"I feel more comfortable sharing my stories barefoot," says Alex Hwang, lead singer/songwriter for L.A.'s Run River North, standing shoeless before an intimate audience during the group's recent performance at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe. Sporting naked feet and a throwback 'stache, Hwang could have been at home with at 1970s music festival, and his band's folksy sound would fit right in too. "These aren't tears," he jokes about his glistening face illuminated by the cozy club's lights, "I'm just sweating from my mustache." While his mustache is impressive, it's those feet -- perched on that well-trodden bar stage -- that catch the eye. The mind becomes caught in the unbidden questions: "Where has that floor been and what has it seen?" In their music, Run River North inspires similar honest inquiry, tracing their own personal and spiritual journeys through song.
Onstage, the group's performance easily claims attention, especially in those moments where they swing from quiet reveries of soft vocals and strings to bombastic guitar and drum passages draped with multi-vocal harmonies. The group produces a phenomenally big sound for only six people; it helps that at least half the band seems to play at least 2-3 different instruments over the course of a single song. Daniel Chae often plays both violin and lead guitar but Sally Kang is the true overachiever: not only is she the group's other main vocalist but she also plays keyboard, mandolin, percussion and a freakin' melodica. These days, Kang moves seamlessly between the instruments but when she first started with the band in 2011, she recalls, "just switching from the tambourine to the keyboard was hard for me."
As their name suggests, Run River North have rolled towards their current moment via a serendipitous path. They feel like one of those bands that could only come out of L.A., which is to say that it's hard to imagine where else half a dozen devoutly Christian, Korean American musicians from the Valley would morph into a spirited indie rock band that ended up on the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" show before being signed to Nettwerk Records). While their sound echoes the spirit from the country's heartland, the story of Run River North is distinctly Angeleno.
Sonically, it's easy to imagine Run River North's music on the same playlist as Arcade Fire or Band of Horses but it's hard to ignore the fact that the rest of indie rock is overwhelmingly white while Run River North is exclusively not. Chong recalls moments on tour in the South where the group would stop in to eat somewhere and, "people just look at us because we're so different" but he also thinks their racial difference is a "double-edged sword" that helps them stand out against a competitive field.
The fact that every member of Run River North is Korean American isn't by intention but nor is it incidental. The idea that initially brought them together was a song concept by Hwang -- "Monsters Calling Home." The "monsters" were people like themselves, the unruly younger generation, seeking both a sense of their own identity as well as common ground with their parents and the land/culture they left behind for the sake of their kids' opportunities ("home"). The inspiration behind this idea came from Hwang's conversations with friends, peers and their families and he noticed, "the same patterns, the same skeletons in the closet," especially around the challenges to finding empathy between the generations. He initially thought, "this should be a children's book or a musical" but instead, opted to make it a song instead.
Hwang approached musicians he had met both through other bands as well as in his own church network, including Chae and Kang along with drummer John Chong, bassist Joe Chun, and violinist Jennifer Rim. Chong, who previously had worked with jazz, funk and classical outfits, intuitively resonated with "Monsters Calling Home's" concept. "I was on board," says Chong, feeling that "we would be able to vibe off that idea of the struggle of our parents. It was easier to connect with the band because I had that knowledge." The group debuted the song almost exactly two years ago at the Asian American talent festival known as Kollaboration, held that year at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
Ironically, Hwang says that it was losing Kollaboration - "to a guy who had two yo-yos" - that inspired the group to push on. Hwang jokes, "it's that Asian competitive spirit....we can't have a B, we have to be A students. That bitter taste of losing spurred us on." They collectively decided to give the band a go for at least another year and what followed were the kind of trials and tribulations most struggling bands can relate to: lugging equipment from gig to gig, playing to tiny crowds on tinier stages, sometimes asking if they could crash at audience homes after. "We had to grow up really fast," says Chong, especially since many of the members scaled back on school and work to make an honest go at it. It's not an easy existance to scratch out, especially in dealing with bad performances, unruly crowds, and the general wear-and-tear of touring and Chong says that they were so green that first year, "when the low points happened, it hit us like a ton of brick."
During that time, they also worked on developing their musical identity. Though they have strong roots in the church community and snippets of Biblical references and allusions work their way into the songwriting, Hwang makes it clear that they don't define themselves as a "Christian band." He prefers to think of his songs as possessing an "onion aspect, that you can peel away and dig into, if you want to...and if not, they should be fun on the surface," a reference to the rousing, driving rhythms that power some of their more energetic compositions, including their stand-out hit, "Fight to Keep."
It was one of the group's earliest compositions and when it came time to create a video for it, "we all felt that instead of doing a boring Youtube video where we're all sitting in front of our computer, we just figured it be fun to do a video in our Hondas," Hwang says. After all, considering that most of the band had grown up with the stifling traffic of the San Fernando Valley, listening to music in cars was second nature and they quickly figured out how to properly mic and engineer the song from inside a cramped Honda Fit.
The video, which debuted in spring of 2012, caught the attention of Honda executives who conspired to "punk" the band (in a good way). The group thought they'd be performing to an auditorium of Honda employees and Hwang shares that, "we thought maybe we'd get a car or something, which would have been cool," but the surprise was even grander: Honda arranged to have the group perform on the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" show (conveniently across the street from the auditorium). "It was so surreal. It didn't sink in [at the time], it just happened so quickly," says Hwang.
Opportunities in music are never predicated on talent or strategy alone. You may strive for your video to go viral (but most won't). Some young bands get thrust into a huge, national spotlight (but most don't). This was, as they say, a "big break" and the group took advantage by leveraging their 15 seconds of fame to book what ended up becoming a sold-out show at the famed Troubadour in West Hollywood in December of 2012. In the audience were reps from Nettwerk who signed the band on the strength of that performance. The group then used the occasion to rebirth themselves, retiring Monsters Calling Home in favor of Run River North.
The name change was partially symbolic; "Monsters Calling Home" was a concept that looked to the past but Run River North set to carve a channel forward.. There were also practical considerations - the band wanted to avoid confusion between them and Iceland's own six-person indie folk-pop group, Monsters of Men. At that Hotel Cafe show, before they performed "Monsters Calling Home," Hwang jokingly dedicated the song to, "those Icelandic motherf----s," much to the amusement of the audience.
Nettwerk sent Run River North literally up north to Seattle where they recorded with producer Phil Ek. His previous work with groups such as The Shins and Fleet Foxes made him a natural fit for the kind of big-but-intimate sound that Run River North fell in with. Kang describes Ek as the band's "seventh member. We all wanted someone else who had no idea what these songs sounded like before and giving it to him and seeing what we could improve on." Ek challenged the group to make meticulous improvements to their performances but he also found ways to let loose. Kang recalls, "he just loved this one instrumental part [of "Run River Run"]. He would go on a swivel chair and pretend he was on a motorcycle. It was really hilarious to us that Phil Ek was jamming out to our song."
Though Ek's footprint on the sound was slight, Hwang says their identity sets them apart. "I feel there's no one we can truly compare ourselves to because there isn't another six-person Korean American rock band out there. We can't be called 'the next-anything' because there isn't something [like us] that came before." Come February, when their debut finally comes out, they're hoping to become the band that future groups are compared to. For now, Run River North sits on the proverbial cusp, patiently waiting to carve out the next phase of their career.
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