Playing connect the musical dots can sometimes be hard, this being true in the case of Run River North’s Alex Hwang. To hear his Los Angeles–based band’s eponymous debut album, which can be filed under “lush folk-pop”, one might assume that giants such as the Byrds and Neil Young were major influences during his formative years. Reached at home, the singer-songwriter says that’s not exactly accurate.
“I probably started with the Lion King soundtrack,” Hwang says. “My parents didn’t really have a lot of music otherwise. We might have had some K-pop because my parents knew there weren’t a lot of Korean influences, so they gave me some albums from the early-’90s K-pop scene. Otherwise, I had to look for music myself because it wasn’t really around. I didn’t really get into music until high school, and even then it was things like John Mayer and Jack Johnson—acoustic-guitar guys. I didn’t even know who Oasis was until I got into college.”
The theatrical bombast of the Killers would eventually change his life, to the point where Hot Fuss made music an obsession. Arcade Fire’s Suburbs would also leave a major impression, convincing him that forming a band was something anyone could do. But none of the aforementioned acts seem to have left much of a sonic stamp on Run River North, which takes the kind of modern folk that’s made stars of Mumford & Sons and gives it an almost regal twist with the prominent strings of violinists Jennifer Rim and Daniel Chae. Smartly produced by Phil Ek (Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes), the record gets its hooks into you on the first listen, with organic songs starting with acoustic guitars and then building until bass, drums, and strings swell up together, the end result being an often-symphonic brilliance.
Hwang and his bandmates have a background different from those of most acts in North America. Run River North is composed of six Korean Americans who met in church, some of them, like Rim, having had even less childhood exposure to North American music than Hwang.
“The church, for us, is very much tied into the immigrant experience,” Hwang says. “When our parents came over, the only place they could find familiar faces was church. Even if they weren’t religious, or believe in faith at all, I think that Korean immigrants went to church because there were other Koreans where they could speak the language. So even if you aren’t religious, if you’re a Korean American in L.A., you’ve probably been to church, because it’s the community place to go.”
That immigrant experience has given Hwang no shortage of lyrical inspiration. Run River North isn’t afraid to take on injustices, with “Banner” taking a well-aimed shot at the kind of intolerance found in the Westboro Baptist Church. But more importantly, the band has been a way for Hwang to examine his own winding path from K-pop and The Lion King to where he finds himself today. When he sings lines like “Digging for worth under a foreign sun, their children call, bitter words of a strange tongue” in “Monsters Calling Home”, playing connect the dots with his upbringing isn’t hard.
“It isn’t just about the Korean-American immigrant story, but instead about anyone trying to find home,” Hwang says. “The more I dig into the fact that my parents came from a different world that I’m trying to explore, the more I find so many great stories to talk about, and so many issues to sing about. I think that I’m going to be singing about them for the rest of my life.”
Run River North plays the Media Club next Wednesday (June 25).