Music
3:58 am
Sat October 5, 2013

Run River North Stays The Course — And Finds Success

Originally published on Fri November 22, 2013 1:36 pm

Run River North is a band that's gotten a few more breaks than most on its level. Last year, the Los Angeles-based Korean-American musicians produced a music video from inside their Hondas. The video went viral — and straight to the carmaker. The company rewarded the group with a surprise performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Before the band landed on the popular late-night program, Run River North had already been approached by a major label.

"We got flown out to New York, and wined and dined. We didn't even know that still happened," says Alex Hwang, the band's lead singer and songwriter.

But things didn't work out quite as they imagined. After the band's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the contract offers slowed, then eventually stopped coming in.

After the unexpected setback, Hwang and his five bandmates dedicated any free time they had — in between full-time jobs or full-time classes at Cal State — to songwriting, producing and promoting their music. They built a local following and eventually sold out LA's Troubadour, a hot live-music venue for up-and-coming artists.

A few gigs later, an offer came from Nettwerk, the Canada-based label that signed the band fun. Run River North is set to release its debut through the label early next year.

Guitarist Daniel Chae says playing music for a living is something none of his bandmates expected to be doing a year ago — and that their parents would likely agree.

"Our parents sacrificed their lives for us, and I think that's why there's such a strong sense of family in each of us," says Chae. "There is that expectation of, 'Because we did this for you, we hope you have a good job. We hope you can live the American dream.' And we finally find that in music now."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Run River North is a Los Angeles-based band that's gotten a few breaks recently. Last year, the musicians produced a music video inside their old Honda. And the video went viral - straight to the carmaker. The company rewarded the group with a performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Now, Doualy Xaykaothao has the story of the band's journey from late-night TV to getting signed.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: Even before the band landed on "Jimmy Kimmel," Run River North had already been approached by a major label.

ALEX HWANG: We got flown out to New York and wined and dined. We didn't even know that still happened.

XAYKAOTHAO: Alex Hwang is the band's lead singer and songwriter.

HWANG: And then "Jimmy Kimmel" happened. And we were like, we're going to get signed. And then we heard a lot of no's actually. Like, all the major labels that we had talked to, all of a sudden just, for whatever reasons, we're sorry but we're going to move on.

XAYKAOTHAO: So, he and his five bandmates went into hermit mode, songwriting and jamming in between full-time jobs or full-time classes at Cal State. They built a local following and sold out L.A.'s Troubadour. They even started making a little money from iTunes downloads - songs the band recorded on their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) Thought it nice to dream to be a beetle. I think twice, I don't want to be a bug. The story untold has already been sold to the highest bidder...

XAYKAOTHAO: A few gigs later, an offer came - from Canada.

TERRY MCBRIDE: My sort of biggest litmus test is do we love it or do we like it. Do we believe in them as people? And as corny as that sounds, that means an awful lot to me.

XAYKAOTHAO: Terry McBride is the CEO of Nettwerk, the label that signed the band fun. He says he started listening to Run River North last winter, when his 84-year-old father was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

MCBRIDE: A lot of the lyrics being about parents, about past really, really resonated with me, and that got me deeper into it, and then I found myself humming melodies quite a lot. And usually when that happens, I will do anything to try and get in business with that artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) Growing up, child, is just a matter of time, for given 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...

XAYKAOTHAO: The musicians call San Fernando Valley home, just half an hour north of downtown L.A. Theirs is a tight-knit community, bounded by faith, which is why they rehearse weekly at Valley Korean United Methodist Church.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Your monitor is not coming up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Check, check.

XAYKAOTHAO: Each practice begins with a prayer.

SALLY KANG: God, I thank you that you are so mindful and faithful of each one of us, and...

XAYKAOTHAO: Sally Kang plays keyboard and sings.

KANG: We trust in you, God, that you align things to what you have ready for us, and...

XAYKAOTHAO: The band first formed at the church after Alex Huang passed around a few of his songs to get feedback.

HWANG: Like it wasn't in the audition process, like you have to be a Korean-American, second generation, Christian person to be in this band. But because that's the people that responded, I wanted to use that as a platform to kind of gather up the stories, and the stories, just so happen to be how to live a Christian life as an Asian person in Los Angeles having immigrant parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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. The children call bitter words of a strange tongue. Hearts down, they're walking heavy until the dying's done, oh, oh, oh - oh...

XAYKAOTHAO: Run River North doesn't consider itself a Christian band with a message. They just want to play music, says violinist Jennifer Rim.

JENNIFER RIM: We just want to share our stories, telling people that we have our bad side and good sides. And that's what I love about our lyrics. It's very honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) Oh, here the monster's calling home now. No, they don't want to be alone, but the closet they keep closed, swallow the key so that nobody, nobody knows how they be....

XAYKAOTHAO: The musicians packed up their gear last month and left Southern California for Seattle to work on their debut album with Phil Ek, producer of The Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Built to Spill. Guitarist Daniel Chae says playing music for a living is something none of his bandmates expected to be doing a year ago. And neither did their parents.

DANIEL CHAE: I think it's safe to say that all of our parents don't have white-collar jobs. My dad worked at Wienerschnitzel - that was his first job when he came here - and then he owned a liquor store. Our parents sacrificed their lives for us, and I think that's why there is such a strong sense of family in each of us. There is that expectation of because we did this for you, we hope you have a good job, we hope you can live the American dream, and we finally find that in music now.

XAYKAOTHAO: Run River North's debut album will finally be out early next year. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) So, I will fight to keep your fire burning...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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