Six Korean-Americans from San Fernando Valley, California had an idea. A crazy idea, but a fun one nonetheless. They would grab their gear, jump into a subcompact hatchback Honda Fit, and record their next song and music video. With nothing more than a couple of Go-Pro cameras, a Canon 7D, a Macbook Pro, a drum set, and some other basic equipment, they crammed in and started recording.
When they finished, they uploaded the video to their YouTube channel, hoping to get a few thousand hits, at the most.
But a few weeks later, Honda—only the eighth largest car manufacturer in the world—called them. They saw the music video on YouTube. And through their campaign, “Honda Loves You Back,” which the company explains as a series of feel-good surprises to show their appreciation to fans and current Honda owners, the campaign reps invited the band to perform in front of 600 executives.
The band couldn’t believe it. Although Honda kept details to a minimum (simply telling them that their story would be featured on the company’s online marketing outlets), they couldn’t deny how sweet a gig like this was, just a year after they formed.
When the day arrived to perform, they mic checked, one, two, one two. But an executive for the car company interrupted them to say that there was a slight problem.
“Here’s the thing,” she started. “Everybody that’s supposed to come back here is stuck in a meeting, so we’re going to have to cancel the concert...I am so sorry because we were really looking forward to hearing you.”
Hearts dropped. Shoulders sagged a bit.
Another executive tried to soften the blow by asking them to play a song for them.
for them. You know, so that it wouldn’t be a complete waste of time.
Trying to stay positive, the six of them jumped up on stage. As they started playing their first notes, however, the executives interrupted them a second time...what now?
He explained that Honda wanted to love them back, which was why they were invited to perform in the first place. But, in actuality, they had a better gig lined up.
“You are booked...,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “as the musical guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Audible shock filled the room. Mouths agape with gasps, tears formed.
And as if that wasn’t enough...
“We picked this location because Jimmy Kimmel is across the street, and that’s where you’re going right now!” added the executive.
They couldn’t believe it. They did nothing to deserve such a gig. Other bands have been working for years to get an opportunity like this. Yet, here they were, just a group of people who simply like to sing and play instruments, getting ready to perform live on national television.
Two hours later, on September 18, 2012, the world met Run River North.
Sally Kang stands awkwardly as she poses for the photographer. She doesn’t know how to stand or where to look. She giggles, looking at her bandmates, Alex Hwang and Jennifer Rim, who appear to be equally uncomfortable by the photos. As they’re being directed to lean on the rail, to look this way, to keep their shoulders down, a couple of their friends gather around, curiosity getting the best of them.
around, curiosity getting the best of them.
“What’s going on here?” one of them asks, laughing.
Alex, without trying to move his lips too much, responds, “Can’t you see we’re taking pictures?”
They try to remain serious, but it’s short-lived. Fits of laughter ensue.
It’s easy to forget why they’re getting their photos taken in the first place. Here, Alex, Jennifer, and Sally pose in front of their church in San Fernando Valley on a Sunday afternoon. But the photoshoot isn’t for church, which would probably make them feel more comfortable anyway. Rather, it’s for the band they’re in—along with Joseph Chun, Daniel Chae, and John Chong—who gained the world’s attention last September.
Shortly after the photos, Daniel and Joseph, or “Joe” as the band calls him, arrive, tossing a baseball in the air. They just got back from the Los Angeles Dodgers versus Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game at Dodger Stadium.
“Look...everyone’s coming out of the woodworks,” Alex jokes.
He notices that Daniel and Joe are matching in grey t-shirts and khaki pants. Then, they notice that Jennifer and Sally are also matching with red tops and black pants.
“Was this planned?!” Alex asks, pointing at them. “And why didn’t you guys tell me?”
They insist that it wasn’t. Then, without hesitation, they pose and ask to get their photo taken. They look as if they’re taking a group prom picture. Or a family photo.
“Man, we’re just missing John,” Daniel says.
*** After a surprise appearance on one of the most popular late-night shows on television, and after getting signed to a record label a few months ago, and in the midst of getting an album produced by Phil Ek, who has produced albums for well-known names like Fleet Foxes, The Shins, and Modest Mouse, Run River North’s biggest goal isn’t what one might think.
They just want to be a family.
“Initially, we wanted to get onto the biggest stage possible,” Alex says. “But in the last six months, it’s become more about, ‘How do we continue to stay a family?’”
The band is, after all, young in both age and experience. In fact, there are two distinct groups within the band. There’s the older half, which includes 27-year-old Alex, 26-year-old John, and 24-year-old Daniel, who all have prior experience being in bands and performing. Then, there’s the younger half consisting of 19-year-old Jennifer, 21-year-old Sally, and 21-year-old Joe, who have little to none experience performing.
Joe, for example, has stage fright. So much so that he asked his managers to put him in the back, where no one could see him. Besides, isn’t that where bass players stand anyway?
“I don’t look up because I’ll get really nervous,” Joe adds, half-joking, half-serious.
In July of 2011, Alex wrote “Monsters Calling Home,” a song birthed from a conversation he had about Korean-American immigrant families and the skeletons in their closet. He took the song to some friends he trusted, like Daniel. Daniel, in turn, suggested that an acoustic guitar and drum-only ensemble might be pretty cool. Or even an acoustic guitar, two basses, and drums.
“We just kept bouncing ideas back and forth about wacky band combinations,” Daniel says. “From then on, it was a natural transition over to different instruments.”
Alex started recruiting people, including Daniel and Joe, from his church.
“Alex kind of tricked me into this,” Sally adds. “I never thought I’d be doing this...you know, be in a band.”
Alex sent Sally the demo with some lyrics, asking for her opinion. The following day, he casually asked if she wanted to hang out and watch Nacho Libre with him and Joe. She agreed, but when Sally walked into Alex’s room, Joe was playing the bass while Alex sang “Monsters Calling Home.” She knew something was up.
“It was then that Alex asked me to sing along, which I couldn’t find the courage to do, so I went home,” Sally explains. “The next day, Alex asked me and Joe to come over once more to try again, but when I stepped into his house again, I found Daniel and our other friend setting up mics to record.”
From that quick demo on, Sally was in.
“We totally fooled Sally,” Joe adds.
Around the same time, Alex also sent the demo to John, an experienced drummer and performer whom Daniel knew.
“I knew I wanted to work with [Alex]...” John says. “Watching him sing with that type of emotion made me want to work with him no matter what the songs were.”
Daniel also helped recruit Jennifer, who played violin. And before anyone knew it, the band was formed by August of that year. Alex (lead vocalist/acoustic guitarist), Sally vocalist/keyboardist), Jennifer (violinist), Joe (bassist), Daniel (violinist/electric guitarist), and John (drummer) became Monsters Calling Home, later changing the band name to Run River North.
Monsters Calling Home, later changing the band name to Run River North.
For the next month, the six of them practiced “Monsters Calling Home” for an entertainment competition, called “Kollaboration,” at the famed Nokia Theater. The competition highlights and promotes Asian Pacific American talent.
After the competition, the six of them met as much as possible to refine their sound and style. But while some of them had previous experience performing, others did not, and there were other commitments, like day jobs and full-time school, competing for their time. It caused friction, even tempting one or two of them to just walk away. Regardless, they stuck it out, recognizing it now as God’s grace. Because, within months, they were playing frequently at venues around Los Angeles, burning CDs of their demos just hours before, in case people wanted them.
Then, at one of their gigs, they met Stephen Christian, the lead singer of the rock band Anberlin. From that meeting and an exchanging of emails, Anberlin asked Run River North to be an opener for their U.S. acoustic tour for two and a half weeks.
“Being able to see how accepting and responsive the crowd was in the Midwest and East Coast was so surprising for us,” Sally says of the tour. “We sold out on our demo CDs and the 50 shirts I had screen printed.”
Even the less-than-glamorous side of touring—no money and no place to sleep—pulled them closer as a family.
“During shows, halfway through the set, we’d say, ‘Hey, we don’t have a place to stay tonight. Is there anyone out there that can, um, house us for the night?’” Alex explains.
In the middle of the tour, Jennifer and Daniel had to return to California for school and work.
for school and work. While they wondered how that might affect them, the band quickly realized that something much bigger was going on. Their music resonated with people. It evoked tears. But not because of their own skill or musicianship. It was simply their message.
At various points throughout the tour, strangers went up to them, explaining how their music touched them in a new way.
“At one particular show, a girl was crying during one of our songs, ‘Rain,’” Jennifer explains. “She came up to us and told us that that was the most beautiful song she’s ever heard. It’s really special to hear that these songs move people and reach people in that way...to complete strangers.”
Sally had a similar experience. In Madison, Wisconsin, she hung out at the merchandise table after the show, asking around for a living room that the band could crash at. A girl went up to her, explaining that during “Rain,” God spoke to her about Sally’s family. This girl didn’t know Sally. Yet, she said things that were very personal to Sally’s life. An act that could only be described as a God-thing.
“In that moment, I was blown away,” Sally explains. “The idea of community is not restricted to churches. It expands to everywhere we go. We’re all brothers and sisters who are called to love wherever we go.”
Run River North isn’t a Christian band. Many of their songs have clear references to faith, spirituality, and God, but they’re not a Christian band. They’re just six people with stories, who simply love Jesus. And sometimes—often times—it’s hard to not talk about Him.
“Our lyrics are stories of the people we are, the people we love, and the people we want to be,” the band once said in a past interview.
“And sometimes it’s about people we don’t want to be.”
The honesty that resonates in each chorus and verse makes a heart clench. The emotions Alex sings with while Sally harmonizes, the way the violin melds with the guitar, and how John’s drumming builds with Joe’s fluid bass—it’s clear that Run River North isn’t simply meant to be heard. Rather, they’re inviting listeners to partake in a story.
And a quick scroll through the comments sections on their YouTube videos quickly reveal that many are doing just that: participating in their storytelling.
“There are religious debates surrounding our music,” Joe explains. “Some are negative, some aren’t, but I think it’s awesome.
“Whether people are for it or against it, there’s no doubt that something, or someone, is making them stir.”
Christian band or not, God-centered lyrics or not, there’s one thing that can’t be questioned: God’s favor.
What would normally take a band four-plus years to achieve took Run River North a year and a half.
After Kollaboration, the sextet went on tour with Anberlin, opened for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, got signed to the record label Nettwerk, and they’re now in the thick of recording their first album with Phil Ek.
Even the abridged version of Run River North’s journey is impressive.
“From Kollaboration until now, the doors keep getting bigger and bigger,” Joe adds. “And God is saying, ‘I have more in store for you. Just trust Me and follow Me and be obedient.’ God’s role is in everything. He’s really being a father and wanting us to experience this joy.
father and wanting us to experience this joy. At the same time, none of this could happen without Him. We’re not trying to take glory for ourselves. This band is just another avenue of worship.”
For at least half the band, pursuing a music career was nowhere near their grid. They simply knew how to play an instrument. And their performing went as far as worshipping at church. Which is why every time a new door opens, they’re just as dumbstruck as the first time.
“When we got the Kimmel thing, I thought that was the peak of it all,” Daniel says. “But it just continues to get better, and it amazes us. God’s using people like us, the simple to confound the wise. I really think that’s what’s going on. We’re just six Koreans in a band. He gives us gifts that are not our own. And I think all of us are cool with it if He takes it all away.”
Seven months after their musical guest appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Run River North realized they still had a lot of work to do.
“Jimmy Kimmel was like a huge, amazing firework,” Alex says. “It was really bright and amazing, but it also faded.”
Because Honda surprised them, the band didn’t really prepare an album to sell when the influx of new fans rushed in. The songs they did have were just demos to send to producers. Their YouTube hits and iTunes downloads spiked, but they knew they couldn't rely on that momentum.
In fact, right after their television appearance, a record label they had been in contact with suddenly shut their doors. It almost seemed as if doors were closing, not opening. Yet, instead of letting it discourage or even disband them, they used the time to explore and strengthen this new family they were now in.
them, they used the time to explore and strengthen this new family they were now in.
“There’s a worship song—You give and take away, but still my heart chooses to say, ‘Blessed be Your name’—and we asked ourselves what this meant, how it’s lived out, and what our intentions were as a result,” Alex explains. “And then, we had to figure out how to share that vision with five other people, how to make it a livelihood...it’s all tough with people you call ‘family.’”
Yet, they did it. And they’re doing it. Run River North will be the first to say that the destination isn’t as important as being with Jesus and with each other. On multiple occasions, they explain that if all of it were taken away, it'd be OK because they’d still have each other.
“That’s how we see God moving,” Sally explains. “It’s really about the glory of God manifesting itself through what we do as a family and the con- versations we have with people through our music.
“We say this all the time—if there was no Jesus in the band, this would not exist.”
Copyright © 2019 re.write magazine. All Rights Reserved.
FOLLOW RUN RIVER NORTH:runrivernorth.com @runrivernorth
*Cover photo by Eric Anderson
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