Run River North has had quite the successful year. In February, the six-piece Los Angeles-based folk rock band released their second album Drinking from a Salt Pond this February. Now, they’re playing venues across America with Finish Ticket and Irontom.
We were lucky enough to chat with three of the band members— singer and guitarist Alex Hwang, keyboardist Sally Kang, and bassist Joe Chun—before their recent show at U Street Music Hall in Washington, D.C. Read on to learn about their experience on tour, their favorite superheroes, and the stories behind some of their mysterious song titles.
TYF: Awesome. Welcome back to U Street Music Hall. You’ve played here in the past; how do you think you’ve evolved as a band or as people since the last time you were here?
Alex: We’ve gone back to some old songs to figure out how to re-fit them into what we’re doing. That’s the only thing I can think of right now. Otherwise, we’re kinda the same, cuz it’s only been six months… Well, I got married, so I’m different.
Alex: Yeah, thank you. That’s a big difference. Yeah, somebody got married in the band.
TYF: Have you gotten the chance to explore D.C. so far?
Joe: Today we did. We went to all the memorials and we saw the White House today. White House is cool. Everything is cool here. (Laughs)
TYF: Right now, you guys are on tour with Finish Ticket and Irontom. What has that experience been like so far?
Sally: It’s been great. Finish Ticket… Usually [when we tour with other bands], the age ranges are kind of extreme, but [the members of Finish Ticket] are close to our age, and they’re super cool, super nice. And they play video games. We play video games, so we just combine forces and play video games together. (Laughs)
TYF: What video games do you play?
Sally: The guys are super obsessed with Super Smash Brothers. What do they play? NBA?
Alex: They play NBA 2k and Smash.
TYF: Now let’s talk about your music. Earlier this year, you recorded a version of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.”
Alex: We did.
TYF: What inspired you to cover that song?
Alex: Actually, I’ve been covering that song for, like, eight years now… I did the cover when I was just playing guitar in cafes, and I really liked The Killers back then. [I was] trying to figure out a way to make that song work at a cafe without [a band], cuz they don’t have a band, obviously. So it was just a different cover. When I brought it to the band, it was an easy fit cuz we just needed violins, and we didn’t want to explode it and make it just like a regular cover of the song.
TYF: Yeah, it’s a really stripped-down version.
Alex: Yeah, yeah. I think in general, those are more interesting covers, when you don’t know that it’s that song and you find a different perspective on it… And I love The Killers. We love The Killers. They’re a good band.
TYF: You also released an album, Drinking from a Salt Pond, this year. One of the songs on the album is called “Elam.”
Alex: “Elam.” Joe should talk.
Joe: Should I go, like, really into the song?
Joe: So “Elam” is a song I wrote… For my girlfriend, I wrote the chorus. Alex wrote the rest of the song, pretty much. It stemmed from a lot of things that happened… a lot of violence that’s happening in the world. It’s hard to say I’m on this side or this side. I think we’re just against the violence and the hate. So that was the inspiration behind the song. And Alex made it sound very poetic and awesome.
TYF: What is the meaning of the title?
(The band laughs)
Alex: It’s a funny story.
Joe: We wrote the song when Ferguson was really big. We didn’t want to call it Ferguson, but at the time we were watching a TV show called Hell on Wheels, and the rapper Common is in it, and his character’s name is Elam Ferguson.
Joe: So we called it Elam. (Laughs) To kind of see if anyone would pick up on it.
TYF: That’s really smart.
Joe: And so far only one person. It’s amazing, yeah.
TYF: I’m also curious about the meaning of your song “Anthony.” Who is Anthony, and how is he connected to the song?
Alex: (Laughs) That’s another funny story. That song actually just started from a bass and drum rhythm… The music came before the lyrics. Most of the time I bring the lyrics and melody along, but this time around it was more the rhythm. And we were coming up with the chorus, and [during] the chorus somebody in the band was like, “Oh, this is very anthem-y.” And then all of us heard Anthony. And that is literally the reason why it’s called “Anthony.”
Joe: Everyone was like, “Who’s Anthony?”
Alex: And now the song is called “Anthony.” So Anthony is actually nobody. But it somehow stuck.
TYF: You made a very cinematic, very intense video for your song “Pretender.” Would you like to talk about that?
Alex: Sure…. We were in the spot where the label was trying to figure out a song, a single to do. And it wasn’t going to be “Pretender,” but I really liked that song, and I just wanted to make a music video with it. And a friend of mine back home, he’s part of this production group called Naknek Designs, and we were just jamming on that song, and we had the same idea for it, and over a weekend, we put it together. And I actually financed it and produced it with Graham being the director. And we just did it over a weekend. And I really liked that it was this other thing that wasn’t about what the label wanted. I really wanted to show this side of the song. It was filmed really well—we were able to get a nice camera, and we got great actors for it. So it kind of just led into itself and… Yeah. It felt like it was the director Graham’s version of the song, so I really liked how he interpreted it.
TYF: In April, your band performed on Late Night with Seth Meyers. What was that experience like?
Sally: It was great. The original date that we were supposed to come play, [our performance] actually had to get rescheduled because [Seth Meyers’s] wife went into labor. That was in the middle of our tour, and we were just like, Oh my gosh! You know, cuz we had driven a long drive from Charlotte to get to New York in time. So we weren’t sure if we were gonna get back on, and all of the sudden towards the end of our tour, we got confirmed. So I think the journey of that mind confusion was funny… But once we got there Seth was great, everyone was great on his crew, and we had a great time just playing.
TYF: Recently on Twitter, someone asked you if your first album should be categorized as folk rock or contemporary Christian, and you guys answered “Folk rock with lots of questions.” What are some of the spiritual and philosophical questions you have been pondering that have influenced your songwriting?
Alex: Some questions… I think about authenticity, like what you say that you believe [versus] what you actually do in your life. Does it really matter what you say? And I think also, there are certain times in spiritual terms or in religious terms when it seems just black and white, but the world isn’t like that. Like, babies get cancer, or somebody goes on a shooting rampage, and people die that don’t deserve to die. Or people that you think shouldn’t live are successful and super happy. So I think that [we’re] just trying to figure out, like, What can you say to people and encourage them and be hopeful? Cuz there is a lot to be hopeful for, but then what do you do when you see all these unjust things happening, or things that kinda just… it’s just unfair? So I think living in that kind of space and the fact that our band is kinda the same thing… We’re not perfect people, and as much as we have a lot of fun onstage, there’s a lot of drama that could happen. With any real relationship, there’s a lot of shit that hits the fan. So I think the questions that we asked weren’t really like, Is there a God? It’s more like, How do you love somebody that you know… How do you keep forgiving somebody for the same thing over and over again, or do you decide to leave the relationship? What does that look like when you don’t leave the relationship? How do you determine what’s a healthy relationship as opposed to “if you stick together, maybe something good will come out of it”? I think in all of that, it’s not necessarily like we’re asking the big cliche questions. It’s just like, How do you survive everyday, and what are the choices that you make everyday to live out what you believe? And if your belief is in a spiritual thing, what do you believe in, and what does that look like in your life? That’s what we ask ourselves. And then if people want to talk about that, we do that.
TYF: Earlier this year, you mentioned on Instagram that you like watching Marvel movies on tour. Which superheroes are your favorites?
Alex: Oh, man.
Joe: I gotta think about this one.
Alex: I know John, our drummer, he loves Spider-Man.
TYF: I love Spider-Man too.
Alex: Spider-Man’s good. I really like The Punisher, but that’s only because in Daredevil, he’s the Shane guy [from The Walking Dead].
Joe: Jon Bernthal.
Alex: Jon Bernthal. He’s amazing as that character. I think Daredevil… I think the evil guys, or the villains in that show have been a lot cooler than the superheroes. I would say, yeah, Kingpin and The Punisher and… also, in Jessica Jones, what’s his name? Kilgrave.
Joe: David Tennant.
Alex: David Tennant. Yeah, there’ve been a lot of great, rich, evil villains that you find sympathy for, and you also find a little bit of humanity in. It’s not just completely, like, some baby killer, but people who have insecurities, or didn’t grow up correctly. It’s really interesting, I think. I think villains are a lot more interesting these days than superheroes.
TYF: Anything else you would like to say before the interview is over?
Alex: Since we’re in DC… I mean, obviously, everyone loves NPR. But there’s a series [on NPR] called the Tiny Desk series, and we did our own parody of it called, like, “The Tiny”… “The Little Chair”?
Sally: “Puny Chair.”
Alex: “Puny Chair”! And we made this set back in LA, and we did that. So if you guys want to check it out, it’s a lot of fun. (Laughs)
To learn more about Run River North and find out if they’ll be coming to your city, visit their official website: http://home.runrivernorth.com/tour/