By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
I would be remiss to say that Run River North’s success could be attributed to a lucky break. The acclaim and popularity that they’re garnering more of with each passing day is certainly a result of the work they’ve put into their craft and sharing it with the world.
But they did have something great happen to them that helped to put them on many of our radars. In 2012, the six-member band (who called themselves Monsters Calling Home then) filmed the video for their song “Fight to Keep” inside their cars, which happened to be Hondas. When the car manufacturer saw the video, they told the band that as a thank you, they’d arranged a concert for 600 Honda executives. In reality, they’d arranged for the (at that point little-known) group to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The moment—which you can see captured on a video—was certainly a pivotal point in Run River North’s journey. But there have been plenty of others, as well, as their bright, fresh sound and elbow grease has carried them to a higher place.
The group, formed in 2011, all hail from Los Angeles, where they grew up. And as children of Koren immigrants, they were all part of the same community in LA. So when Alex Hwang, lead vocalist, needed some people to work with him on a song, called “Monsters Calling Home,” he got together some people he knew: Daniel Chae (violin and guitar); John Chong (drums); Joe Chun (bass); Sally Kang (keyboards); and Jennifer Rim (violin). It’s been nearly five years and they’re all still hanging in there, despite the hardships that can arise out of such an endeavor. “I find that music has a bigger impact when it’s collaborative. When multiple people work on a piece together, there’s magic that’s indescribable. It can be playing live or working on a song together,” Chong says. “The first time I experienced that was in fourth grade, listening to my crappy school orchestra. They hit a lot of wrong notes and were off, but for some reason, it was still special.”
Their first album, Run River North, was released in 2014, followed by this year’s Drinking from a Salt Pond. Salt Pond brings a different kind of sound to the table—which is not accidental—and the band will be the first to tell you that while it’s been amazing to see what they can do, there have been challenges as they’ve worked to grow as a band in the process. “We’ve had a lot of hating each other, almost kicking people out of the band,” says Hwang. “We’re being honest and that openness is one of the main thrusts for the album. Embracing the bitter with the sweet, not trying to hide the crappy parts…the crappy parts helped make the good.”
Chae agrees: “The record we just made, it’s all the difficult stuff we went through, so there’s a darker tone to the music. It works.”
So what has changed and why? “Musically, we went away from more acoustic sounding things, and got more electric in sound and more groove in feel,” Chong explains. “When Alex switched over to electric guitar, it allowed for both him and Daniel to really explore different ideas and tones. We made a more conscious effort to make most of our songs in the typical song format of VCVCBC. All of these changes weren’t a reaction to our first album, but a reaction to what was influencing us when writing for the second.” They also recorded this album in Los Angeles with Lars Stalfors, a step that helped move it toward more of an indie rock feel.
All of that struggle has produced something beautiful in the second album, for which the band is touring now (catch them in Birmingham at The Syndicate Lounge on April 17.) Though their sound harks back to the one they introduced on Run River North, it is simultaneously more polished, upbeat, and funky. “I hope [our music] conveys our snapshot of life as individuals and as a band,” Hwang says. “I hope it conveys the emotions and thoughts that we’ve gone through and that it ripples into other people’s memories and lives. My dream for it is that it allows us to make more music, more stories. I would tell people to buy the record and don’t just stream it. I would tell them that for any other musician/artist/band that they are interested in.
“I’m most proud of the music we created. Not any accomplishments or milestones, but the fact that we as a band created this album,” he continues. “I always get humbled when people tell us that our music speaks to them.”
4/20: Elle King at Saturn. For fans of X Ambassadors and Twenty One Pilots.
4/29: Modest Mouse at the Alabama Theatre. For fans of Spoon and The Shins.
5/8: Mavis Staples at the Lyric Theatre. For fans of Solomon Burke and the Staple Singers.