Run River North Interview: Asian-American indie rockers on maintaining sanity and livelihood at BottleRock Napa Valley

05/31/2017

A full day spent under the Napa Valley sun playing to hundreds of thousands of fans at BottleRock Napa Valley, indie rock band Run River North wasn’t quite done. On their way to play their third set in one day just across the Napa River in an intimate jazz venue called Silo’s, the band — physically tired and maybe emotionally drained — still had one more show to play.

“You learn to appreciate those [good] moments a lot more knowing all the struggle that happens,” lead singer Alex Hwang said to me Saturday night.

For Run River North, the path to success hasn’t been an easy one. After a fortunate video “Fight To Keep” going viral back in 2012 — leading the folks at Honda to take notice and book them a surprise gig on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — the band was plummeted into the limelight and have since fought their way to earn it.

“We’re no longer dancing around the fire,” Hwang explained. “We’re in it.”

Known for their heavy-hitting indie rock anthems and Asian-American identities, six-piece band Run River North is a band that makes honest-to-good music. Based in Los Angeles, their music tells the story of their own growth and coming-of-age as individuals, whether that’s growing up Asian-American or reflecting on the personal relationships, friendships or even discouragements that happen in the band or their careers. Their music is a direct reflection of their own experience — and that may be hard to come by in a lot of music today.

“29” is an infectious crowd-inclusive song full of rhythmic guitars, marching drumbeats and lots of oohs and ahhs. Lead singer Alex Hwang sings about his insecurity of turning 29 as he exclaims, “[Your words] hold no weight around me.”

I sat down with Hwang and guitarist Daniel Chae before their last show on their May tour to talk about transitioning band members, writing new music and being Asian-American all while maintaining their sanity on the road.

Lead singer Alex Hwang of Run River North performing live on Day 2 at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa, CA. 5/27/2017. (Photo: Brittany O’Brien | @britobrien)

Rachel Ann Cauilan: This is your last show for a while after playing for a whole month. How’s it been?

Alex Hwang: It’s been a long month. We’ve kind of oversaturated the market. Last year we played two full tours in the US in the spring and the fall, so we hit every city twice already. This is our third time in a year and a half in the same cities.

RAC: And this is your third show in one day [after two at BottleRock, one stage and one acoustic set]. Does that burn you out?

Daniel Chae: Well there’s been a lot of changes. We’re trying to write music and it’s a very transitionary period.

AH: It’s like juggling with a unicycle while someone’s trying to put you on fire. You’re trying to entertain with the same songs and then you’re trying to put new songs into that. We have a new drummer so we can’t play some of the old songs, so how do we satisfy those people and are the people who come to the show new?

RAC: How have you been feeling with bringing in the new drummer [Abe Kim]? Has that caused a strain?

AH: It’s actually been one of the better things that has happened given the circumstances. It’s a different vibe but I think it’s the vibe we need right now to focus on things like new songs and the transition. He’s very accommodating, he’s a good guy and obviously he’s talented.

DC: It feels like somebody ripped off a band-aid early and you’re just looking at it, and it has to heal. You have to force it to heal and that’s what it feels like. Very raw.

AH: Luckily the new drummer isn’t pouring salt on the wound. He’s very supportive and knows when to step in and knows when to let us be miserable for a second. It’s a little overdramatic but at the same time it’s our livelihood. We’re not doing this just for shits and giggles.

RAC: So you guys mentioned you were writing new material. I know it’s been a year since you released Drinking From A Salt Pond. How’s that process been?

AH: It’s a struggle, in a good and bad way. We’re not at a place in our career where we can just chill out and write songs in a beach house that the label provides. We’re doing it all the while we still have to sell shows and we still have to figure out a way to make a living, and so again it feels like juggling.

RAC: You’re ultimately hustling right now.

AH: Yeah. If anyone thinks they should do this, don’t do it! Because you really have to want to do this. It’s not fun sometimes. It’s fun for the 45 minutes that we play a show, but every other hour that day is so many things.

RAC: That’s interesting because like you said, it’s a hard thing and a lot of people give up easily. You guys have done this for a long time and are already trying to write another record. What’s the one thing that keeps you going to do this?

DC: I think it’s different for everybody in the band. Ultimately, as a collective our hope is that the work we do goes far beyond what the eye can see, touches in ways that aren’t visible. For me personally, that is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling feelings I can feel as a person — that my work has a purpose, and as well as it makes me freaking happy to play. I’m so happy.

AH: Yeah, that’s basically it. All the good moments whether they’re far and few between, you learn to appreciate those moments a lot more knowing all the struggle that happens. And I think that applies in life and relationships. The life that I’ve had to live with the band has helped me to be a better husband, better son and better human being outside of the band. So I feel like it turned porous. It influences my life and my life influences the music.

RAC: How is it balancing your own personal life and music with the band?

AH: It’s hard. I miss my wife everyday I’m on tour. I know people miss their beds and their families back home. You always have to wonder if it’s worth it and some days like today, yes. BottleRock was amazing and you don’t even think about home ’cause this feels like home right now. And there are moments in the van where you’re driving eight hours to another city and wondering every second why is this happening. What’s helping is that there’s other people in the band thinking the same things. You get to talk about it and don’t feel alone in your suffering. You get to celebrate with other people. It feels like what a family can be at times.

RAC: So I wanted to take this way back to when you first released your “Fight To Keep” video. That was the very beginning when people first started to pay attention. How do you think from that moment in time as a band to now, how have things evolved, mentally and in your career–?

DC: Oh man.

AH: I think we’ve been fighting to keep the fire burning. I don’t want sing that song anymore just because I feel like the rest of the songs are a literal expression of that song. I’d rather show people that that’s what we’re doing. We’re literally fighting to keep the fire burning. Part of the fight is to put yourself in the fire. It’s no longer dance around the fire–

RAC: You’re in it now.

DC: It seems like “Fight to Keep” was a very fortunate break that we had and the six years proceeding it, we’ve had to earn it. I think we kinda know what it means to be a musician now. We’re very lucky in the beginning, and we’re paying our dues… I think it’s important with anything in life to be as present as possible. No one can control tomorrow. We don’t need to worry about stuff like that as long as we’re giving everything right now. That’s what we can control.

RAC: Yeah, I totally get that. So I know the road has been a struggle, but what’s been one of the most humbling moments you’ve experienced when playing music or on tour?

AH: There was a radio station in Kansas City that just reacted to “Run Or Hide” on their own and supported it as human beings and used their radio power to play it on the radio. Because of that, we went there to play for the first time and it was a sold-out show and we got to play at their cool summer Buzz Beach Ball Festival with Portugal the Man and Head And The Heart and Fitz [And The Tantrums], Alabama Shakes. All these really cool bands were on that list and we were on that list and it was simply because we wrote a song that they liked. We can’t ever forget that — that’s a relationship that continues to be important to us and feels real and doesn’t feel like we’re selling a product.

DC: Alex talks about this a lot but these songs that we write are very personal to us, but once they’re out they’re no longer ours. If someone makes a personal connection to the song, it’s as unique as can be to that person.

AH: We get a lot of stories on the road from people who have driven three hours to see our show, or this song helped them get through a divorce. It’s something way more real than our band drama and those are the things that humble us and say okay, what you’re doing matters to somebody else and it has impacted their life in a very real way.

DC: I worked a nine-to-five and had a 401k and at the back of my mind, what’s driving that is I’m building my kingdom. I’m building my own wealth and looking out for my future. But [music], there’s no financial benefit to this but it affects somebody besides my bank account.

RAC: It serves a greater purpose than just your own comfort. So I also wanted to touch on the Asian-American aspect because I know when people see you for the first time, they see these six Asian-Americans. What do you have to say about that? Do you think that’s helped you as a band for your career or been a burden in some ways?

AH: It’s a double-edged sword. You get some people who love it and some people don’t realize they’re being offensive. Like someone today, he caught himself and was like, “Didn’t expect that!” And we were like what does that mean, like we’re a band and we’re here. He was impressed. But it’s a conversation and people are willing to have it. Maybe we get offended because we don’t know what to say other than get angry and get defensive, but now it’s more like they’re talking to us and it must mean something, so why don’t we have a dialogue about it?

DC: I predict that us being all Asian will benefit us in the future more than we think.

RAC: Haha. And that conversation around the whole thing has just grown so much within these past couple of years.

AH: Absolutely. There’s a lot of players.

DC: There’s a lot of white bands. In five years, I don’t know there’s gonna be a lot of white bands, haha. Honestly you see it in festivals already. There’s a lot of diversity. Great talent with passionate fans. I just predict you’ll see less white-only bands.

RAC: So I know you guys just released your Superstition EP earlier this year. Where did the inspiration to releasing that come from?

AH: That was literally an extended play of our album. Those are songs that we recorded for the album and for whatever reason they didn’t end up on the album. They are some of our favorite songs so this EP is personally like a top hits for the band for songs from Drinking From A Salt Pond. “Superstition,” “Seven,” “29.”

RAC: At this point, what can people look forward to in 2017 from you as a band?

DC: There’s lots of exciting things bubbling.

AH: New songs. We don’t know actually but we’re always growing and changing and including everyone into that process.

RAC: What do you think the new songs are gonna stem from or be inspired by?

AH: Honestly John [Chong] leaving the band, my mom getting cancer and getting back from it, me getting married, touring.

Run River North performing their third show in one day at their BottleRock Aftershow at Silo’s in Napa, CA. 5/27/2017. (Photo: Rachel Ann Cauilan | @rachelcansea)

All jokes aside, Run River North’s powerful indie rock ensemble, full with keyboards, guitars, violins and percussion made for an exciting and energetic set. For playing their third show in one day, I was impressed by how energetic and genuinely grateful they were to play for the slightly older crowd.

Songs like “Pretender,” “Superstition,” “Seven” and “29” all pleased as the audience — right in front of their face — bobbed and cheered them on, sometimes dancing with Hwang as another even brought him a drink.

“There’s a lot of shitty stuff happening, but this is a good one,” he said as he cheered the crowd.

No matter how late the show was or how tired the band must have been, their songs — often about uplift, uncertainty and career troubles — were genuine. They provided a blend of upbeat indie rock songs with moodier folk songs. Hwang whipped his hair back-and-forth; he and violinist Jennifer Rim shared audience handclaps and vocals; guitarist Chae let his guitar fly; keyboardist Sally Kang offered pleasant keys and vocals; bassist Joseph Chun kept a steady bass line; and new drummer Abe Kim’s fills and beats were both exciting and impressive.

“I’m glad you guys are still pushing,” I said to the band at the close of our interview. “I talk to a lot of different bands and to see you guys are genuinely passionate and pushing through, it’s so great to see.”

And if their live performance was any indication of their indie rock takeover, they are impressing every new ear and listener. With lots of sing-alongs, upbeat sounds and plenty of instrumental breakdowns, their songs are able to please the vastness of a festival crowd as well as the intimacy of a nightclub.

“Who are these guys?!” a new listener gushed behind me.

“We’re Run River North,” Hwang said into the audience. “Thank you for coming out.”

It's been a busy past few days but the concert withdrawals were real last week and @runrivernorth / #steveaokissideproject cured that. Easily one of the most energetic performers I've seen, I don't know how they went from performing a 3rd show in 1 day at @bottlerocknapa! True troopers with a lot of heart and sincerity, I can't wait for you all to see the interview. Thanks for such an intimate aftershow! (Interview + feature on my blog and sfcritic.com tomorrow!) 🤘 . . . #runrivernorth #rrn #runorhide #drinkingfromasaltpond #bottlerock #bottlerock2017 #bottlerockaftershows #bottlerocknapa #napa #napavalley #silos #livemusic #indie #indierock #concert #asianamerican #koreanamerican #saturdaynight #latergram

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Catch Run River North on tour with Rooney this summer:

21-Jun       Omaha, NE @ The Waiting Room
22-Jun       Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
23-Jun       Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
25-Jun       St. Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
27-Jun       Memphis, TN @ The Hi-Tone
29-Jun       Indianapolis, IN @ The Hi-Fi
30-Jun       Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
1-Jul          Pontiac, MI @ The Pike Room
2-Jul          Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
4-Jul          Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
5-Jul          New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
6-Jul          Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
7-Jul          Philadelphia, PA @ The Foundry
9-Jul          Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theater
11-Jul        Miami, FL @ Gramps
13-Jul        St. Petersburg, FL @ Local 662
18-Jul        Austin, TX @ Barracuda
21-Jul        Greeley, CO @ Moxi Theater
22-Jul        Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
23-Jul        Boise, ID @ The Olympic Venue
25-Jul        Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey
26-Jul        Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
29-Jul        Los Angeles, CA @ The Teragram
30-Jul        Anaheim, CA @ The Parish (House Of Blues)
2-Aug        Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge
3-Aug        San Diego, CA @ The Irenic

Run River North’s Superstition EP (2017) and Drinking from a Salt Pond (2016) is available for purchase. Keep up with the band at runrivernorth.com.