You may recognize Run River North thanks to a car – their self-produced music video for “Fight To Keep” featured their Hondas, and the car manufacturer took notice, surprising them with a spot on Jimmy Kimmel. The rest is history.
“It was like a giant firework,” vocalist Alex Hwang says of the experience. “It was beautiful and filled our hearts and our pockets for a little while. But since we didn’t have a lot of things in place, like a label and/or rollout plan after the Kimmel performance, it was over and the memory of it quickly fades into a YouTube video… It was a bit of a self-imposed uphill battle after the initial glitter and uptick in iTunes sales of our demo CD.”
They still went by Monsters Calling Home back then, but since have changed their name to Run River North due to the former’s similarities to Of Monsters and Men. “It would have been a constant comparison to a very successful and amazing band who we would rather one day perform with as opposed to a shallow talking point or lazy label,” Hwang said.
“On one hand, since there aren’t many (if any) widely popular all Asian American bands, we’re able stand out amongst a predominantly bearded white majority. This feeling is always affirmed whenever we’re done with a show and a handful of people will make it a point to come up to one of us to tell us that they did not expect our sound coming from our group. But the flip side is that we could be easily labeled as a gimmick or just seen as the ‘Asian’ version of that white folk, alt-rock, indie band that people love,” he said.
“Monsters Calling Home” is also the opening track on their inaugural eponymous LP. The song calls upon each individual’s heritage. “Our heritage seems to be given a bigger role for us to engage with musically in order for people to have some grasp of our identity. The question that we constantly have to address ourselves in our music and identity is: Will the one thing that sets us apart and is an indelible part of our identity be the one thing we have to sing and talk about in order for us to continue to get gigs?” Hwang said.
“Monsters Calling Home” remains a staple song in their setlist, Hwang referring to it as a “big part of [our] identity.” He sings in the first verse: “The children call bitter words/Of a strange tongue/Hearts down, they’re walking/Heavy until the dying’s down.” The “strange tongue” refers to their families’ first encounters with English, with the children speaking it, sounding like “bitter words.” The song touches on each individual’s family’s experience in coming to the U.S.
Anthemic and full of color and flourish, their music may hold similarities to OMAM, but they separate themselves with a tinge of Americana and forays into the world of electronica. “Run Or Hide” off their latest LP, Drinking From a Salt Pond, sees mellifluous synth tracks from Sally Kang, swelling violins from Daniel Chae and Jennifer Rim, and measured drums from John Chong. Bassist Joseph Chun provides the foundation for it all. Not quite folk, not quite electronic, it settles itself into a mysterious and captivating in-between.
The song came to life after attempts to write with different songwriters. The first few attempts didn’t quite get what they were looking for, but working with Lincoln Parish, they clicked: “Soon we had a demo that we sent to the rest of the band back home and it was shocking for most of the band. My vocals, the intensity of the track was nothing like our first album, but it was a great song and so it was definitely a journey for the band to make it our own.” Hwang is particularly proud of the way “Run Or Hide” captures the “explosive aggression” of the song through the instrumentation alone. Apart from genre labels, he calls their music “good.” Well, he’s not wrong.
Salt Pond has an electrifying energy, each song attacking a different emotion at full force. The melodies are smooth and refined, the lyrics providing context for the emotionally packed music. On “Anthony,” Hwang sings, “I found my way back/but no one’s waiting for me.” This could be a hint at loneliness, but it could also be read as independence. This idea is supported as he sings in the chorus: “I can’t give up.” A song about loss and pain, Run River North takes on rugged emotional territory, a successful departure from the traditional image of feel-good, fuzzy indie pop.
Pursuing a new sound was an intentional choice, one made in consciousness of the band’s longevity. “An unclear future of how to make a six piece folk-band sustain six peoples’ lives,”caused enough tension and anxiety for me to drop the acoustic guitar and explore new territory before dragging the band into a second album filled with the same story, same sounds.”
And while it guided their sound, the inner workings of the band were also looked into. Trust plays a huge role in any band with more members than you can count on one hand. “We’ve gone through a bittersweet season of relational and musical tension in order to create this second album and to sustain this band,” he said. “Having six members in the band means that there are six different points of views for every decision made and to trust that everyone is working towards the same goal can, at many times, be overwhelming and frustrating and hopeless. I think it requires some type of faith in something – or maybe no faith at all – in order to survive in a band.”