|L-R: Alex Hwang, John Chong, Sally Kang, Daniel Chae, Joe Chun, Jennifer Rim. Photo: Eric Ryan Anderson.|
L.A.-based folk-rock band Run River North are a model for self-made bands everywhere. The Korean-American septet, who make folk-based music with soaring vocals, intricate harmonies and the occasional electric guitar, have been garnering increasing notice not just locally, but globally, thanks in part to some industrious moves. The band recorded a version of its song “Fight to Keep” live inside one of the band members’ Hondas. The clip made it to Honda’s computer screens, and the company surprised the band by taking it to play live on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” You can watch both the original clip and their appearance on “Kimmel” below.
The band is playing every Wednesday this month at acoustic music haven Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. Amoeba is proud to sponsor the residency. You can catch them Nov. 20, 27 and Dec. 4. Additionally the band's Fight to Keep 7” will be available exclusively at Amoeba Hollywood starting Nov. 27. The band’s self-titled debut album is due Feb. 25 on Nettwerk.
I sat down to speak with the lead singer/guitarist Alex Hwang as the band was in the midst of its Hotel Cafe residency.
How did you guys all know each other before the band formed?
Most of us grew up in the valley and knew each other in some capacity. A few years back, John and Daniel were already in a band together and I toured as the opener. When I approached everyone with the song “Monsters Calling Home” it was one of those moments that just made sense.
Did you grow up with this sort of music being played around your households?
Personally, I grew up on “Sesame Street,” films and mostly hymns. In middle school, there was ’90s K-Pop, which my parents allowed because it was Korean, but I quickly grew out of that genre and moved on to finding music elsewhere. Occasionally, I still love ’90s K-Pop, such good cheese.
I know you guys formed in part for a Kollaboration competition (an Asian-American talent competition), and you’ve been selected to perform for PBS’ “Artbound.” But has being an all Korean-American band ever been an issue for you guys, like as far as typecasting goes?
We get Asian-Mumford because of the acoustic guitars and harmonies and us being pretty Asian. Besides getting a handful of college Asian student group invites, nothing too public yet, but I'm pretty sure people take notice when everyone steps on stage and all you see is black hair (except Sally—she keeps it interesting every couple months). Even though we draw influence from our parents’ experiences as immigrants, our music is much broader than that and is about the universal search for identity.
Where did the idea for the Honda videos come from? Were you surprised at how popular the videos were and how Honda responded?
Since of course we drive Hondas, we were wondering how could we help the stereotype that we all seem to fit so perfectly into? Rather than take the unproductive route of focusing on our driving skills, we wanted to make a YouTube music video that wasn't one where we are starting at the computer screen in our rooms singing a Bruno Mars cover song. Also, the acoustics were really great in the car, and studio time is expensive. And truthfully, we had done a cover of The Black Keys "Only One" a month before on behalf a friend's request in my Honda CRV, and the video/audio came out great—we decided to take it up a notch and use all of our Hondas, instead of just one.
Were we surprised by the reaction? HELL YES. I still cannot believe everything that’s happened. We are so lucky to be making music in the YouTube age. It also helps that our band consists of multi-hyphenate individuals (videographers, pro-tools experts, sound engineers, etc.). If you've seen the YouTube video of Honda surprising us with a Jimmy Kimmel performance—it really was a surprise. Jennifer's tears were very real.
Was the “Jimmy Kimmel” performance a turning point for the band?
Yes, but in unexpected ways. We were in the middle of meeting with some major labels and figured this could only help our chances. But the one label who showed up to every show and continued to engage us almost purely as fans was Nettwerk, they really met us where we were and we got along very well from the get go.
But the larger turning point was with our parents. Honestly many of our parents still can't get their heads around how this band thing could be worth skipping out on day jobs and other American dreams. Seeing us on national TV definitely gives us about a year or two before they start asking when are we going to return to school.
There seems to be a lot of videos of you guys playing in odd venues—another is on a balcony, for instance. Does that just add a fun challenge to the music or are you trying to make it visually appealing or what’s the deal there??
Until we can get that awesome opening slot on a big tour, I think our job is to prove to ourselves and to everyone else that we're worth watching perform anywhere and anytime. I always have enjoyed watching La Blogotheque videos for that reason—seeing bands/musicians that I love in different spaces and usually stripped in some capacity. After the videos, you just have to wonder—well, why don't I just do that myself? Also, people that come see live music instinctively start going for their iPhones and iPads to record the performances—why not give them a more interesting backdrop and location? I hope I'm wrong about the iPads.
Why do you think orchestral, emotional folk-rock has been hitting the mainstream so hard lately?
It's definitely a good contrast with the dance music that is and will always be prevalent. Personally, seeing different instruments—especially classical/orchestral instruments—played alongside your traditional rock instruments can be refreshing. Jennifer and Daniel play amazing violin; you cannot doubt the talent and discipline of great, classically trained orchestra players.
What inspired the name change? Did that help solidify your band and its sound?
There are other monsters in the folk-rock scene, and we just wanted to clear the air and not have to keep having the same conversation over and over again—we already have the Asian thing to talk about.
In truth, the name change was a good exercise in letting go of what we thought were important things and letting the music dictate how we were going to move forward. We're still solidifying the band sound; we've only got around 20 songs as a band, and there are still so many ideas floating in our heads. Run River North is a call to action.
I was surprised by the sound of the album—a little more electric and grandiose than I would have imagined, based on the acoustic live videos I’ve seen. When it came time to record, did you have an idea in your mind about how the songs should sound given a full-studio treatment?
Awesome! We definitely enjoy surprising people. Collectively, we knew all along that the songs were going to be big because of our rehearsals and the pattern of our live shows. The acoustic live videos usually just stem from either limited resources or it felt appropriate for the setting to play acoustic. When we joined Phil Ek (Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, The Shins) in the studio, we were already huge fans of his records and he was definitely looking to go big with the sound of our record. We agreed.
I was also surprised to find you guys didn’t shy away from incorporating praise music in songs like “Foxbeard” and “Banner.” Was that important, to include a bit of your church roots in the album? Is that just how it came out—a reflection of your beliefs?
With “Foxbeard” and “Banner,” there are definitely words and moments with religious history and subtext, but overall, the songs are about people who probably don't "praise" in the traditional context. In “Banner” we're singing to those who hold their banners too tightly and end up speaking with their fists. The first verse, in particular, is my personal disappointment in people who seem to hate the concept of love and love the concept of hate. We don't consider our own beliefs to be a banner over other people's beliefs nor a gimmick to mask our possibly incredibly selfish motives and desires. Our only hope is that the music we make is personal enough to stay genuine and honest.
Your harmonies are really striking. Who did you look to inspire the way you combine your vocals—the church, certain artists, a combination?
Definitely a combination. We have some friends that are incredible singers and blend beautifully all day, every day. Also, I figure if we have drummers, bassists, violinists who can sing, why not? Going off the Phil Ek tip, Fleet Foxes are obvious inspirations. Also The Beach Boys.
Can you list of me five of your favorite records?
This is a collection from the band:
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Cold War Kids - Loyalty to Loyalty