Commentary
By Eugenia Ji 5-23-2018

“You are you!” a woman’s voice rings out from the crowd in Union Stage’s dim basement venue.

“I know ... but for some reason, that’s not translating,” Alex Hwang, lead vocalist of Run River North, responds, chugging a bear-shaped bottle of honey on stage as a makeshift remedy for his sore throat. 

Hwang had just introduced “Beetle,” a song from Run River North’s 2014 eponymous album.

“Every time we play this song, we get comments after the show like, ‘Dude, have you ever heard of this band called Mumford & Sons?,” he says. “‘Cause you guys are like Mumford & Sons, but like … Asian.’”

Run River North’s Superstition EP was released in 2017, following two albums, Drinking From a Salt Pond (2016) and Run River North (2014), that illustrated a style movement from indie folk-rock to a heavier alternative rock sound, though still interweaving their folk roots throughout. Before a zealously restless show at Union Stage, San Fernando Valley-based band members Sally Kang and Daniel Chae sat down backstage to talk pizza, touring, and the band’s continuous pursuit for authenticity in their dynamic identity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eugenia Ji, Sojourners: Why are you touring now?

Sally Kang, keys, Run River North: Well, 2017 was toward the end of the album cycle for our second album. Around that time was when half of our band left.

Daniel Chae, electric guitar, Run River North: Not all at once. It wasn’t a mutiny.

Kang: Right. It was just different points throughout the year, they just discovered that this wasn't the right fit for them. So, yeah. But at that time, we were writing with five different producers and songwriters in L.A., wherever we could. And that geared us up for 2018, to be able to try to play these songs, but we don't really know what to do with them yet. We’re just trying to figure it out.

Chae: I think we just missed touring, and it was an opportunity to try the new songs in a new set-up. We have two new people with us today ... they are ten times the musicians we are, so it's a lot of fun. This tour has been very special so far ... it’s been amazing.

Ji: What’s the story behind the new logo?

Chae: Alex and Sally really [thought we needed] a new identity; a new brand, basically. The logo was one part of that puzzle.

Kang: There was a friend of ours named Sally Chung. She's an artist in L.A., and she’s just really amazing at incorporating traditional Korean folk art into ... whatever she's thinking, whatever she’s feeling. To me, it's very emotional. It hits me in a specific way. So I reached out, asking if she would even be interested, and she said yes, so I just told her briefly where we were as a band. We were really inspired and moved by her pieces. She gave a mock-up of different ideas, and we were attracted to that logo, a lot.

Chae: We’ve been a band for seven years and it's a constant, never-ending discussion about American culture, and the Asians’ place in it. You know, we're playing American music, “white music,” pretty much, as Asians. Bob Boilen from NPR said — this is unofficial, we've heard through the grapevine — that our music was “derivative folk,” at first, and that pissed Alex off a lot. Like, “What do you mean — we're telling our stories.” As much as it hurt, I think he had a point, because it's like, what is “American” music? Folk music was created by white people, pretty much. It wasn't original to us. I think instead of being offended by that, the challenge is to really explore what is authentic to us. And we’ve been able to do that through writing songs this year.

But we're constantly running into these sociology questions in real life. It's fascinating.

Ji: I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing people who look like me — seeing reflections of myself in media, politics, etc., or the lack thereof. How does your background as Asian Americans influence your music/songwriting process, in the context where there’s such a clear lack of representation in the music industry?

Chae: It's funny Alex isn’t here.

Kang: He would love —

Chae: He would take this question this way or that way. We don’t know. Asians who rap … I don't know, it's cool. But in my head, it's like, “What are you doing?” It's not original. But what is originality? What is authentic? I think it's taking what you grew up with — I grew up listening to Linkin Park and Jay-Z and Eminem. So if I can somehow translate that into an original way, then it's authentic.

You can say whatever you want, you can classify it however you want. But the second that somebody smells fakeness or unoriginality, they’ll call it out. And I think that's essentially what Bob was doing. For us it's easy to just copy or learn guitar songs from bands that we like. But to create something influenced by that, that's completely our own, and when we sing onstage, we completely believe in it — if that passes the smell test, then you can’t say anything against that. I think that's what we're hoping to do.

Yes, there are Asian rappers. There are Asian bands and stuff, but people’s B.S. meters are so attuned, especially in America. So until that happens, I think we'll always be in this place. In any field … in any art.

We've been watching David Chang’s—

Kang: Ugly Delicious

Chae: Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Basically, it's a six- or seven-episode series where he goes around [and] each episode covers a specific food. Like, episode one is pizza. Episode two is tacos. Basically, the thesis — the thread — of the whole series is how everything in the world is basically different versions of each other, but they're classified. So, ravioli. He makes the case that ravioli is essentially like a Chinese dumpling — it’s wrapped in flour, there’s meat and vegetables. You know, everything has a form of itself. But there's a part in the pizza episode where he goes to Italy and they have this board that determines if your pizza is authentic in Italy. And if it's not, people don't go to your restaurant. You’re looked down upon. And then it shifts over to Japan … this Japanese guy lived in Italy, learned the craft, brought it back to Japan, and he's doing his own thing. He takes the pizza into Japan and says, “I think this tastes better, first of all. I think this is more authentic.” Because he's not copying a form of what pizza-making was. He made it his own, and he put love and soul into it.

So yeah, that's kind of what’s been bouncing around in our heads. And I think that applies to music too. If you look at any of the “culture-changing music” — hip-hop came from struggle. Rock music stemmed from punk. It’s gotta be real. And that's what we’re striving for.

We feel like we're the only Asian band in America and hopefully that's rebelling, in a sense. In trying to create our own path.

Ji: In a time when immigration is such a huge topic, how does being children of immigrants play a role in your music?

Chae: It’s a tough question. A dangerous question. I’ll put it safely like this: For us, we try to respect the opinions throughout the spectrum. But for us — you ask how it affects us. For us, it impacts us directly, because we have friends that are here and covered as a Dreamers. When Trump says, “Get rid of all the Dreamers, I give up on the DREAM Act” … maybe to somebody in Kentucky who's lived in that region for 100 years, maybe it's a headline. But for us, I grew up with this guy from the fifth grade, and you're saying you’re going to … I understand, of course, there’s a challenge. It's a very complex issue. But the way it affects us is — we have friends. My mom, she's now a U.S. citizen. But she came under a student visa and stayed — you know what I'm saying? I wouldn't be here. Yes, you can argue that you must respect the process. I really understand that. But yeah, it impacts us directly, I’ll just say that.

Ji: Yeah, it’s definitely more than just a headline. What are other ways you use the platform you’ve been given to give voice to issues that are important to you?

Chae: On this most recent run, we played in Grove City, which is north of Pittsburgh. We had somebody to drive out from Virginia Beach to come see us, and he said, “I drove out here just for you guys.” I was very moved by that, because we’re half the band. We’re still not famous, in year seven. I kept thinking, like, “Why drive…?” I was almost upset. “Why did you drive seven hours?” Back at home, we’re thinking of not continuing. And this guy drives [to see us]. So, I guess it's encouragement for us to just continue what we're doing, and hope that that encourages other people to pursue their dreams.

Do something well. Do something with your everything, and commit to not grow cynical in this world. Believe in your dreams as we get older.

I struggle with this a lot. My dad still guilt-trips me. He came from Korea, so I would have a white-collar job. He’ll guilt-trip me so hard, saying, “I worked so hard for you. For you to have an education, and you’re playing in clubs…” We’re playing in bars, still. But when I hear, you know, that guy from Virginia coming — I'm a believer that this is something bigger than me. We believe in that. If we don't get famous, hopefully we influence somebody who will.

Ji: The guilt that you talk about — I think it’s something that is very particular to children of immigrants, that they carry with them all the time.

So you guys met through church?

Chae: Let’s just say this: If you’re Korean, and you play a rock instrument, the circle is very small. Like, you can count it on two hands.

Alex was a singer-songwriter and ... he had a song he wanted to perform at a talent show on this huge stage. And he said, “You know, I'm going to do this with a band.” And he just grabbed the people he knew. And that six months was crazy. After that we sold out Hotel Cafe, our first show. Somehow got into Jimmy Kimmel, and then we somehow got signed, and we’re here in year seven. It’s so crazy.

Ji: How has your faith influenced your music?

Kang: I think in our individual lives, our relationships, and just the way we live. It’s so different. And our level of faith is different, too. It’s kinda weaved in, whether consciously or unconsciously, through our songwriting, through the issues or stories that we totally identify with or agree with. We totally pour ourselves into it, whether through words or our instruments.

I think it just becomes a natural part of just retelling an incident — for Alex, at one point he was on a heated phone call with his brother, and he comes to a songwriting session with Daniel and our friend Jimmy, and he’s like, “I just need to vent.” And then they just wrote this song, and it's amazing! But listening to it, you wouldn't think, “Oh, that sounds like a song about Alex and his brother.” It’s just like, “Oh this song is really cool!” You know? So I think it's just … yeah. It's just there.

Chae: Most first-generation immigrants, especially from Korea, found community in church. And so as children of Korean immigrants, most of us grew up in church. It is very much a part of who we are. We’re not trying to proselytize people or save people, but if we can tell a real story, and it's not always pretty, it's not always good or hopeful — just see album two. As long as we can interact with people listening in a real way, then our job is done.

So, yeah, I think it's not about being Christian onstage or something. It’s like, “Is he a real person? Can I relate to that person?”

Ji: Are there any new projects you guys are working on currently?

Chae: We have a joke that we’re called “S.A.D.,” unofficially, because, Sally, Alex, Daniel. But our managers are not down for it. I think it’s continuing to write music. Hopefully with this new group. Between the three of us, we have an albums’ worth of songs, and we're just trying to, you know, pick away at it and get it to where it's ready to release. So, hopefully soon. A good chunk of our set are the new songs. We can't wait to let people hear it.

Ji: Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?

Chae: Sure. This is so cheesy. I just want to say to anybody listening or reading this: Especially in such a crazy time, don't grow cynical. That will get you nowhere. Be present with the people you’re surrounded with. Be intentional.

That’s all I would say.

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"Finding Our Voice: The Musical Authenticity of Run River North"
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