March Cover Story: Run River North Chases the Dream

Roots Run Deep For Run River North

The indie rock band’s music and identity find inspiration in its immigrant heritage.


Photos by Mitchell Nguyen McCormack

As Daniel Chae tells it, he and his bandmates often liked to jam inside their cars while on their way somewhere. They all lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, meaning these could be long drives. Lead singer Alex Hwang would start strumming his guitar from the backseat, while the others would start singing and harmonizing. So as they prepared to release their first single in 2012 and were brainstorming of unorthodox—and low-budget—ways to shoot a music video, the idea of performing their song, “Fight to Keep,” inside lead singer-songwriter Hwang’s Honda Fit naturally came up. That’s when Chae said, “Let’s just put drums in the car and actually record it.”

The resulting video shows the musicians, sometimes in the backseat, sometimes in the front, headphones on, Chae and Hwang playing guitar, Sally Kang on tambourine. John Chong, over 6 feet tall, is hunched over in the compact trunk playing the drums, with a small camera strapped to his head. They take turns at the mic, as the car is seen driving around town, including through a McDonald’s drive-thru, and their sound gradually builds—and builds. “Fight to keep the fire burning,” their voices boom to the up-tempo chorus.

Without a label or an album at the time, the band uploaded the video to YouTube, and it also found its way to some unlikely fans: Honda executives.  So impressed by the video, they invited the band to perform for hundreds of Honda employees, only to tell the band members when they arrived that the concert had just been canceled.

Though their faces clearly show they are dumbfounded and disappointed, the musicians accommodate one of the Honda representative’s request to play a song before they go. As they start to play, he abruptly stops them.

“Truthfully, there never really was supposed to be a concert here,” he tells them, as the scene is being filmed secretly.  “Honda has a better gig for you guys. You are booked as the musical guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. We picked this location, because Jimmy Kimmel is across the street, and that’s where you’re going right now!”

Just two hours after the Honda executive broke the shocking news, the six young members of this nascent band called Monsters Calling Home performed their song, “Fight to Keep,” on national television.

“We got punked, basically,” said Chae, 25, remembering that unforgettable day in September of 2012. “We were very shocked. None of us were prepared.  If we had more time, we would’ve all freaked out, but because it happened so fast, we got through it. That was our explosion in terms of publicity.”

Performing on national TV not only boosted the indie rock band’s confidence and exposure, it also played a major role in winning over some of their toughest critics: their immigrant parents.

“A lot of our parents didn’t want us to pursue music, or they were questioning it,” said Chong, 27. “So it allowed us to give them a little bit of encouragement.”

Hwang added, “It gave us another year before our parents asked why we weren’t in law school. It gave a little bit of a guarantee, like, ‘Oh, wow, they’re actually getting paid to do this.’ So getting on TV made sure that this isn’t just a hobby that we’re doing. It meant our music is resonating with people beyond the Korean community.”

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Further proof of that resonance would come later that year, when the band sold out a show at West Hollywood’s legendary Troubadour. Last spring, the artists, now going by Run River North, signed with Nettwerk Music Group, a label known for attracting “non-traditional artists” and launching the careers of Sarah McLachlan, Skinny Puppy and, most recently, Fun. The band changed its name last year at the urging of its management, which didn’t want it to be confused with Of Monsters and Men.

When KoreAm met up with the musicians in L.A. last month, they were just weeks away from releasing their self-titled debut album on Feb. 25. The artists spent last fall in Seattle recording the songs with respected producer Phil Ek. A fan of the band’s “large builds in their music” and “intriguing” vocal melodies, he has also produced albums for Fleet Foxes and The Shins.

Run River North was also looking forward to returning to the Troubadour on March 3 for another sold-out show celebrating the album’s release. After that, the group hits the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, followed by a tour with the Goo Goo Dolls in April that will take the artists to cities like Syracuse, Albany, Nashville and Chicago.

It’s clearly an exciting time for the band, whose members range in age from 20 to 28.

“As a kid, I loved singing for fun, but I never thought I’d do it publicly for people outside my living room,” said Kang, the 22-year-old vocalist and keyboardist. “I only liked singing for fun on my parents’ karaoke machine.”

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Joe Chun, the band’s 22-year-old bassist, was making wedding videos and tutoring schoolchildren to pay the bills before the music career began to take off. “I only played music in church,” he said. Though Run River North has only been around since 2011, its name has a recognition quotient that seems much higher than what one would expect for a relatively young indie group. They have been featured on NPR and, more recently, in the Wall Street Journal. Even prior to the Kimmel appearance, Asian American audiences got an early glimpse of the group, after a performance in 2011 at Kollaboration L.A., a popular Asian American talent show.

Hwang, the most senior member of the band at age 28, actually signed up for the show on his own, but wanted to “fill up the stage with a lot of people I vibe with musically and personally.” So he invited the other five musicians—whom he knew through church or friends—to play with him.

Like Hwang, the others are also second-generation Korean Americans. That wasn’t by design, but rather a function of being Korean, living in the Valley, playing music and being Christian—some of them attend the same church. “If you’re Korean and you play music, it’s not that big of a net,” said Hwang. “You kind of know who the players are.”

When the band needed a name to submit for Kollaboration, they tapped one of the songs Hwang had written. “Monsters Calling Home,” which is the first track on the new album, is a deeply personal anthem for the band and, in a way, speaks to the roots of its very identity. Hwang said he wrote the song after he and bassist Chun, who were already friends, were talking about common family problems, during a road trip in 2010.

“We found out that we share similar kinds of monsters,” Hwang said. The “monsters” metaphorically refer to immigrant fathers, struggling to achieve the American dream for their families, said Hwang.

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Like many of their second-generation peers, members of Run River North grew up in homes where immigrant parents and their American-raised children confronted language and cultural barriers that sometimes led to rifts between them. Acknowledging that many Korean American families contend with issues like domestic violence and alcoholism, often as a related consequence of their immigrant struggle, the musicians decided to take up and explore those themes in their music.

“Immigrant fathers come to this foreign land and end up with families here with kids who speak a different language,” said Hwang. “What ended up happening is, because they’re humans just like anybody else, they’re at fault at times. But at the same time, [behind] all of that is the same desire that anybody has, regardless of whether you’re an immigrant. You just want a place to call home.”

Those struggles translated into the lyrics: “They’re walking heavy to the beat of a broken drum / Digging for worth in a land under a foreign sun / Their children call, bitter words of a strange tongue / Hearts down, they’re walking heavy till the dying’s done.”

Because Monsters Calling Home held such a deeply personal resonance for the band, the name change suggested by their manager last year was not an easy decision. At the same time, the artists didn’t want to jeopardize their future over a name.

“Eventually, we let it go because we wanted to see how far this band could go without being too protective,” said Chong. “So we thought of Run River North. It stands for the kind of music that we play, where water could be very graceful, very soft and then get very dangerous and loud. Water is that kind of element. That visual of constantly moving forward with this idea of the band.”

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Although the band didn’t win the Kollaboration contest back in 2011 (they famously lost to the “yo-yo
guy”), the opportunity allowed its members to set up roots, gel and grow together. They also won early fans, like Phil Yu, the blogger behind the influential Angry Asian Man blog.

“All these steps of making a band is kind of like dating,” explained Hwang, who sports hipster frames and facial hair. “You kind of have to go on a date and then see if the chemistry keeps going, see what’s stopping the chemistry. Trials and errors. I just said, ‘Let’s see how long we can last and how far we can go.’”

“When we first played,” added Chong, “the feeling I got was, ‘This feels really good.’ When we play music with each other, there’s definitely another level of connection. And I think we all felt that, and we wanted to keep it going. It was a really good start.”

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But, during the pre-Kimmel and pre-label days, the depth of that connection was often tested, as the artists
would have to balance their music pursuit with outside jobs, and, for the two women of the group, school. As they played gigs at small venues in other cities, they would often have no place to stay and, halfway through their show, would ask if anyone in the audience could put them up for the night.

“My mom wasn’t exactly thrilled seeing her 18-year-old daughter playing music at bars at night,” said Rim, 20, who plays violin. Even though she majored in music at California State University at Long Beach, her parents didn’t at all foresee their daughter becoming a violinist for a rock band.

Kang, who was majoring in journalism at California State University at Northridge, shocked her parents as well with her decision to delay finishing her education in favor of her music career. “My dad really wanted me to do business and graduate on time,” said Kang.

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Chae gave up his job as a trader in the finance industry for what he calls their American Dream.

Of course, the tale of second-generation Korean Americans defying their immigrant parents’ wishes for them is nothing new. But, with Run River North, this conflict seems so central to their art.

“It’s not just our music that our parents’ struggles influenced, it’s our lives,” explained a passionate Hwang, whose father held a statistics degree from Korea, but ran a liquor store in the States. “My dad wanted to own a home here in America. He did that, but the mortgage crisis happened. So he lost one thing that showed to himself and his family that he was the man of the family. Trying to wrestle with that on top of having two brattish American kids, that can get hefty in the household.

“You can’t even put it into words, the struggles you face without even a retirement plan and having a kid wanting to be in a music group,” he continued. “It’s something I realized a little too late, but it’s timely enough to see the sacrifices that they did put in and how they do love their kids. And [we want] to appropriately honor them by making people hear them in our songs.”

With members who play acoustic and electric guitar, violins, bass, keyboards and drums, the folk-influenced Run River North is known for its big sound, though as Chong suggested earlier, there are often soft moments that later swell into this rousing and melodic crescendo of instruments and vocals. Comparisons range from Simon & Garfunkel to Jefferson Airplane and The Lumineers, though perhaps what excites audiences so much about this band is that it is different from the rest.

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Run River North’s songs and lyrics are what got the attention of Terry McBride, CEO of Nettwerk, which actually started scouting the band about a month before its appearance on Kimmel. “I see songs and lyrics as emotions,” he said. “Their songs to me are like bookmarks inside your life. They remind you of a time and place at certain points in your life.”

Band members are pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic reception they have received in cities and towns where there aren’t a large number of Asians.

“It’s an interesting sight watching a bunch of Asians on stage in Nashville,” Chong said. “You first see a lot of crossed arms [in the audience]. But by the end of the first or second song, you see them very open and enthusiastic. It’s very surprising. It’s very fun to see that happening. When they warm to us, we’re able to vibe back with them that way.”

They’ll have plenty of chances to share that vibe again this spring, as they play venues in the Southwest, Midwest, parts of the South and all along the East Coast.

The long-term dream is to be able to work on music full-time, which five of the six are doing now, and “be able to support the family,” said Hwang. “We want to travel around the world and share our songs,” he said.

They have one particular destination in mind: South Korea.

“We’re going as Korean Americans,” said Hwang. “To be able to go back to the country [our parents] left, and to be successful there, I feel like that’s a way in which second-generation kids can honor their parents—and to allow our parents to brag about it, too. There must be a lot of stories about how all these parents are proud of their doctor sons and lawyer sons. And so what’s wrong with being proud of musician children? And the best way to do it, I think, is to go back to the place they left to honor them. To play our music, and say, ‘Thank you, Mom and Dad. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be able to do this in the way we’re doing it, as this group of Korean American musicians.”

“I want to show my dad’s side of the family [in Korea] why he came to America,” Chong said. “I want to let them know that my dad made an awesome choice, and that one of the decisions he made resulted in me playing music.”

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This article was published in the March 2014 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).