The afternoon sun blazing overhead, I trudged up a set of stairs and, upon entering the foyer, was met with a bubble of voices and laughter, which filled up the cozy interior of House Roots Coffee. It was here where I met Alex Hwang, vocalist of the Los Angeles based band Run River North. Warm coffee mugs in hand, we retreated to a quieter room, where I learned more about the band and the inspiration behind their new album Drinking From a Salt Pond (available for pre-order now).
1. RRN band members’ entire being encapsulated in three words. Interpret as you desire:
Daniel Chae (violinist, guitarist): “Renaissance, running, tones.”
John Chong (drummer): “Drummer, model-esque, and uh, this is tough. Black & white, is that a word? I’ll use that.”
Sally Kang (keyboardist): “Demure, goofy, and big head”
Jen Rimm (violinist): “Little sister, vogue, and um, incredibly tough. Yea, tough.”
Joe Chun (bassist): “Four arms, four arms, and four arms.”
Alex Hwang (singer/songwriter): “Okay, who am I missing. John, Jen, Joe, myself? Okay, myself. Um… Monsters Calling Home.”
2. If the bottoms of your feet have been itching to know the reason behind Hwang’s lack of shoes on stage, here’s the nitty gritty: It’s just more comfortable.
Hwang on his exposed extremities, “As an Asian, you grow up in your house not having shoes, and I think of all the most comfortable places I’m in – like the shower, the bathroom, my home… I’m the most relaxed there. And the common thread for most of them is, I’m either alone, or I don’t have shoes on. So since I can’t be alone on stage, if I can take my shoes off, that’d be great… I just feel more connected to the ground.”
Growing up in a Korean household in which the shoes stopped where the carpet started, I can completely relate with Hwang’s desire to kick off his shoes for the sake of comfort. I’d hesitate to jump up and down with bare feet on some of the grodier stages that RRN’s performed on, but to each his own!
3. Stories from fans are sources of inspiration for the band.
“We’ve been really lucky to go on tour and travel the country like two, three times now, so we’re meeting people from Iowa, Michigan, Tennessee. We’d never have imagined that people would like our music. And when we do, we show up, and we have time to talk to them and there’s a lot of stories out there that seem to resonate with our stories, and it’s not too different,” says Hwang.
4. Hwang has impeccable taste in music (Subjective, perhaps. Keyword: perhaps).
“I’m really digging this one song off the Fitz and the Tantrums album. It’s called The Last Raindrop. It just came up while I was running, I think it’s just a fantastic song,” says Hwang as he searches through his iPhone. He also loves The Killers, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, The Kooks, and Death Cab for Cutie.
5. Music and food is what keeps the band together. Literally.
With two girls and four very different guys, the band’s been hard pressed to find activities to do together.
“We bowl sometimes,” Hwang jokes. “We eat a lot as a band, we eat out pretty well, but not too much… Daniel and Sally like to drink a lot of coffee or go to coffee shops. Joe likes to climb a lot, and tries to get the rest of the band to love it, but he just loves climbing… John and Jennifer recently got into surfing, so I think we’re going to try to get out and do that more… I think music is what we’re barely doing together.” Making music together may be their only common denominator, but the synthesis of these six diverse friends creates a sound that captivates audiences during their soulful live performances.
6. Fact is, Run River North came about because of Kollaboration.
Hwang had been volunteering backstage during Kollaboration’s live shows, throughout college and during his first two years out of college. “I really loved what they were doing, and I met some of my closest friends through Kollaboration. I loved helping out and I just wanted to see what it was like backstage before I put myself in front,” reflects Hwang.
In 2011, Kollaboration was having their show at Nokia Theater, and Hwang decided to take advantage of the opportunity to perform at one of their largest venues: “So I just asked a bunch of musicians that I knew. First, I wanted to see if they liked the song [Monsters Calling Home], and if they wanted to audition with me. It wasn’t that we were gonna make a band and just do this. It was more like, ‘You want to play in Nokia Theater on stage? Let’s do this.’ And it became the first five people that are in the band.”
7. RRN’s second album is coming out by the beginning of next year, and it will be starkly different from their first.
Drinking From a Salt Pond is scheduled to be released in late January or early February of this coming year. The album will herald an end to the alternative folk sound that has become synonymous with Run River North, in large part because of the sound of their self-titled debut album, Run River North.
“We’re in this spot where it’s been a really tough year for the band. Just trying to come up with songs, and since this is our full-time job, if we’re not playing gigs, we’re not making money, so that’s a pretty big strain. And after having to tour for three years, you see everything about each other. So, all of that – put into a pot – it’s really easy for all of us to be short-tempered and toxic in our relationships,” Hwang reflects.
Yet in spite of that fact that they’re “hanging around a stagnant salt pond that’s not giving life,” Hwang explains, “somehow we’re able to make some pretty fresh stuff.” RRN seeks to strip down everything to the core in order to be as raw and honest as possible.
“I think that’s what drinking from a salt pond is like. You know this is wrong, and you know this isn’t what it’s supposed to be, but you have to take that sip, and you have to admit that there’s something wrong… just to be honest I guess,” says Hwang. “It’s not, ‘Everything’s going great.’ No, everything kind of sucks right now, and yet, even though everything kind of sucks, things are still growing and things are still fruitful, things are still good. So in the midst of crap, there’s still something going on.”
The music production is also stripped down to the bone, devoid of excessive effects. “We’re really putting a mirror to who we really are, and not trying to put any filters, or cool Instagram filters, or cool reverb, or even my voice in the record,” explains Hwang. “We’ve stripped out a lot of effects… There’s a little bit of delay on it, slap back, but a lot of the times, our vocals, and a lot of the takes too, are just really raw, and it’s exactly what we’re doing. This is who we are as a band. Sometimes it sounds kind of shitty, but I think that’s what we want – to kinda portray that we’re not the most talented, skilled people. We’re a band, and out of what we have together, here’s what we have.”
Watch the music video for the first single from the new album below!
8. And finally, some great news for fans in Asia.
The goals for the new album remain as ambitious as the last album’s – to play wherever they can, and at the biggest stages possible. Hwang also expresses that the band desires to play abroad, particularly in Asia.
Hwang explains that the band’s identity is flexible and cannot be contained into a racial category. “It feels like we’re kind of a world band,” says Hwang. “We’re not this White, Korean band, and we’re not this Asian, Korean band. So I think we can go to both places and be like, why don’t you tell us what we are, when we play?”
And he’s absolutely right. When I first heard “Monsters Calling Home” off their first album, I couldn’t believe that I was listening to a folk rock band composed entirely of Korean-Americans. Ignorant on my part, probably, but my surprise also goes to show the rarity of Asian front men in certain music genres, let alone a band composed entirely of people like me. People who harbored a duality in identity: we are neither Korean nor American, but at the same time, we are fully both. We cannot be shackled into a single racial category, but we embrace this flexibility.
And that’s exactly what Hwang and the band is doing. So kudos to Run River North for breaking racial boundaries, setting milestones, and embracing that complex blend of their identity as Asian Americans.
Feature image & video courtesy of Run River North