by Jane Roser
L.A.-based indie folk-pop sextet Run River North has achieved what takes most bands a decade to accomplish. A hit album, selling out venues, performing on major talk shows and supporting The Goo Goo Dolls on tour, all within the span of only six months.
Originally called Monsters Calling Home, band members Alex Hwang (lead vocals, guitar), Daniel Chae (vocals, violin), Jennifer Rim (violin), Joe Chun (bass), Sally Kang (vocals, keyboards) and John Chong (drums) came together in 2011 when Hwang entered their eponymous song “Monsters Calling Home” in an Asian-American talent show.
“Joe and I were talking about our families and similar skeletons in our closets, so I began writing stories and songs about it and one that came to the forefront was “Monsters Calling Home”,” says Hwang. “We entered this talent show called Kollaboration at the Nokia Theater here in Los Angeles. It was a huge theater, so I thought why not try to fill up the stage, so all the people I initially talked to about performing eventually became the band.” They lost to a yo-yo master, but their performance gained fans and media attention, and it’s been all uphill since then.
“It’s very surreal,” says Hwang, “we were actually rehearsing with The Goo Goo Dolls the other day and playing “Iris” with them, I couldn’t believe it. It’s all happening pretty fast and we’re just trying to keep reminding ourselves that it’s not usually like this. We’re very fortunate to have this early in our career.”
Growing up, Hwang says that it was embedded in their parents’ idea of discipline that they should all be classically trained in music. “Some of us succeeded and others not so much, myself being part of the latter category,” he jokes. “I watched a lot of Disney films. The Lion King was my biggest musical influence and also K-Pop just because when I was younger those were the people that were cool. For me, I think I started playing music because girls liked it.”
Getting used to touring life has been a bit of a challenge since the band are their own tour managers and roadies. “We all take shifts driving and have grueling hours, but I think it’s really humbled us to see what it’s like to be in a band. The whole touring life really isn’t that glamorous in the beginning, you have to drive really far to get to one show and then you can’t enjoy where you are because you have to go to another city the next day, but I think since there are six of us, we wind up being our own tour guides. Jennifer loves looking up food reviews and finding us good places to eat, Sally’s great at finding coffee shops and John can usually find a record store. We also have videographers in our group, so we can document everything.”
Touted as being “one of the bands to see” at SXSW, Run River North put the pedal to the metal, driving 22 hours from L.A. to Austin and playing a showcase the evening they arrived. “We got to play our live set to people who maybe just heard our album,” says Hwang. “The album is like a snapshot from last summer and it’s great, but since then, we’ve had so many live shows and have incorporated many new elements, so the songs and live shows have grown into something very unique now. It was great to be able to play for other bands and industry people.”
When I inquire about what prompted the band’s name change, Hwang explains, “it was two-fold, right around the time we came out as Monsters Calling Home, one of my favorite bands, Of Monsters and Men, was blowing up and we just didn’t want to crowd the space with so many monsters. We kept hearing people say ‘hey, I think I heard you on the radio’ and it usually ended up being Of Monsters and Men, so we just wanted to stop all the confusion and decided to let go of the name and see what came of it.”
In the end, the band decided that Monsters Calling Home only described one element of them and the name change came out of trying to grow out of that one song. “That song was actually written by me,” says Hwang, ” and we all wanted to make sure that the band name felt more collaborative, so Monsters Calling Home is just a prequel. I think that Run River North encapsulates more of our sound, sometimes peaceful and a lot of subtle harmonies, and at other times very bombastic and big like a rushing river.”
In 2012, the band decided to record a song and video entirely inside of their Hondas. “Fight To Keep” went viral and the folks at Honda took notice, inviting the band to perform at their executive offices. When the band got there, they were surprised to find that they had instead been booked as musical guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Run River North later made an official music video for “Fight To Keep” that premiered on TeamCoco, Conan’s official website. I tell Hwang the video, starring actor Diedrich Bader (anyone remember him from that 1990 21 Jump Street episode, “Last Chance High”, otherwise known as one of the best McQuaid brothers episodes ever? I sure do) reminded me of Cabin In The Woods. Hwang laughs and says, “I love that movie. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan.” He notes that the label asked the band if they wanted to make a music video. Hwang wanted to do something surprising and in line with their humor, so he thought it would be really fun if they all got murdered, but do it in a way that wasn’t totally gruesome.
“We found a great director, Zak Stoltz, who understood where we were coming from and then through some label connections, we were able to reach out to Diedrich Bader. He doesn’t usually do music videos, so we were really honored that he wanted to do this. It was a lot of fun to make, we spent two days up in Big Bear and Diedrich just murdered each one of us. I think the whole process creating it is what I envisioned for the video.”
This summer the band hopes to continue touring, playing festivals and finding other bands that want to tour with them. “We’re trying to cover as much of the U.S. as possible,” says Hwang, “and if we get an opportunity to play overseas, we’ll try to make it worth it. We really want people to have the experience of a live show because that’s where we really connect with our audience and shine as a band.”
Run River North is on the fast track to success and with their incredible, energetic live shows (I can attest they are awesome-I’ve been to one), beautiful, profound lyrics and the band’s graciousness and witty humor, they don’t have far to go to reach that ebb. As Joss Whedon would say, they have done the impossible and that makes them mighty.