by: Stephan Masnyj and Shay Mehr
We caught up with Run River North’s Alex Hwang on a sunny day in Austin after their set at the Whole Food showcase. He spoke to us about how race and ethnicity play into the American dream, their origin story, and what it takes to keep six band members happy on the road.
SM: Who are you? What do you do?
AH: Hi I’m Alex. I’m from the band Run River North and we’re based out of Los Angeles and we’re here in south by.
SM: Okay so you shot a video inside of your Hondas, which obviously caught the attention of Honda who helped book you on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Cue record deal, right. So what kept you all from jumping at the first opportunity? Because I imagine from the outside that you got at least a few offers pretty quickly.
AH: It wasn’t that they gave us papers to sign immediately. We did get a lot of cool meetings. I think-we just-yeah there’s six us of so if five of us are going crazy at least one person is like yeah we should calm down and read the fine text. So it was actually pretty nice, we had one offer right away, but then the other ones were just kind of relationships that we were trying to court and see who would stick around to talk to us after Kimmel kind of like went down. It was actually- Network was there from the beginning saying “hey we’ll see you at the next show”. And by the end all of the other labels kind of uhm got bored of us and network was like hey we’ll see you at the next show so it was just an easy conversation to have since they were coming to every show that we were playing at so. Kimmel was kind of a nice firework in the sky but then I think what really kept us level headed was that it would fade and were not on TV and what would happen after that and Network was really good to us in that way so.
SM: That’s good you do have enough people where someone’s going to be like wai-wai-wait hold on.
SM: You guys fight a lot of the stereotypes of being Asian American but as most immigrants or children of immgrants know your parents sacrificed a lot for you to live the American dream quote unquote. Which is something you yourselves have stated before. I’m curious as to how deciding music was your path to achieving the American dream affected your relationships with family? For immigrants is the American dream entangled with art? This is kind of speaking from-I’m an immigrant myself so I’m just curious.
AH: That’s a loaded question. Let’s see uhm yes is it entangled with all of those things. It’s finding out whether the American dream is real or not. What is it? I think making music is just another way of talking about whatever you want to talk about in an interesting way. I don’t know it just became the medium that we used for the first album and it got us to touring, it got us to make some videos and it got people’s attention. But I think-I think your ethinicity, especially as an American, it’s kind of something that you can’t walk away from but at the same time it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines you. And so just having that dialogue with yourself, with the people in the band and then with people that we meet. We don’t-I don’t think it’s really about how to answer that question but just how to-like what you did was just to frame the question in ways that will get people to start talking a little more. And then maybe cultivate some art or maybe you’ll find somebody that has the answer, it just needed the right question. I feel like sometimes that question about how does your Asian American or dash American identity play into your music it’s so wrapped up more in, more in the asain groups I guess then others for some reason and I think it’s because it’s so diverse there’s so many different types of Asians out there and it’s not even about Asian it’s about immigrants and since that story is so relevant to anybody’s life its really difficult to find an answer that will cater and speak to all of immigrants so I think art is a good way of at least speaking our story and seeing how that fits into the greater dialogue about diversity and American dream and what does it mean to be American.
SM: There seems to be a clear shift between Run River North and Drinking From A Salt Pond, can you talk a little bit about the title and kind of the more aggressive sound in Drinking From A Salt Pond. I almost seems genre leaping in my opinion.
AH: I think we went from a folk sentimentality with acoustic guitars and harmonies and talking about our parents, kind of romanticing. But then by the second album we were touring so much that the realities of who were and our relationships to each other and just the world around us kind of made it clear that we couldn’t just say that everything was happy and everything was great. I think Drinking From A Salt Pond just means that you get the bitter with the sweet in life and you have to accept and almost embrace the ugly parts about relationships and the world in order to kind of fully celebrate all the good stuff in the world. I think from our song ‘growning up’ saying that we’re going to “fight in the light” I think that just how it looks like when you fight. You gotta just show that it’s a little ugly and you kind of have to take some medicine. Not everything you get and not everything you put out is going to be perfect and I think there’s beauty in that. We just really wanted to push that out and so the aggressive tone wasn’t that we wanted to be angry it was just at that point that’s the emotion that we were going with and that felt really you know authentic to us and it really spoke to us honestly so. It might stay angry you know maybe we got it all out of our system but given the way things are there’s always something to be angry about there’s always something to be sad about and there’s always to celebrate and I think the nuiances of all the emotions is what we’re trying to go with. Not just specifically say that we’re an angry aggressive bunch of Asians but like you know that is one of the emotions that we can express and feel normal in so.
SM: so I guess the way you explained that it’s just kind of how you-your sound is just sort of just how you feel and what you are guys are thinking now but I was curious as to like if you’re getting more comfortable in your sound now or are you like still feeling it out and like who are you what do you sound like but I feel like is that question now-I mean is it just going to be how you feel what you put out each album or do you feel more like a folk band or a rock band or ?
AH: yeah I think we just feel like a band and sometimes luckily you know we have all those tools at our-maybe we’ll do like an electronic album. I think the point is to be open about it and not to feel you need to be something. Eveeryone’s kind of changing everyday. You’re never the same person as you were and to try to hold onto the past so tightly kind of like makes you oblivious to all the cool stuff going around you know presently. So I think it’s just a good life motto to kind of just keep your hands opened. We’ll see what that looks like.
SM: ‘Growing up’ for me resonates incredibly well this is something anyone who’s around still has had to do obviously can you speak a little bit to the song and about why you shy away from love songs? Not everyone has fallen in love but they’ve grown up I suppose in general your themes of your songs?
AH: yeah I think just trying to figure out with that song…it was actually a task to write a song for a TV show about older generation taking a younger generation kid out and then having that dialogue between the old and the new-the old and the young. And so the take on the song was just if my 80 year old self could come back from the past and talk to my 15 year old self and what that conversation would look like. And what they could talk about and that’s kind of the start of that song and I think. Once agina I’m not opposed to love songs I did-you know I just got married so maybe there will be a love song somewhere but uhm yeah at the time that was kind of what was on my mind. I think just like your ethnicity, your parents they’re your parents and you cant change that you can’t necessarily choose other parents and what your relationship with them looks like can really speak to who you are as a person and so I think like yeah. Just coming to embrace and distinguish yourself from your parents and your idenitity as a kid came across a lot in the first album so.
SM: I’m curious what sparked ‘pretender’ and that video and kind of-I’m not sure but I felt like two of those characters’ problems or demons that they were fighting were ambiguous and im curious were they or I couldn’t tell the …older two characters kind of what were they fighting and all the inspiration behind ‘Pretender’ basically.
AH: ‘Pretender’ was an old song it started off- I think it’s on Youtube somewhere as a really folky interesting song and now it became what it was and that was one of the first songs for the new album that really helped change the tone of our album and our band. The video is just something that a friend of mine that does videography-I showed him the song and he wanted to make a video and we jelled with this idea of the demons that we do have. We kind of intentionally made a little bit vague so that people could come up with their own stories and I think sometimes the stories that other people have are way more interesting than what I say it is and what we thought it was so I think mostly it’s just yeah-not shying away and you know recognizing that some of the things and the demons that we do have can really grips us and we need to face them in a certain way and I think it’s like the show black mirror it’s just can you put that mirror infront of your face and can you look at yourself honestly and see yourself for who you are. And I think that was the attention that we wanted to have to kind of really shake it up and not just say hi I have a family and parents and we’re following the American dream.
SM: That show is really good. Okay by most standards you’re a rather large core group. How did you guys meet? How do you guys keep from killing each other on tour?
AH: We meet through the band so it wasn’t like we were friends before and you know we did lose our drummer two months ago. He- you know – it just happens relationships get frayed and I think it’s over communication is what we try to do to stop from kill each other. And to just voice out your emotions and the thoughts that you do have kind of help to lessen the blow they have in your life and in your heart and in your head. And I think the more you over communicate the more you realize I don’t need to kill you, we can have this conversation and we will both be alive, yes it hurts a little, it could be tramatic. But there’s six of us let’s talk a little. Being passive aggressive and letting you know simmer in the van. It does happen, we’re not the most perfect people but that’s something that we try to aspire to be so we over communicate.
SM: So some of you guys just wanted to play music and just met and decided to try doing it together essentially? v
AH: and some of us just wanted to play that one song you know ‘Monsters Calling Home’ and there was a tension of you know when to quit, when to do all that. And that’s all-that’s why the second album just had so much aggression was that everyone needed to say what they needed to say because this wasn’t something that was planned out and like we’re going to be this six piece immigrant band playing on Jimmy Kimmel. It was more like this is a good song and let’s see where this goes. And where it’s taken us is amazing but it it’s a lot of miles in that van and lot of time alone with your thoughts and a lot of time with people that you see now more than your parents your friends, anybody, even your spouses at this point. When we’re on tour that’s a relationship that’s pretty sacred. It’s pretty raw. So… I forgot what the question was now.
SM: I have another existential question that I’m asking everyone is what fulfills you?
AH: what fulfills me? Uhm wholefood pizza fulfills me on a pretty deep level. But uhm what fulfills me? Is uhm a clean house. I’ve been married for ten months and I really enjoy when it’s been vacuumed dishes are cleaned, the balcony has been swept and to be able to just sit down on the floor with my wife in my clean house is super fulfilling. And like-uh – yeah even just thinking about it right now, I’m pretty happy with the thought so.