by Victoria Wasylak
Photo courtesy of Run River North's Facebook Page
When Southern California band Run River North released their self-titled debut LP in 2014, the sextet established their own territory in the hyper-specific genre of Korean-American folk rock. With 2016’s ten-track album Drinking From a Salt Pond, set to be released February 26, the group displays significant growth from home-grown folk to a more accessible indie, whether their folksy fan base likes it or not. While maintaining hearty doses of acoustic guitar and violin, the entire record leans more towards alternative rock than their prior rural, roots-y musical style, making for a deep dive into a wider audience pool.
“Intro (Funeral) Parade” is an orchestral number worthy of a summer blockbuster soundtrack, and “29” epitomizes youthful indie. It is a song that brings you back to your first summer with a driver’s license, a crowded mall on a rainy day and the ecstasy of packing your suitcases. “What if the sea leads straight to the sun?” Alex Hwang blurts, the kind of nonsensical inquiry that comes to you mid-buzz.
That being said, “29” is also the poster song for the entire album: uplifting, radio-ready indie that’s slightly skirting mainstream. That’s not to say that there is no variety in the album, though. “Pretenders” is a delightful outlier, a punchier, underground-punk version of the group’s usual alternative, and “Ghost” masterfully layers Hwang’s vocals and backup vocals, at times seeming like a distant cousin of Of Monsters and Men’s folk-centric style. The record waxes moody at times; “Run Or Hide” and “Elam” are introspective jams, and its final track “Winter Winds” is a total fade-out, complete with a two-minute lull of silence that returns with a sparse acoustic ditty to finish off the album.
The entire album is exactly what one would expect from producer Lars Stalfors, who has worked with the likes of Cold War Kids and Matt and Kim. Stylistic tweaks aside, it’s no sophomore slump. The Buzz talked to guitarist/violinist Daniel Chae, drummer John Chong and lead vocalist Alex Hwang about the composition of the album and their favorite songs, some of which didn’t make the cut.
The Buzz: What was it like working with Lars Stalfors? How did that come to be?
Daniel Chae: When it comes to music, there's this unspoken language with many dialects. Pretty much everyone speaks the same language, but not everyone speaks the same dialect. You can pretty much get the general gist of someone that speaks a different dialect because the mother language is the same. But when you find someone that speaks the same dialect, boom. We found that Lars spoke the same gangster-rap-Korean dialect and we boomed.
John Chong: We originally were in talks to work with Dann Gallucci, who wanted to bring along Lars ‘cause they had a lot of fun working on the Cold War Kids records. We were down for both of them, but Dann had to unfortunately back out. Fortunately, Lars was still down to work with us sans Dann. I guess we were very trusting of Dann's recommendation, and it paid off. We loved how easygoing he was while getting amazing tones and performances. Made everything super comfortable. The space also oozed inspiration and vibe. I loved how he kept things minimal and raw
TB: You posted on Facebook that “Superstition” is a B-side from the new album. Are there many other B-sides? Why didn’t they make the cut?
DC: Going into album number two, we had fourteen completed song ideas, and maybe two more ideas. We recorded fourteen songs, and together with a previous demo, four didn't make it. We loved those so much that we just wanted to release them anyway. I'm really sad they didn't make the album!
JC: We are open to listening to our team, and many of them had their top 10 without "Superstition", "Salt Pond" and "Seven". Or maybe they just wanted to keep all the S names together.
How did you pick “Run Or Hide” to be the lead single?
DC: “Run or Hide” was the most accessible song for both fans and future fans alike.
JC: We've never been on big radio stations and wanted to try to get there. Our label's radio department felt this had the best shot. So far it's been doing well!
What are your favorite songs on the album?
DC: “Superstition” and “Salt Pond” are b-sides. These are my favorite songs.
JC: My favorite song is "David Robinson" because it has the best title of all time.
Alex Hwang: My favorite song is “Funeral Parade”, for now. I think as we play these songs, it will probably change. “Funeral Parade” is a great transition piece from our first album to our second album. The lyrics are really intimate for me and I feel the music is able to tell the story of the lyrics just as powerfully. Given all the passing of very influential artists, I think the song is a reminder for me of the funerals and parades that make up my life.
In the song “Winter Winds,” why did you decide to have the song fade out, be silent for a few minutes, and then come back with a different song?
DC: We were well into the writing process for this album when Alex brought this to the band. It was rainy and we were starting to get sick of the tiny rehearsal room we were renting in Van Nuys. Before Alex played the song for us, he described a beautiful and chilling scene to create some context for the song to exist in. There was a man standing in the middle of a forest in the dead of winter. He had just faced the biggest storm of his life and was left standing, desperate to know if that was from his God or from the devil. I imagined this man's knuckles clenched and bare white. Unafraid and desperate for an answer, the man simply said "show me that again. Bring it on. I need to know." By the time Alex finished playing the song, someone who will be left unnamed, broke down in tears. After that silence, it goes into the song "Funeral". Musically and emotionally, we wanted to take you through this progression, that recycles back into track one of the album, as an endless repeat. I hope that made sense.
Drinking From A Salt Pond is available for purchase on February 26 and Run River North will play at The Sinclair in Cambridge on April 8.