really great records but it was a really intense process. It was really challenging for BJ as well. He’s used to working with solo artists I think, so him working with a band was really intense. We always joke around that Hippo Campus is like The Bachelor. It’s dramatic, and that’s what makes it great. It is dramatic as fuck, and that lends itself to the music. But the recording process can be intense and exhausting. For this one it was a lot easier because it was me and BJ, drunk, working on music. Fun and easy.
Naeem: Is the whole album really slick electronic pop music?
Jake: It goes through a couple different modes. One is more electronic but a little bit more like Hippo Campus than the other stuff. More indie-rock. The one after that is depressing synth-pop. There’s one kind of folk-y song. Another one is just fucking weird. But it’s definitely more electronic than Hippo for sure.
Naeem: I like depressing synth-pop. That’s my zone.
Jake: It’s fun to cry into your whiskey glass at 11 in the morning, when you’re writing. Who produced your record?
Naeem: Sam Green and my homey Zach [Sewell, aka Grave Goods]. These two kids from Philly. I really needed to do some re-setting for this album, so I set a bunch of rules. I wanted to work with producers from Philly. I didn’t want to be stuck only writing songs when I’m in New York or LA or Berlin, or sending stuff back and forth on the internet. So I wanted to find some kids I could work with and like walk to their house. Fortunately I met Sam and Zach and we really connected. Sam is more of a soul and hip-hop kind of dude and then Zach has this really cool, deep knowledge of indie-rock and post-punk and all this other cool shit. They were so much younger than me that even their perspective and their positivity — I really needed that.
Jake: It’s like that uncrushed spirit. I even noticed that hanging out with people that are 20 or 21. I’m 25. “Oh my god, I can still see the light in your eyes!” How old were those guys?
Naeem: I think they’re like 23 when we first started. That was like four years ago. They were finishing their last year of college, I think. I don’t know what age that is.
Jake: I don’t know, I dropped out.
Naeem: Me too. Where did you go?
Jake: University of Minnesota.
Naeem: I went to this school called Drexel in Philadelphia. So did Sam and Zach, they went to the music engineering program there and got really good at figuring out how to actually mix and stuff like that.
Jake: They’re a producer duo, essentially?
Naeem: Not normally. They were doing this thing called Beat Game that they were really excited about, them and some producer friends. They had these rules, like they would have Ableton open and everybody got to go up and add something to the session. There was a time limit. And also you could take away one thing if you wanted to, that’s all you could delete, so you had to be really selective about what you were adding or deleting. And you had a short period of time. So it was kind of like this musical chairs of music production.
Jake: That’s so sick. That’s so fucking cool.
Naeem: Yeah, it was super cool, I loved watching them do that. But because they were doing that and I was in those sessions, I was really bonding with those two, and thought if I could get them to work with me, we could make something cool. And from there, after we wrote all the songs we went to Minneapolis to get help from Ryan Olsen and Justin [Vernon].
Jake: Have you toured extensively?
Naeem: Yeah, the first Spank Rock record came out in like ‘06, and I felt like I was on the road for three years. I probably wasn’t, but it felt pretty intense. We got to go to Australia and Japan and through Europe and the UK and America, so it was pretty cool.
Jake: Touring is so sick. Did you have a big tour planned for this that Covid threw a wrench in?
Naeem: We were going to do some shows, but we didn’t have a big tour planned. I felt like we had a lot to prove. To me this album turned into more of a reintroduction than something I could just take on the road immediately. We did have plans to start doing shows in London, that would’ve been the first place, then Covid happened. It bums me out. On my first album all the promo started in London, too, so it felt like coming full circle. I love London so much, and I was really excited to go.
Jake: Covid sucks, man.
Naeem: Are you freaking out by not being on the road? Do you feel crazy?
Jake: This is the longest I’ve not played a show since I was probably like 14. I’ve always played in bands and played shows. We just taped a couple live shows with Hippo Campus a couple days ago, and it felt really good to play again. We went into First Avenue and set it up all crazy. We played on the floor, brought in a bunch of production. We taped a couple of sets that we’re going to eventually post on our site so people can watch. It felt really good to play music again. It felt so close to a tour, like tomorrow we’re going to hop in a bus and play music. I was supposed to tour for Lupin, too, but it got squashed. I do miss it a lot. It’s good being home for this long, but I’m starting to really miss playing.
Naeem: I feel that. What’s happening in Minneapolis? It seems like a lot is happening. Have you been keeping to yourself? I didn’t even meet you at all when I was living there. You must be good at hiding out.
Jake: I do spend a lot of time locked away in the studio working on stuff. I hang out pretty much with my band. I’ve known those guys since high school and we keep a pretty tight group. But shit’s definitely been wild here since George Floyd was murdered. The protests were cool, I went out to a couple of them. It was good seeing the community rally around such an important cause, and seeing people clean up together when you’re driving around, everyone’s cleaning up the city. Not officials or the police, just citizens taking care of their neighborhood. It was powerful. I feel more Minneapolis pride than I’ve ever felt, seeing how the community was able to rally. But there’s a feeling of sadness here that’s very real and necessary. What’s your experience been with all of this?
Naeem: It was really wild to me to watch the protests start in Minneapolis. I have such fond memories of being there. The city is very important because it does a good job of taking care of, or at least considering, everyone. I know it’s not a perfect city, but I come from Baltimore, where we don’t really take care of everyone. It was nice being a city that’s about the same size as Baltimore, a lot of it reminded me of Baltimore, but to see it functioning, and a lot more diversity than I expected. And to see the music community be so tight knit. Having such a positive time there and then watching everything blow up was crazy to watch, but I was also really proud. Of course Minneapolis is going down like this. Everyone is so smart and thoughtful and on top of building community, you know? So it was really inspiring to see such anger around police brutality and systemic racism. Of course it would be the kids in Minneapolis that got the whole world to shout “Black lives matter.” I’ve never seen anything like that before, so I was happy. But mostly I’ve just been keeping to myself because of Covid. I haven’t been at any protests in LA. I’ve just been watching the world and feeling a lot of anxiety, I guess.
Jake: That makes sense. It’s just so weird. There’s almost more anxiety because we can’t connect in the same way we used to. You can’t have the community you had to make you feel better — go to your friend’s house, give ‘em a hug. You’re just alone in a room, terrified. Other than writing and stuff like that. Do you find yourself working?
Naeem: I’m trying to get into a zone of working. I’m not used to working on my own. I’ve spent the last month trying to get a home-recording nook in my bedroom. It’s just so frustrating, like, “Do I really have to comp the vocals? Do I really have to make sure the mic isn’t clipping? This is supposed to be someone else’s job!” It’s this big learning curve for me. And I think I have to pull myself off of social media, because it’s too much noise. And lyrically I feel like I don’t know what to say right now. Because I just hear so many people, and watch so many people be up in arms and just telling everyone off. I think I need to just go into a zone where it’s just me and my own emotions and ideas.
Jake: It’s so hard because as an artist you want to be socially aware. You want to use your platform for good, but there’s so many opinions and things change so much, month to month. It’s hard to make art that’s socially conscious and relevant and of the moment. I don’t know what your experience is of politics and music. That’s a challenging thing.
Naeem: I grew up on underground hip-hop that was always connected to politics in some way. It felt like the music was a really good place to discuss politics and hopefully help inform and change culture, you know? That’s how I thought about music my entire life. To feel like it’s not the way I want to make music feels really strange to me. You don’t write political lyrics, right?
Jake: I’ve never really felt comfortable doing that. Obviously I’m a white kid from the suburbs, so what political struggles have I been through? I’ve been privileged, so as far as writing about political struggles, I don’t think it’s my right to do that. It’s not my space to write about. Being political for me has been donating or producing artists from marginalized groups, or helping uplift other voices. I feel like that’s my responsibility, that’s what I can do with my platform, as opposed to writing about something that I could never know about. I can have empathy about it, but I can’t pretend to know what it’s like.
Naeem: It’s really interesting to hear you say that. It made me think about Bob Dylan, how he was also a white kid from the Midwest who was able to write so many folk songs that were political, and that address Civil Rights and be a real part of the movement. But it doesn’t seem like that is capable of happening today. How do you feel about that shift in American culture?
Jake: That’s such a great question. Bob Dylan could totally do that at that time, but I wonder if Bob Dylan did that at that time because Black artists weren’t uplifted at that time. Maybe he had to say those things because people weren’t going to listen to a Black person saying those things. Whereas now, I’d way rather hear about that from a marginalized group as opposed to a white guy singing about it. I feel like that’d be offensive. Do you think it’d be offensive?
Naeem: [Laughs.] I don’t think it would be offensive. But I do know that there are people out there who would feel that. There’s a lot of policing about who can and can’t speak about certain things. But my idea of the world is that people should have enough information to form opinions about anything that has to do with our society. I don’t think you should say, “You can’t talk about this because you don’t look like this.” That stops the promotion of empathy. It stops the promotion of connecting. It’s just a way of building more walls, which is really detrimental to society. The more you segregate people, the more you police people, that’s really detrimental. Especially with art, if you’re an artist you can say and talk about whatever the fuck you want. If I disagree with you or not, it’s just not my place. I would never say, “You can’t do that.” Maybe I wouldn’t find value in it, but I wouldn’t say you can’t do that, or that it’s offensive that you did that. In my ideal world, people know a lot about each other and it’s a world where people are part of a bigger community than just their own identity, or whatever fucking stupid identity people want to put themselves in. I don’t really cling to my Blackness. I feel like I’m forced to cling to it, so therefore I speak up and fight because I can. I fight for pride, I fight for freedoms… I see myself as another living thing on this earth, you know? I feel like I’m forced to put myself into these boxes by the rest of society creating these trends where you have to focus on something that doesn’t really have too much weight in who you really are as an individual.
Jake: It’s oversimplifying, putting everything in boxes so everyone can understand. There’s no grey area and no questions. It seems very sterile. Everything overlaps.
Naeem: I think those boxes are meant to control people. I don’t think living things are supposed to be put away so neatly. I think we do a lot of damage to our potential by stepping inside of boxes. But that’s just me. [Laughs.] I don’t know if too many people would agree with what I’m saying. But I do think when we talk about each other—the umbrellas are too big. I don’t know. I’m really not in a heavy mood today to really discuss such a heavy topic. I’m sorry. I probably brought that shit up. [Laughs.]
Jake: It’s definitely important to talk about, but also to be in the right frame of mind to discuss it. You want to choose your words carefully, I hear you.
Naeem: I definitely don’t want to say some shit and get cancelled because of this fucking interview with Jake. [Laughs.]
Jake: Both of us are cancelled forever!
Naeem: When is your album coming out?
Jake: I think it’s October 9. I’m awful with dates and numbers and directions.
Naeem: I wanted to talk to you more about your writing process and working with BJ Burton, because he’s such an interesting character. So BJ would hit me up when I was living in Minneapolis to go hang out at this little bar, I can’t remember the name. Not Grumpy’s. It was where all the old heads would play funk music, where Prince would play.
Naeem: Yeah, Bunkers. I was always so excited to hang out with him there. I thought we were friends. I think we are friends. But he’s such an interesting little spooky producer. I wanted to know about your writing process working with him. “May” appears to be a song about a breakup, right?
Naeem: Are there any moments where you write this song and go to BJ and say, “Hey, I wanna work on this song.” Is there a moment where he’s like, “Nah dude, those lyrics suck”? Or do you get nervous about what you share with him?
Jake: He’s a very heavy presence. We started working with him in Hippo Campus when were under 21. We were making this really upbeat indie-pop that was probably popular five years ago. BJ just came in and took an axe to it. He kind of blew up the sound. He’s like, “This shit’s bad, I’m gonna blow this up.” He was very blunt in a way that nobody had been with us. We were these kids from music school that could play really well, he was the first one who came in like, “This isn’t good enough. What are these words, what is this song? This form sucks.” [Laughs.] Over the entire time we were working with him, he was challenging us to be better, which is in a lot of ways why BJ is one of my biggest mentors. It’s a healthy thing for me to be challenged. With the Lupin record, I made most of these songs on my computer, by myself. So I’d have the vocals tracked, all my elements tracked, and then BJ would throw some crazy drums at it, kind of flip it. By this point, BJ and I had a good respect. I was making shit that BJ fucked with, and BJ was doing shit that I fucked with, so there wasn’t a lot of disagreement. I wanted him to explode what I was doing. He would take these really simple songs and freak them in a really cool way.
Naeem: You write by yourself a lot, at home? Things you couldn’t share with Hippo Campus, or that didn’t fit in?
Jake: After our second record, the guys were kind of done writing and I was going through a really intense breakup at the time. My life was falling apart in a way that you described earlier. It was kind of a need-based thing. BJ had been wanting to do a record with me, we had always talked about doing it. The stars aligned where I was going through this life experience, the guys didn’t want to make another album right then, so I just dove in. I just made everything on my computer.
Naeem: Is it like your Beck Sea Change album? Sad songs about breaking up?
Jake: I don’t know what that is!
Naeem: I tried to get through this whole conversation not showing my age!
Jake: There it is!
Naeem: Beck put out this album called Sea Change, it’s one of my favorite albums, one of the most beautiful albums ever written. It’s all about a breakup, and it sounds really cool. Some great poetry in it, you should listen.
Jake: Yeah, mine is pretty much a breakup album, and an album of self-discovery too. I was in this relationship for like seven years, which started even before I was in the band. I was living for this other person for so long, from the time I was 17 until I was 24 — some of the most formative years of your life. During that time I was also playing in a band and on tour, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about what I wanted or who I was. So I think making this record was my time of exploration and self-discovery essentially. So it is a breakup album, but more than that it’s me finding what I like in music again. Sex again. Friendship again. It’s like therapy.
Naeem: Wow. Is that scary to do, to write songs that are that personal?
Jake: It’s scary writing them, and more scary talking about them. Doing interviews about this record has been really weird, because typically in interviews I have three other people there who are talking about the music. I can sort of hide if I get bashful. We can kind of joke our way out of it. But with this record, it’s been directly talking about my life. It’s not like me and a couple other dudes. It’s my life and my thing, and if you hate it, you hate me. Did you have that experience with putting your name on your record? If you don’t like it, it’s not that you don’t like Spank Rock, it’s that you don’t like Naeem!
Naeem: Yeah for sure. I didn’t even think that far that I was going to feel that way. But once I had to start talking about things… I really don’t want to discuss these things with the public! [Laughs.] Certain songs on the album… There’s a lot of self-discovery and reflecting. I felt like I had put off trying to make music that was extremely personal. Most of my music in Spank Rock was club and party driven or politically driven. It was never super personal, but this one was. I wanted to challenge myself to do that. I had this interview with Moses Sumney for Interview magazine that was kind of similar to what we’re doing now. I didn’t expect Moses to listen to the album or know anything about it! He just kinda hit me with a really hard question about the lyrics in “Tiger Song.” I felt so uncomfortable discussing why I focused on the things I did on that song. I didn’t even fully write it to be communicated to an audience. I kinda just wrote it for myself. The things that don’t make sense to people or that are controversial, I then have to stick up for them and explain why we’re drawn to those more popular or iconic ideas. When really the song is just about myself, you know?
Jake: It just sounded like you thinking to me. I didn’t see it as you choosing a side or anything. It just seemed like you almost free associating.
Naeem: It really was. And I forgot that that’s how I had written it. What do you call it when it’s a really long free-thought exercise? Free association?
Jake: I dropped out of college.
Naeem: You seem pretty smart, I think that’s right. I’m writing, but I’m thinking about very personal things within my family. Do I have to discuss this now? I don’t really want to! And then it makes me never want to write that close to my life ever again, you know? But I feel like that’s how I’m supposed to write. That’s what strong music is. It’s about yourself, your story. That’s what makes it connect with other people.
Jake: Do you feel like you make it out of a need to make it? For me, I physically need to make music. Otherwise I start to go crazy. It’s like having sex or something. It occupies that same space, where if days go by when I don’t work on something, I start to get angry or fucking weird. It’s a need-based thing.
Naeem: It’s so good to hear you say that. I want to be more like that. I wish it was more need-based. Maybe it is, because sometimes I do get this terrible anxiety and disappointment in myself if I haven’t thought about music. Also I think I’m writing music all the time, thinking about what I should write about. I didn’t grow up with any musicians or artists in the house, so I don’t really know what it means to practice art. I felt far behind a lot of my peers. Sometimes I get this imposter syndrome and I feel like I shouldn’t be writing music, and then I have to convince myself. It’s a pretty debilitating tug of war, and I’m always proud of myself when I get to the end of something, because I know that I’m fighting myself the whole way through. When something’s actually done, I’m like, “Wow man, you made it.”
Jake: So you’re more of a quality over quantity person. Do you spend a lot of time working on one song, over months or years?
Naeem: Yeah, but that’s not the way that I want to work. It’s not the best way to work. I think it should be quantity, quantity, quantity, and then when you want to share it with someone, you edit and make it the best it can be. If the song takes me like three months to write, it’s not because I worked on the song for three months, it’s because I was trying to convince myself to work on the song for three months. To convince myself that it’s okay to want to make music and do this. Going to a private school and not having any artists in my family, and that lack of encouragement early on, I still carry that with me. I feel like I’m doing this thing I shouldn’t be doing, that I’m doing the irresponsible thing. I still have that in the back of my head, that I’m irresponsible or not actually good enough to make it happen.
Jake: It’s so crazy. Everybody feels that way. I deal with those moments all the time. Like what am I doing? There’s so many people that do this better than me, why am I doing it? We all deal with that same shit. It’s such bullshit. How do you view inspiration? Do you view inspiration as a thing that randomly possesses you and then you run to your computer? I view it more like habitual. I go to the studio and this time, and even if I don’t have an idea, I just go. I put myself into the space to be inspired. I know other people that have to wait for it to hit them.
Naeem: I think that it’s probably habitual. I need routine to work on music, then inspiration has more opportunities to strike, because I’m there, thinking about music. I really became inspired when me, Sam, and Zach got into the zone of seeing each other almost every day and working on music. Walking to their place really helped me get those geniuses to come visit. But now that I don’t have that, I don’t have the walking, I’m not meeting up with my collaborators, it’s harder to find inspiration. I’ve started reading a lot more. I started watching a lot of films to help me have some inspiration. And then listening to music, too. I found this really cool song by Wings; I never listened to them before, I thought they were just this trashy Paul McCartney band. And now I listen to this song like 10 times a day.
Jake: Which song?
Naeem: I think it’s called “Arrow Through Me” or something.
Jake: You ever heard that McCartney solo record Ram?
Naeem: I just discovered that too, and I’ve been listening to the song “Ram On” repeatedly too!
Jake: Ram rules. It’s such a cool record. I’ve always been more of a John guy, I like Paul, but he has moments where it’s just, “C’mon dude.” I expected his solo record to be those moments, but it’s fucking weird in really cool ways. You start to see what he was doing in the Beatles, and I don’t think it’s what people expected it to be, or at least what I expected. He’s the dude who was reversing tape.
Naeem: So he had an experimental hand in steering the Beatles?
Jake: Totally, while writing the poppiest songs.
Naeem: How do you know about Ram, from your mom or something? Or in college?
Jake: I think my homey Eric showed it to me. I was really into the Beatles, but not from my parents. My dad listened to classic rock. I went to this place called School of Rock, an after-school music program.
Naeem: Yeah! Didn’t that start in Philadelphia?
Jake: Yeah! It was Paul Green’s School of Rock. That’s how I learned music, playing classic rock music. My mom listened more to R&B, that’s what she used to sing. I was way more drawn to rock at the time. I was playing guitar. That’s how I met Zack, the bass player in Hippo Campus, and other people I played with later. It’s nutty. We’d play Iron Maiden and Metallica, Van Halen, Guns N Roses.
Naeem: The best music.
Jake: It’s definitely music. [Laughs.]
Naeem: Guns N Roses is one of the best bands ever.
Jake: I remember reading Slash’s book. I used to read rock biographies when I was a kid. “This is what rock & roll is like!” Nikki Sixx’s book…
Naeem: Nikki Sixx’s book, is that The Dirt?
Jake: No, the Heroin Diaries. How problematic to be raised thinking that you’re supposed to sleep with all of your fans and do heroin? No wonder the music industry is in a tailspin.
Naeem: I feel like I missed my time. I feel like that was what I wanted my music career to be like. I guess we got kinda close in Spank Rock, but we didn’t take it fully there. I’m still alive. [Laughs.] I didn’t fully do it the way I was supposed to.
Jake: It’s pretty remarkable they could do all that shit and still play. If I get wasted four nights in a row and I’m playing shows, by the fourth night I sound so bad.
Naeem: I don’t even drink when I go on tour anymore. Do you drink before you go onstage?
Jake: No, I’ll drink onstage, that’ll be the first time I drink in a day. We don’t ever really play shows stoned or drunk or whatever. We’re usually pretty sober until the end of the set. I can’t really do it. I used to love playing high when I was younger, but I can’t really do it anymore. I get too psyched out.
Naeem: I feel the same way. I’m cold sober when I go on stage now. It feels like jumping out of a plane, which is kind of cool to feel that rush, that adrenaline. When I first started I was just like, “Give me all the drugs and then I’m gonna go out there and roll around on the floor and scream profanities at people.”
Jake: Damn, I miss shows.
Naeem: What are you gonna do? It’s not gonna start back up again.
Jake: Yeah, we’re not gonna tour for another year or so. We’re just chilling. I did want to ask you… It’s “Simulation” that you made the video for? That’s crazy. You made that with your partner, right? What’s that like, working with a romantic partner?
Naeem: Really difficult. It’s not just a romantic partner, it’s a romantic partner that I’ve been with for about 11 years.
Jake: That’s so cool. I’m a monogamy fan.
Naeem: It’s cool, I guess. In a good relationship you don’t even realize that that much time has passed. When someone knows you very well, it’s not like hiring a director and that director wants to work with you because they admire you. If I worked with a different director, they would’ve let me get away with so much more shit. Or maybe they would’ve said yes to everything that I wanted, tried to please me. When you work with someone close to you, that all goes out the window. There’s no trying to be nice to me, no respect that comes with “This person hired me” or “This person is an artist.” Instead, it’s, “Naeem, we can’t do this, it’s too difficult.” So it’s a lot of back and forth, which I really loved the process, coming up with the ideas for the video. We had to do everything ourselves because of quarantine, so we had to choose everything really wisely. There were no bad or boring shots, I felt like. We looked at what we could and couldn’t do. It was the first video I put that much thought into what was going to be onscreen. So that was really fun. It was a lot of arguing. But we were really excited in the end when we got through it. I wouldn’t suggest you start working with your partners. [Laughs.]
Jake: I just started doing it! It is a crazy balance. It’s been really cool but it is very interesting. She’s a musician too, and we’re writing songs about each other and stuff. I’m producing it, and she’s singing a song about me but I have to critique the vocal performance or whatever. It’s wild. It’s really nice to know somebody intimately, on an emotional level and also make music with them. There’s an element of comfort there. They know you and what you’re trying to say. I always have trouble making videos because it’s not my medium, and it’s hard for me to express what I want. I feel like I’m bad at other mediums.
Naeem: You haven’t tried to direct your own videos?
Jake: No, I’ll give some ideas, but they’re usually pretty vague. I’m not really a visual thinker. My room has nothing on the walls! I don’t really think that way. So it’s weird when I get faced with the visual thing. I think in colors, like this album I think it’s red. Video shit has always been challenging. Is that something you’ve been interested in?
Naeem: I thought I knew what I was doing for a long time, and then I realized at some point that I had no idea how to do things visually. So I started learning from all the friends that are good at it. Scott is a great director and knows so much about cinematography, so I really listened to him. I’m picking up a lot of things by working with him, and other friends that are visual artists. I’d ask them if I was on the right track or not with my album artwork. I kind of creative-directed the artwork, and then I would show it to a friend, like a painter or sculptor and they would help me hone it in. Then I would just bring in people who really know what they’re doing, like a really good photographer or set designer, so I can steer it into what I want the world to be. I’m getting a little better at thinking visually, but it’s taken a long time. I don’t know how to do anything that great. I don’t know how to make music that great. I’m constantly learning how to do stuff a little better.
Jake: I do have aspirations to make my own videos and stuff at some point. It’s important to understand that shit so you can make the aesthetic so personal, and so you. Just carve out something from bottom to top that’s just you as fuck.
Naeem: I would like to, too. Just learn how to build worlds a little more. You have a crazy accent, I just realized.
Jake: People say that, and I never understand what it is!
Naeem: It doesn’t sound like Minnesota.
Jake: I was born in Missouri, and my mom grew up in Illinois and toured in the South. She has kind of a weird Midwestern/Southern accent. My dad’s from Iowa but he never had an accent. Certain words maybe sound Southern because of my mom.
Naeem: That’s pretty cool. What do you think, are we good?
Jake: Yeah, thanks for talking to me, it was an amazing conversation.
Naeem: I heard they wanted to give us a moderator because they heard we were too shy.
Jake: Nah, we’re good.
Naeem: You’re not a shy person, right?
Jake: No, I just usually don’t like interviews, but this one I enjoyed. It was easy.
(Photo Credit: left, Graham Tolbert)