Musicians Run River North recently stopped by Studio A to perform songs from their self-titled debut album. Singer/songwriter Alex Hwang, drummer John Chong, and keyboardist Sally Kang talked about their music in this extended uncut interview, which discusses the immigration stories of their parents, the Americana influence on their music, and the subtle Korean folk songs that underlay their sound.
Discover more about Run River North in their own words.
On Forming the Band:
Alex Hwang: I wrote a song called "Monsters Calling Home," and then I wanted to audition and play it live. I got to audition and I got into this competition called Kollaboration to play the Nokia Theater; it was a really big stage, so I needed more players to fill up the stage. Most of the people I met from my church and that's where it really started from about two and a half years ago.
On Creating an Entirely Asian Band:
AH: I don't think that was on purpose. It's was just the people that I admired musically just so happened to be at my church, and John was Korean as well too. But I think maybe subconsciously. Maybe it's because the song "Monsters Calling Home" is about immigration, and about immigrant parents and families as well. I think it just resonated very easily with my Korean-American friends as opposed to some of my other friends. And so I think that was kind of the initial reason of why it was all Korean. But we didn't have like an audition process where it's like only Korean and no other Asian or something. It just happened to be the friends that really liked the song around me were Korean-American.
On the Song "Monsters Calling Home"
Sally Kang: It's a story about how our parents, they came to a foreign land, America, to make a life for themselves, and they had these kids, which are us. It's just that struggle of trying to find a place called home, in a place that you're not familiar with. The culture differences are so different between us kids who grew up in America opposed to our parents who are from Korea, and Struggling to find that center.
On the Immigrant Experience
AH: I think we're called second generation. Our parents just came when they were about roughly 25 or 27. They probably didn't speak the language, most of them. They couldn't use any of their degrees from Korea, it doesn't translate here, so you have to find a way to live. So you make your own business: laundromats, liquor stores, shoe stores. And then you have us kids who are growing up with white student friends and they're like 'Why don't we go on camping trips?' But our parents don't know that. Their way of showing love is to make the money so we can have a better future for ourselves, and for us to do well in school so we can get a degree instead of making the same mistakes that they do. And because of the language barriers as well, you can't communicate your anxieties and your conflicts very easily either. That's what we kind of grew up with.
If you stop to take a moment you realize: They're just as human as us too. They're culpable to alcoholism, abuse, and they're just as human as any of us. And so as they're making their home they can make mistakes and then what we only see is usually the mistakes only, and we don't get to see the love and the sacrifice that they did for us. I just wanted to tell that earlier to kids, or to immigrant families so that they would understand and you know, bridge that gap earlier so that it wouldn't be too late for them to have a better relationship with their families because really, it's not about us. The whole "Monsters Calling Home" is that, my dad has been away from Korea for thirty years, so he's not even Korean anymore, and he's kind of American but he's not. So he's in this weird space and the only thing he can call home is the family. And if the family isn't respecting him or working well, he's just lost on his own. And so the whole call of "Monsters" is just: what do you call home, or what is family to you?
On Their Parents' Reaction to the Band
John Chong: It ranges. My parents were very supportive since the beginning. I started wanting to play music back in high school. I was in other bands before and they were super supportive of that. [There's also] parents in the middle where they're more supportive: "Yeah you can try this out for a bit." And when we landed a Jimmy Kimmel gig they were like: 'Oh, this is... You're on TV? This could be serious. Ok, go ahead and do that, you can take a break from school, go ahead.' Then we have some parents that were very not supportive, even after that. And it ranges a lot. But right now they're supportive of what we're doing, which is unbelievable.
On Their Influences
AH: The way we see the type of music especially in terms of the folk Americana aspect of it is [that] I didn't really grasp onto it until after. I just wrote all these songs and I wrote these songs from my life experience and folks that I know: my parents, and [other] people. I only wrote stuff that I experienced. So there's no love songs there because I don't think I've fallen in love yet. I wrote all these songs and then it was actually someone else -- a friend of mine who happens to be white but that doesn't matter -- He was just like 'Oh you know, it seems like you have some folk Americana influences.' And I'm like, 'I did not know that.' So he gave me a bunch of CDs and I got to get into it after I wrote these songs.
What I really found out is that the reason why these songs kind of were that -- or that the melodies in the song structures and the feel of the Americana folk really geared well to me -- was that they were speaking about people that they knew and the stories that were about families and home and very intimate settings. Not about like going out and dancing and all that, which is great, that needs to happen.
I think the reason why it sounds so folky is because it's about folks. I don't think we do it intentionally, especially since there's so many different styles of music influence in our band, which is the great thing is that I have these folky lyrics but then John is very jazzy. [There's a] pretty solid rock background too: Joe loves Tenacious D, Sally loves the XX and Beachhouse like very moody stuff too. Wide range of things. And we have two classically trained violinists. It's just when you get that two together, yes the folk aspect comes out and we embrace it. What happens when you put that in the midst of everyone else's influences. I think maybe that's just the way we were raised because we're Korean, but we're American so how do you do that together without being superficial and not being cheesy about it. And we're always making sure that we do that in our life, and so that kind of just translates into what we do in our songs and our music as well too.
On the song "Growing Up"
AH:The line "I will love in this life until I finally have to go" is from the perspective of a old grandpa. The song is a conversation between an old grandpa and a young, petulant high school kid, that's based on me and my brother. It's the conversation that they're having: an older man tells a younger version of himself before he has to go and I think you realize that... You know, the things in your life that, as cliche as it is, it's better to give than receive and to continue to just give love as opposed to try to receive it. It's just a waste of time to try and collect all things. I think in the process of loving you live better and then dying that way seems to be something I would say as an older man on my deathbed.
On the the Korean Folk Influence on the Song "Lying Beast"
AH: It's like hidden in there. "Lying Beast" has a traditional folk melody from Korean culture, which is called "Arirang." It's just a melody that you grow up hearing as a Korean family. Then from there the song was just about just unrequited feelings of ambition and not being able to meet to your parents expectations and what you feel about it. And I think "Arirang," when I researched it a little more is like this place of like, meeting that was between two lovers. I could be completely wrong, but I just know that there was this sense of just, lost and trying to grasp onto something that was lost.
That song is a pretty clear representation of what we really want to do as a band: not to be K-pop and "Gangnam Style," which is great and popular. And not to be completely washed out, rootsy Americana. But something in the middle where you kind of see that there's a lot of intention to every part of the song.
On their Name:
AH: We actually had to change our name from 'Monsters Calling Home,' which is still a song of ours, then to Run River North. I think it was a combination of things. It's really tough to come up with a new name. We can't just always be Monsters Calling Home, we've got to do something about it. I think Run River North is kind of a call to action. We really like the idea of just running. We love nature collectively, in our band. I think rivers have kind of a good kind of imagery to them, and North is a nice direction. So all of these things just kind of led to the same path and Run River North came out of that.
On their Debut Album
JC: We recorded with a guy named Phil Ek up in Seattle. And we like his work, and so we thought he would fit perfectly with us. It was a draining process but very rewarding process at the same time. We learned a lot about our weaknesses and strengths, as a band and as individuals. So it's very personal to us. There are gonna be things that we don't like about the album. I've learned to just let it go and to just let it breathe and be it's own thing. We're stoked.