“We want to be real artists, and with this album, we feel like we’re getting there.”
Run River North, a six-piece indie band from the San Fernando Valley, continue their unlikely and unorthodox rise to the top of the indie heap. Their sophomore release, the lush and ambitious Drinking from a Salt Pond (Nettwerk Music Group), is a testament to their drive, growth, and commercial appeal. Guitarist/vocalist Alex Hwang, keyboardist Sally Kang, violinist Jennifer Rim, bassist Joe Chun, drummer John Chong, and violinist/guitarist Daniel Chae were basking in the glow of a great show the previous evening when Chong took a moment from touring to speak to me.
What was it like recording Drinking from a Salt Pond?
In terms of budget, it was about the same as our first album. It’s definitely produced better. We restricted ourselves, in terms of the songwriting structure, to the verse-chorus-verse structure. We still kept the same dynamics of the first album, but we stretched out a bit more. Because Alex got off of the acoustic and onto the electric guitar, we were able to create new parts for others members of the band. Our producer, Lars Stalfors [Cold War Kids, HEALTH], was amazing and kept a lot of raw takes, and we didn’t do a lot of pitch correcting or multiple takes. We got good sounds and tones and kept it minimal at first.
We also live tracked a lot. We were well rehearsed before going in. We wrote for six months and spent our time rehearsing and eating good food (laughs). We played as a ban in rehearsal and played as a well-rehearsed band in the studio.
Do commercials and soundtracks help you reach a much larger audience?
TV is the new radio. We’re not in any commercials right now; we had songs in Honda and McDonald’s commercials like a year ago. We had a meeting with Warner/Chappell and we said, “You can put our music in anything, even porn.” [Laughs]
Do your families support your decisions to pursue careers as musicians?
Yes, but it was difficult in the beginning. Alex’s and my family were supportive; the other members were like, “We’ll let you know.” They weren’t sure how long it would go on. We got on Jimmy Kimmel early on and that was a big break. We have seen some success in the last few years and some money is coming in. Any parent wants to make sure their children are OK. We think we’ve built enough credit to last another 10 years or so.
Who made you want to play music?
All of us have very different musical backgrounds. For me personally, it was metal, especially Thrice. I wanted to play fast drums like metal/thrash bands, and then I got into jazz. I got into indie bands like the Coldwar Kids. Joe, our bass player, loves Tenacious D. Alex, the lead singer, was influenced by Damian Rice and the Killers. He just used to write songs on his acoustic. As for the second album, we wanted a Death Cab–meets-the–Cold War Kids thing, mixed with the Killers and Arcade Fire.
What has been your most memorable show?
We played a venue under a bowling alley, where we kept seeing the ball going over us in the ceiling. The track ran above the room and there was a hole, and we could see the ball. I forget the venue’s name, but not that show.
Last night [San Francisco] was the most memorable so far. We stepped up our game to another level and a lot of our fans were singing along to all our songs. After we got off stage, we all agreed that was the best so far. We’ve had great shows at the Troubadour [West Hollywood] and the Bowery Ballroom in NYC. I’m sure we’ll have some more great shows and memories.
How did you all meet and start the band in 2011? I heard you belonged to the same church.
We had mutual friends, and it came together randomly. I knew Alex, and he knew Sally, and so on—a real mishmash of people. Our personalities are different, and we have healthy arguments. We haven’t had any personnel changes, either. That’s what our new album is all about: how we almost broke up. Our music is a result of all that arguing and tension. We want to be real artists, and with this album, we feel like we’re getting there. I think that fights come from not really knowing people. We are really close, but we still have to figure things out.
How do social media help your band reach new fans?
Since the beginning, we knew what social platforms were for and we understood their purpose. Now it’s more of a source for fans to reach out to celebrities. It was originally just for our friends and fans to see. We like the 140 characters of Twitter. Instagram is a little more creative, and lots of our fans were on it. Facebook is simple to use, too. We’re really using Flipagram; it’s important. We’ve quadrupled the amount of people following us by using it.
You had music in the film The Good Lie. How did that come about?
We’re signed with a publishing company, Warner/Chappell, and they got ahold of the director [Philippe Falardeau], so we didn’t really have anything to do with it. At one of our shows, this African guy comes up and says, “We’re using your music [“Growing Up”] in a very crucial part of the film.” We finally got to see the film at its screening and it was awesome. We all cried when we saw it. We still get people that recognize the band and our music because of that film.
How hard is for a new band to break through these days? Is it as easy as it was in ’90s?
It’s not really that hard. I think you’re right about the ’90s, though: You could record at home, but it was hard. You had to sign with a label to really succeed. It is tough now, too; it’s so saturated. Everyone can record music now, and there’s not necessarily a few hubs for studios or the music business. You have to stand out in terms of image and in other ways.
Each decade has its challenges, I suppose. That’s the beauty of Sound Cloud and YouTube. YouTube is almost like the new MTV, and one great way to get your music in front of people. BandCamp helps, too.
Have you ever played Korea?
No, we haven’t yet. We had one opportunity to play a festival, but it didn’t work out. There may be something in the works. We’d love to play for our parents’ families over there; they don’t get to see what we do in the States. They just kind of know we’re all in a band.
Why did you change your original band name, Monsters Calling Home?
We’ve been the same band since the beginning. There were many “monsters” by the time we came up and they had a similar sound. Our managers came to us and said, “Are you open to trying a different name?” We liked [the original name], but changed it.
Where do you fit in the current musical landscape? Do you feel you share a kinship with any other bands or genres?
The whole genre conversation is tough for us; we feel like we do something unique. It’s not jazz, classical music, or straight-ahead rock, et cetera. We went from folk and singer-songwriter to a pop-rock thing. We’re more into the independent world and way of doing things. We still try to make music with hooks and strong melodies.
Are you seeing new faces at your shows?
Yes; there are even people who seem to know the words to a lot of our songs. It’s great to see and hear people singing along. | Doug Tull
Run River North will be playing St. Louis’s Off Broadway on Wednesday, March 30. Full tour dates are below.
03.25 | Club Downunder, Tallahassee FL
03.26 | Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte NC
03.29 | The New Vintage, Louisville
03.30 | Off Broadway, St. Louis
03.31 | Lincoln Hall, Chicago
04.01 | Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis
04.02 | High Noon Saloon, Madison WI
04.04 | Ladies’ Literary Club, Grand Rapids MI