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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Run River North Sings About Immigrant Experience

Run River North is a Korean-American indie folk-rock band from Los Angeles. (Catie Lafoon)

Run River North is a Korean-American indie folk-rock band from Los Angeles. (Catie Lafoon)

The Los Angeles-based alternative folk rock band Run River North is six Korean-American friends who say they’ve found the American dream through music, even though they admit their careers in music concern their immigrant parents.

Formerly called Monsters Calling Home, the band has just released the self-titled debut album, “Run River North.”

Band members Daniel Chae, John Chong, Joe Chun, Alex Hwang, Sally Kang and Jennifer Rimm perform an acoustic mini-concert and talk about their music with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

Interview Highlights: Run River Run

Alex Hwang on the meaning of “Monsters Calling Home”

“The monsters, I think, that I’m talking about and that we’re singing about first started off as just how I saw my immigrant parents. Not necessarily monsters in a totally negative connotation, but just the fact that, you know, they came over here as immigrants, left their entire culture behind and pursued the American dream. Sometimes they failed, sometimes they succeeded, and they’re just as human as anybody else. And in the process, some of the choices that they make kind of create these monsters in the children’s eyes. That’s kinda how we got started, and that’s how I looped everybody into the band. I came up with the song and then they all connected — probably because we were all immigrant kids.”

Hwang on what choices created monsters

“When you’re raising kids in a place where you don’t speak the language, you’re gonna deal with shortcomings in your patience. And I think some of the choices that we make, whether it’s alcoholism, abuse or — all the things that any human is prone to, but at the same time having kids speak a language that you don’t understand. And I think trying to work in America. Like, my father had a degree in statistics and he had to come here and work at a liquor store just to make ends meet, and just doing that takes up all his energy. When you’re doing that on top of raising two little boys that are seeing their peers go on camping trips and other things, and your dad just working at the liquor store 24 hours a day, I think the relationship is really hard to just always be on the same page with. And so all those miscommunications come out in different choices. Some fathers and mothers succeed and some don’t. And I think it isn’t to blame anybody, but just to say that some of those choices that they make kind of make them into monsters that they probably didn’t want to be in the first place.”

Hwang on growing up as a Korean-American in Los Angeles

“There are huge pockets of Korean-American communities here, so I think we were all kind of lucky to be in Los Angeles and have a support network — even if we didn’t want it — of other Korean-Americans and other faces to look at. But as we grew up and decided to just express different parts of who we were, and finding the limitations of what it meant to be Asian faced and yet at the same time feel very American inside, and it became clear how we had to explain ourselves. But I think growing up — the only thing is when we went to elementary school, you know, we would have sushi or something and that would be weird for peanut butter and jelly people out there.”

Music Video: 'Fight To Keep'

Guests

  • Daniel Chae, violinist and guitarist for Run River North.
  • John Chong, drummer for Run River North.
  • Joe Chun, bassist for Run River North.
  • Alex Hwang, singer/songwriter for Run River North.
  • Sally Kang, keyboardist for Run River North.
  • Jennifer Rimm, violinist for Run River North.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

The band Run River North is carving its way through the landscape of alternative folk-rock. Run River North is made up of six Korean-Americans who've said they found the American dream through music. Their debut album has just been released, and they are all with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Guys, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

ALEX HWANG: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hi.

HOBSON: Well - and we should say, there are six of you there. And so just the people can get a sense first before we start talking, let's have you play a song for us. It's up to you which one it is.

HWANG: Sounds good. My name's Alex, and this is the band Run River North. And we're going to play for you "Monsters Calling Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTERS CALLING HOME")

RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) They're walking heavy to the beat of a broken drum, digging for worth in a land under a foreign sun. Their children call, bitter words of a strange tongue. Hearts down, they're walking heavy till the dying's done.

(Singing) I see their hands, some hold the bottle, some hold back. And in their eyes, a wave of light in a sea of black. Their voices low, trembling for blood to drink. And would they know of a deep that cries too deep in the night, the night? No, they call. They call in the night, the night. Oh, they call. They call now.

(Singing) Oh, hear the monsters calling home. No, they don't want to be alone. But the closet they keep closed. Swallow the key so that nobody, nobody knows how they beat.

(Singing) They beat their chests to the sounds of their broken hearts, crying wolf under sheep skins reaching out their claws. Stomping their feet, never letting up, the dust choking up their lungs. Told to be a father, growing up into a fatherless son.

(Singing) Oh, my son, won't you come? Won't you come? Son, oh, my son, won't you come, won't you come? Son, oh, my son, won't you come? Won't you come? Son, oh, my son, won't you come? Won't you come?

(Singing) Oh, hear the monsters calling home. No, they don't want to be alone. But the closet they keep closed. Swallow the key so that nobody knows how they beat.

HOBSON: Wow. What a treat for us. Thank you so much.

HWANG: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thank you.

HOBSON: So who are the monsters calling home, by the way? And I know that that was originally the name of your band, right?

HWANG: Yes. This is Alex, once again. And the monsters, I think, that I'm talking about and that we're singing about first started off as just how I saw my immigrant parents - not necessarily monsters in a totally negative connotation, but just the fact that, you know, they came over here as immigrants, left their entire culture behind and, you know, pursue the American dream. Sometimes they failed. Sometimes they succeeded. And they're just as human as anybody else. And in the process, some of the choices that they make kind of create these monsters in kind of in the children's eyes. So that's kind of how it got started, and that's how I loop into the band. I just - I came up with the song. And then they all connected probably because we're all immigrant kids. And so this kind of how we got started this "Monsters Calling Home." And so the song means a lot to us. So...

HOBSON: When you say, some of the choices they made, made them monsters in your eyes, what do you mean by that? What choices?

HWANG: Well, I think when you're raising kids in a place where you don't speak the language, you're going to deal with shortcomings in your patience. And I think some of the choices that we make, whether it's, you know, alcoholism, abuse or just all the things that any human is prone to, but at the same time having kids speak a language that you don't understand, and I think trying to work in America with - well, like my father had a degree in statistics and he had to come here and work at liquor store just to make ends meet. And just doing that takes up all his energy.

And when you're doing that on top of raising, you know, two little boys that are seeing their peers go on camping trips and other things and your dad just working the liquor store 24 hours a day, I think the relationship is kind of really hard to just always be on the same page with and so all these miscommunications come out in different choices. And some fathers and mothers succeed and some don't. And I think it isn't to blame anybody, but just to say that some of those choices that they make kind of make them into monsters that they probably didn't want to be in the first place.

HOBSON: Daniel, one of the choices that you made was to quit your job as a bond trader to do this full time. How did your parents react to that?

DANIEL CHAE: Let's just say they weren't the happiest.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAE: Like Alex, my dad was an engineer, and he came and he was working Wienerschnitzel just to make ends meet. So, you know, similar idea of immigrants coming over, giving up their entire lives for a better life for the kids. And so when a kid comes back and tells you, I'm going to be a musician, it's not necessarily their hopes and dreams. So they weren't too happy at first.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Daniel Chae and Alex Hwang, members of the alternative folk rock band, Run River North, which has a debut album out. This is the song "Lying Beasts."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LYING BEASTS")

HWANG: (Singing) Oh, Lord, whatever did I say? Whatever made me think that this was all OK? No one held me to the flame.

HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW.

And let's get back to our conversations with the members of the band Run River North, who are with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. They've been performing songs from their debut released called "Run River North," some of which are inspired by the Korean-American immigrant experience, which they all had. Alex Hwang, your band used to be called Monsters Calling Home. But because another band had a similar name, you changed it. Why did you choose Run River North?

HWANG: One of the reason was actually, Daniel and I started a marathon blog. We each had - we ran the L.A. marathon a couple of years ago. He had this blog called Run, Rice Boy, Run. And so we just took that term probably, you know, took out rice boy. And then we just like the image of rivers and having a nice direction. And actually, after we came up with the name, somebody came up to us and this kind of becomes the reason why I think Run River North is good is that it kind of shows what our music is. Like a river, sometimes it's really peaceful and gentle and the harmonies are just kind of taking control. And the other times, like "Monsters Calling Home," it's just really rushing and there's a lot of dynamic in it. And so I think Run River North really encapsulates what our music can be, and it can be so many things, and there's always movement in the songs. And we just like the whole direction of growing up and so, yeah.

HOBSON: Well, let's hear another song, "Growing Up." This is the song that you featured in your debut music video in 2012.

HWANG: Yep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWING UP")

HWANG: (Singing) There's a fight to be won for the love you find at home, work to be done before you rest your weary bones. Finding peace don't come to everyone I know, so I will love in this life until I finally have to go, said I will love in this life until I finally have to go. Well, I know I have lived just a wrinkle of my life. And I hear so many times, it'll be over if I blink twice. Please forgive if I don't walk off that plank stuck in your eye. I've got my life to love. I'm here to take what's mine. I've got my life to love, and I'm here to take what's mine. Growing up, child, is just a matter of time for giving all you've got. So won't you dance under the sun? Growing old feels like you're giving up your soul. I'd rather give it freely to the ones that I call home.

(Singing) I ain't scared, not afraid of the world in front of me. I found my way without your help with a broken family. I'll take my breaks with my sins. I'll do as I do please. With my friends till the end, there lies my loyalty. With my friends till the end, my lies, their loyalty. I used to close my eyes to what stirred under my bed. Now they're open wide to the monsters in my head. Instead of claws, they whisper lies, sinking fear in quiet steps, so I will fight in the light till I give my final breath. Said I will fight in the light till I give my final breath. Oh, I will fight in the light till I give my final breath. Said I will fight in the light till I give my final breath.

(Singing) Growing up, child, is just a matter of time. For giving all you've got, so won't you dance under the sun. Growing old feels like you're giving up your soul. I'd rather give it freely to the ones that I call home. Growing up, child, is just a matter of time. For giving all you've got, so won't you dance under the sun. Growing old feels like you're giving up your soul. I'd rather give it freely to the ones that I call home. Growing up child is just a matter of time. For giving all you've got, so won't you dance under the sun. Growing old feels like you're giving up your soul. I'd rather give it freely to the ones that I call home.

HOBSON: Thank you for that. And I want to hear, since we're talking about growing up, what was it like to grow up as a Korean-American in Los Angeles?

HWANG: Being in Los Angeles as a Korean-American - there are huge pockets of Korean-American communities here, so I think we were all kind of lucky to be in Los Angeles and have a support network, even if we didn't want it, of other Korean-Americans and other faces to look at. But just as we grew up and decided to just express different parts of who we were and finding the limitations of what it meant to be Asian-faced and yet at the same time feel very American inside, then it became clear how we had to explain ourselves. But I think growing up, it was just - the only thing was that when we went to elementary school, you know, we would have sushi or something, and that would be weird for the peanut butter and jelly people out there so.

HOBSON: Well, yeah, is there anything Korean about the Korean-Americaness of the band because I have to say, if I were just to listen to that and not know who it was, I would have no idea that you were all Korean-American.

HWANG: Yeah. I think that's the dash-American part of our music is that the fact that the way we express ourselves, it doesn't sound anything different, but the way we look does. Maybe it just, I think, when you talk to us after a show or why we're doing this, you'll, you know, immediately hear about our parents because we still have to find a way to honor our parents in a way. And even though we want to rebel or have a life of our own, who we are is really tied to our relationship with our parents. And so I think in the music, you know, there's this storytelling aspect. But when you hear it, hopefully, we're not trying to, like, put this banner, like, you should listen to it because we sound Asian.

HOBSON: And you're all classically trained musicians, right?

HWANG: Not all of us. Two of us, Daniel and Jennifer, are trained classically in the violin.

CHAE: And John.

HWANG: And John is...

JOHN CHONG: Mostly in the jazz realm for me.

HWANG: For percussion, right?

CHONG: Just kidding.

HWANG: Yeah. Yeah. But me, Joe, and Sally, we're just hiding underneath the classically trained kids.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: So the classically trained ones never try to break into, you know, Vivaldi or something like that while you're practicing.

HWANG: I think they should do more often now that you bring it up, yeah.

CHONG: There was one moment - this is John, by the way - where Jennifer would play Pachelbel Canon for one of our songs because it matched so perfectly. That was it for this extent of that.

HOBSON: Well, thank you so much for coming in and sharing all of this with us. It's been a great pleasure having you.

HWANG: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

HOBSON: And I think we have time for you to play at least some of another song. So I will let you pick. What will it be?

HWANG: Yeah. Sure. Let's do "Run River Run" and end on that.

HOBSON: Great.

HWANG: It's kind of a new one that we haven't played acoustically so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN RIVER RUN")

HOBSON: The band Run River North will post the full version of this on our website, hereandnow.org. They will be playing at South by Southwest next week. And many thanks to Leo Del Aguila at NPR West for setting up the soundboard.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

He's a star himself, Leo.

HOBSON: He is a star. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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