Our ‘Whatever Happened To’ series exploring the status of once-popular West Michigan bands catches up with members of Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, which played its last show in 2018.
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During its ballyhooed heyday several years ago, Michigan’s Ultraviolet Hippopotamus reveled in its role as a music festival headliner and as a multi-genre jam band sure to pack venues such as The Intersection to capacity with ebullient fans.
Indeed, a July 2013 Local Spins feature on the band (known affectionately as UV Hippo after forming at Ferris State University in Big Rapids) noted that the band was playing upwards of 200 shows a year across the country and preparing for an Independence Day homecoming show in front of 20,000 or so devotees.
“We’re pretty stoked. We’re pretty psyched to be able to do it,” guitarist Russell James Olmsted said at the time, just six months before the band’s “Translate” album was named Local Spin of the Year by this very publication.
But not long after that, the band took an “indefinite hiatus” from touring in hopes of re-charging its batteries. Even after a much-buzzed-about return to the stage in late 2015, the signs of wear continued to show. Olmsted left the band in 2016 and UV Hippo played its last show at Cowpie Music Festival in 2018.
The years of silence have led to plenty of fan inquiries about a possible band revival.
“UV Hippo is no more. We didn’t fail, we quit. It was a tough call,” said drummer Joe Phillion, who now lives in Nashville. “We all had a lot of personal reasons; really it came down to life. Being in a band is like having six girlfriends: You can’t make everyone happy forever.”
Percussionist Casey Butts, meanwhile, described the band’s status as “inactive” since that 2018 Cowpie festival performance.
“There was never a conversation about how long it would be or if it was the end of it all, though there was a sense of finality playing that show,” he conceded.
“Our lives started moving in different directions for at least a year prior to that and it was something that had been coming to a head for a while. There were some decisions made earlier that year that drew a bit of a hard line in the sand between the members, so it made sense to step away when we did.”
While there have been numerous offers for a reunion gig, Phillion insisted the band “will not reunite with the original members.”
“Get us in the same room first. I would love to play shows with the boys. Make new music and bring everyone together. It was SO much fun. I still talk to every single member of UV Hippo. They’re my best friends. Friends never lose touch, they just pick up where they left off.”
THREE BAND MEMBERS PLAYING SAWMILL SALOON IN APRIL
While there’s no UV Hippo reunion in the works, one-time band members Phillion, bassist Brian Samuels and guitarist Sam Guidry — along with Andy Kirby of The Turnips and UV Hippo — will perform Wednesday, April 5 at the Big Rapids club where it all began: Sawmill Saloon, for its open-mic night.
“If anyone wants to see a makeshift reunion, this would be it,” Phillion said.
Band members who responded to Local Spins inquiries about the status of UV Hippo all reminisced fondly about the group’s heyday, from playing “such amazing music” on stage to the laughs and memories of “touring everywhere” as friends.
“We had so many adventures together and it all truly shaped who I am now and who we’ve all become. I love that and will cherish it for the rest of my life,” said Olmsted, who owns and operates North Coast Guitar Co. in Grand Rapids.
“It’s seriously very humbling to hear that people still think of us and our music. I know what that entire experience – writing music, performing, recording, touring – meant to me personally and us as a band, but I’ve never known what it means or meant to other people. … Truth is, I’m still close friends with all of them. Never trade a moment of it or the experiences we had.”
Here are more recollections and observations from band members:JOE PHILLION (Assistant store leader in Nashville for the Michigan-based company Carhartt) – “Everyone thinks (being in a band) is all hookers, tour buses and cocaine, but it’s not that at all. It’s an unfathomable amount of work. Especially if the band is doing all the work. Members had families to take care of. I made the decision to quit everything and take care of my terminally ill father. There’s nothing that was more worth it than helping and celebrating my father’s life. He loved the band SO much. He was always our manager secretively. He believed in us and was always so proud of us. The band itself was starting to fall apart slowly. Brian and I were partying too much and causing animosity. I was in a personal tailspin. … (Now) I am four years sober, focused and adulting. I read a lot. Exercise a lot and keep to myself. Before I moved, I was in a fantastic group called The Turnips. I love The Turnips. I haven’t performed since I moved. It’s been a terrific break honestly. I will always play music. … I get asked constantly about UV Hippo. Fans hit me up on social media, my coworkers can’t get enough stories. They always put UV Hippo on playlists at work and try to get a reaction out of me. I’ve been asked to be on podcasts to tell my stories and tales of the road. The stories are my gold.”
CASEY BUTTS (Brewer for Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids) – “There are many different opinions of what needs to happen, and without finding that middle ground, it may be difficult for some of the members to commit to being involved. Our music was quite technically difficult, both mentally and physically. To even just to do a single show with 20 or so designated songs, it would take so many hours individually and as a group to get back to the point that we would be comfortable and proud to be putting our music out there again. Not to say the work wouldn’t be worth it. But it takes so much more than just booking a venue and saying, ‘Let’s play a show.’ Many years ago, we talked about not being one of those bands that hack our way through our songs at half the speed and intensity as a sort of novelty act. That would be the ultimate disservice to the band we were and the music we created when we were at our best. … For 10 or so years we got to explore the country, see so many unbelievable sights and meet countless groups of amazing people. There was so much excitement just being on the road and feeling like modern-day explorers. Every day just trying to get to the next destination, play the music we loved and hopefully end the day with a belly full of food, a buzz and a floor to sleep on. The stories we could all tell would blow some people’s minds. I have never laughed as hard or as much as did with those guys. Sometimes I look back amazed we even made it out of it all alive and well. The bond that grows between a group of people going through the trenches like we did, is on a different level.”
RUSSELL JAMES OLMSTED (Owner of North Coast Guitar Co. in Grand Rapids) – As a band “you’re a family. That never changes. But it does mean that sometimes it’s best if you become a family apart for a while. I know there’ve been offers from venues and festivals about doing some sort of reunion show(s). But they just haven’t worked out. I honestly don’t know if they ever will. There’s a lot that would need to be worked out for that to happen. … I have to say the fondest memories are just touring everywhere with them. We got to meet such amazing people from the crews, other musicians, and of course, the fans. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as I did traveling around the United States with those guys. … As a group, we never gave up on each other as people. We always pivoted and found a way to make the show and make the music happen. And all those experiences brought us closer together as a band, as friends and as a family. Though it may seem strange, I really think those experiences influenced our playing and showed up in the music and live performances. There’s no way that it couldn’t. … Casey, Dave (Sanders) and I all have a D&D campaign we’ve been playing together for years. Joe’s living down in Nashville now and his career has really taken off. Casey’s married with two kids, Brian moved to Colorado for a while, but is back in the area now, Sam’s living up in Big Rapids with two kids and is building some of the most beautiful guitars on the market, and Dave’s living on the east side of the state, still writing and playing insanely wonderful music.”
Read more historical Local Spins coverage of UV Hippo.
VIDEO: Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, “Tugboat”
VIDEO: Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, “La Marea” (Live at Asheville Music Hall)
VIDEO: Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, “Giants” (Acoustic, Local Spins on WYCE)
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