Story by Taylor Weik.
“The album art is actually inspired by ancient Korean art,” drummer John Chong is saying, gesturing to the cover of the seven-inch vinyl — a large white square smeared with blue, gray and purple brush strokes detailing mountains and trees, clean and dirty at the same time — when all of a sudden, rock music begins blasting from the next room over, and the windows and doors start vibrating with the beat. It’s 5 p.m. at the Troubadour, just two hours before the indie folk-rock band Run River North takes the stage to promote their newly released, self-titled debut album.
“If you go to LACMA, you can find a lot of Korean landscapes with clouds, mountains and a lot of black,” Chong continues as if nothing has transpired, yelling over the music. The other five band members — Alex Hwang, Joe Chun, Daniel Chae, Sally Kang and Jennifer Rim — titter at his attempt to be heard in the small bar that now pulsates with rock. “We’re performing a sold-out show at the Troubadour,” says lead vocalist and songwriter Hwang. “Again.”
The last time Run River North performed at the Troubadour — the West Hollywood, Calif., club with a long, colorful history, famous for kicking out a very drunk John Lennon, and whose stage has been graced by everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Guns N’ Roses — it was 2012 and they were operating under the moniker Monsters Calling Home. The San Fernando Valley-based group changed its name when fellow indie band Of Monsters and Men rose to fame with its hit song “Little Talks.”
“We’re now Run River North, which can mean many things,” says Kang, who plays keyboards. “It describes the different ranges of our music — from being laid-back and letting our harmonies shine through, like in ‘Growing Up,’ which represents the steady flow of a river, to being as crazy and loud and thrashing as some of our other tracks that are a little more rock-ish, which portrays a rushing river.”
Run River North captured the attention of YouTubers (and auto execs) in 2012 with their music video for their upbeat single “Fight to Keep,” filmed entirely in their cars while driving through parking lots and across streets. Honda executives took note of the video — which has garnered more than 200,000 views on YouTube — and booked them as musical guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “Fight to Keep” is arguably their most popular song and is included in the new album — the one Chong was describing at the Troubadour — but the members have other favorites.
“My favorite song right now is ‘Beetle’ because we added an extra four-minute jam section for the show,” says Hwang. “Also I get to play the electric guitar, which I don’t usually get to do.” Rim, the violinist, favors “Lying Beast,” a softer, more lyrical tune inspired by a Korean folk song “to add a bit of our heritage.”
Their heritage is reflected in more than just the melodies. All six of Run River North’s members are Korean American, and more than a few of their songs function as stories of their experiences as children of Korean immigrants. “Monsters Calling Home,” which Hwang penned, pays homage to their parents and the sacrifices they made to leave behind their homeland for the “American Dream.” They’re walking heavy to the beat of a broken drum, Hwang croons in the song while Rim plucks violin strings in the background. Digging for worth in a land under a foreign sun.
Though their identities as Asian Americans play a significant role in their music, Hwang and the others members make sure to produce content that everyone can relate to and enjoy. “Our mental process when making music isn’t ‘this is what Asian music should sound like,’ but ‘this is what good music sounds like’ — it just so happens to be that we’re Asian American,” says Hwang. “We try not to be so intentional about our Asian-ness, but let the quality of the music speak. The way we look to people should come second to the way we sound.”
While Run River North has a loyal fan following, their biggest fan may be Korean American actor Steven Yeun. Not only did he tweet his support and encourage his followers to buy their debut album (Hwang and Yeun have been friends since before Yeun landed the role of Glenn Rhee on AMC’s The Walking Dead), Run River North takes a portable Glenn Rhee doll with them on their adventures, Instagramming photos of him wherever they go, whether it be on stage at SXSW or at a sleepy Nashville diner on their way to their next show, accompanied with the popular hashtag #glennontourwithrrn. “You have to tote the fine line between self-promotion and braggery, especially when it comes to social media,” says Hwang. “Glenn is that buffer for us so we can stay humble while sharing fun snapshots from our lives.”
Some of these snapshots are playing a role in documenting the rise of Run River North from a local “baby band,” as Chun calls them, to a more widely recognized name. After their album release show in March, they spent the entire month of April on tour with the Goo Goo Dolls, driving all over the Midwest and East Coast, before focusing more on the West Coast in June. Even so, when asked to share a favorite memory from their past year, what sits with Chong isn’t performing with celebrities or singing on the radio.
“When we were up in Seattle recording our album, there was one night when we went to Costco and just bought a bunch of food to prepare a feast,” he says. “It was a long day, and at the end we sat and ate together like a family. It was one of the best feelings. We aren’t a nuclear family, but we’re a family nevertheless, and we remind one another where we come from and belong in this crazy world.
This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here.