During the writing of Drinking From A Salt Pond, the band admits to flaring tempers and tense operations as they worked to redefine their sound, goals, and relationships…”
Run River North will be the first to tell you: it has largely been an uphill climb for the indie rock sextet from Los Angeles, a hero’s journey full of odds-defying opportunities seized amidst rocky naysayers and the snagging brambles of band life. And now, with their second full-length album Drinking From A Salt Pond, Run River North are poised to push forward and create their own wake as a major voice in today’s music landscape.
Since the band’s beginnings just over four years ago, their rise has been steadily spectacular, marked by appearances on national television, sold-out shows at historic venues, tours with rock and roll royalty and heaps of praise from fans and critics alike. As they blossomed, they embraced their initially folk-driven sound, which found its harmonic home alongside rootsy, foot stomping, sing-along-leading peers like Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart, and Of Monsters and Men. Powered by the acoustic-guitar-and-vocals songwriting of frontman Alex Hwang, their 2014 self-titled debut record, produced by Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse, Band of Horses), was released with their lineup rounded out by the strings duo of Daniel Chae and Jennifer Rim, Joe Chun on bass, Sally Kang on keys, and John Chong on drums.
As time and tours passed, the six lives spent in close-quarters began to grind the gears a little differently; their whole dynamic began to change. “When we became a band, we mostly played Alex’s songs in band form,” says Chae. “Since then we’ve all put our musical input into it, so the music has changed a lot.”
“We were tired of me on acoustic guitar and everybody singing harmonies,” says Hwang. “We were hitting a ceiling, and it wasn’t fun. We had always agreed this band was six-ways, for better or worse. So at the end of last year, after being in the van constantly, we said, ‘no more touring, let’s write new songs.’”
“We had to grow up pretty fast as a band,” says Chong. “So this past year, there were times when different perspectives and priorities have butted heads.”
During the writing of Drinking From A Salt Pond, the band admits to flaring tempers and tense operations as they worked to redefine their sound, goals and relationships. “We’ve had a lot of hating each other, almost kicking people out of the band,” says Hwang. “We’re being honest and that openness is one of the main thrusts for the album. Embracing the bitter with the sweet, not trying to hide the crappy parts…the crappy parts helped make the good.” Being open about its faults, the band recognizes how the turmoil has helped Run River North create something beautiful.
“The record we just made, it’s all the difficult stuff we went through so there’s a darker tone to the music. It works,” says Chae.
One of the first steps in leaving behind their folk roots was to work with new collaborators. Instead of the reverb-heavy, northwest sound of Ek, they recorded in Los Angeles with Lars Stalfors (Cold War Kids, HEALTH, Deap Vally, Matt and Kim) at the production helm. Stalfors opened their eyes to the upbeat energy and electric tone of indie bands like The Walkmen. Throughout Salt Pond the indie rock influence can be heard, with the band nodding inspiration to everyone from Cage the Elephant and Kings of Leon to The National, Death Cab for Cutie, and Cold War Kids, whose studio in San Pedro, CA the band borrowed to make the album. Also, in a move encouraged by their record label, Nettwerk, Hwang and Chae were sent to Nashville for a week in April 2015 to work on a few new tracks with two different co-writers, Lincoln Parish (formerly of Cage the Elephant) and the Kings of Leon collaborator Nick Brown.
“It was weird but at the same time it was really encouraging,” says Hwang of the co-writing. “It was like bringing our demos to a blind date.”
The first song from the Nashville sessions was “Run Or Hide,” co-written with Parish, and from first listen it’s clear that Run River North are exploring bombastic new territory. Hwang, Chae, and Parish came up with an organic way of working that was based on jamming and vibing together, and once the song’s melody was nailed down, the rest came easily. It was immediately hard-hitting than any previous song from the band, with a discernible strut serving as a sonic contrast. When the demo was sent home to LA, the rest of the band was shocked.
“Almost everyone else was really scared,” says Hwang, “‘this is not your voice, this is not who we are.’ I was confident it was a really good song and that we were gonna keep it. There’s nothing more aggressive on the record, and that groove on the verses is bigger than the band. The band can’t contain the song.”
“I loved it!” says Chong emphatically. “Alex has a very wide range of emotion when he sings—soft, whispery things; really bombastic; rough—this song showcases all of that. I got really excited. When we recorded it, it really showcases more groove. Joe, our bass player, is solid, and the way the melody is created in the verses really adds to that. There’s a really cool contrast happening, but the choruses hit hard.”
The other song written in Tennessee was the Nick Brown co-penned “Can’t Come Down,” a track with pop qualities that the band does not shy away from recognizing. For that they leaned on Brown heavily, who served almost as a mentor to Hwang and Chae during the sessions, teaching them about pop hooks, authenticity, and Southern tradition. Deciding to go all in on a pop song, the trio rallied behind Brown’s catchy melodies and licks, and what they ended up with is a happy medium that “still sounds as Run River North as possible,” according to Chong, while simultaneously reaching for the rafters.
“We really gelled with Nick Brown,” says Hwang. “We had the same idea: ‘We have enough songs that exemplify us, so let’s try our hand at writing a pop hook.’ With that mentality we came up with ‘Can’t Come Down.’ Nick wrote the hook, Daniel and Nick wrote the music, and a heavy collaboration on lyrics from everyone. It’s the first song I ever sang the word ‘baby’ in.”
With those songs firmly planting the band’s flag in new ground, it is Hwang’s “29” that may be the best indicator of the band Run River North are becoming. A piano and drum fueled anthem examining the ups and downs of transition, it finds the singer posing multiple existential questions at once. “Everyone’s always talking about how if you will something, it’s gonna happen. But, sometimes it doesn’t!” says Hwang. “That was a realization I wanted to play with: ‘Your words are cold like the wind…’ It’s kind of like saying, ‘I don’t care what you think,’ but it’s also a reflection about my words. What I do can be just as insignificant as anyone else. So what are you gonna do about it? You’re 29. ‘I know it’s home, I know it hurts/I know I’ll end up at the bottom/What if I leave?’ What if we go on this tour and we don’t end up anywhere? The brutal question is, who cares, and why does it matter? Not answering that in the song really helps. The music is still upbeat, it still has the ‘oh’s’ going on, it’s an anthemic thing. I’m still energetic, I’m not some old dude at 29.”
“29” was written on electric guitar, a tool Hwang has been using more frequently since the end of the debut album’s touring cycle. Originally intended for a more somber feel, at the suggestion of their producer Stalfors, the tempo rose to meet Hwang’s intonations. “It became this song with so much energy,” says Chong, “it’s probably the fastest song we’ve ever done as a band. It’s new territory for us; it’s very fun. It’s a good transition, with lulled verses and really upbeat instrumentals and choruses. This is a good appetizer for our old fans, as this is who we’ve become.”
Embracing their natural growth and learning to ride the waves of their personal and musical evolutions with open hearts and nimble hands, Run River North have created a sophomore album that will propel them to the forefront of today’s landscape. Although at times the rushing water of their rise will pool into depths tough to swallow, they have learned to lean on each other and to trust themselves along the way in order to make something lasting and truly beautiful.
“From the start, we always said we wanted to play on the biggest stages possible,” says Hwang. “That’s still the same. But it isn’t some self-indulgent dream of becoming rock stars; we still want to support our families with this, we still have the parents that sacrificed for us and we want to honor them. For us as a band, at times it’s felt like we’ve been drinking from a salt pond—and yet, we still created something pretty fresh that we like and are proud of.”