This week, "A Change of Tune" host Joni Deutsch interviews Alex Hwang (vocals, acoustic guitar) of indie folk group Run River North about the band's self-titled debut. The discussion also veers into the Korean-American band's connections to Honda, their definition of folk music, and how the group was influenced by, of all things, rap and hip-hop music. If you’re a fan of indie folk music with a twist, this interview is recommended for you.
Joni: Did you guys feel like you were getting punk’d by Honda when they put you on Kimmel's talk show?
Alex: We really had no idea. We were hoping we would get a Honda van out of it, but obviously they had something else in mind. It basically was an episode of Punk’d. But luckily, the people who punk’d us are really good friends of ours, and we meet-up with them once every other month to have burgers and barbeques. There’s no hard feelings after that, even though it did feel kind of mean at the time.
Joni: After that, did it feel like an obligation to keep using Honda vehicles? Is there a clause that says, “You must only use and talk about Honda vehicles?”
Alex: That’s the cool thing about the people that work at Honda. All of us drive Hondas naturally, and we did afterwards. If they ever need anything from us, we’ll try it out, but there’s no contractual thing. We’re not sponsored by them or anything. It’s like an organic relationship. I do like Honda, without them ever putting us on Kimmel. [Laughing] I think I got in trouble last time, though. There was this festival that Toyota was sponsoring, and I was just bragging about Honda and how they put us on Kimmel. Toyota was confused as to why we were on the bill and why we were talking about Honda.
J: Toyota was probably thinking, “You expect us to one-up Honda by putting the band on Conan?”
A: [Laughing] Yeah, that would be nice. We love Conan and watch him all the time.
J: Going into your new record, how’s the experience been releasing it?
A: We’re just excited to be able to go on tour and play the songs that are on the album. It’s just great to have an actual CD that’s pressed and not burn CD’s from Target that we have to put on the road. It’s good to have a product to sell that we’re really behind, and it just shows a great snapshot of what we were like last summer. The reactions have been great, people have been really liking our live show and buying our CD. For some people, it’s there first time coming out to a concert, so we’re really excited for people to experience live music in general and allowing our music to be their first to do that. Sometimes it’s the first CD they’ve bought in a while, too, so they’ll tell us, “I’ve only bought the Taylor Swift CD and yours!”
J: That’s really interesting. Do you think there’s a correlation between your music and Taylor Swift?
A: [Laughing] Ah, no. I think that was just that one fan. I just kind of remembered her making a big deal that I was in the same category as Taylor Swift. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Thank you. Have a nice day.”
J: Are you guys hearing a lot of comparisons to Fleet Foxes and other indie folk-rock bands?
A: Oh, totally! We did work with the producer who worked on a Fleet Foxes album. It’s a similarity that we don’t not like. I think it’s interesting that you have some acoustic guitars and everybody singing and a lot of similarities come up. But when you come to our live shows, there’s a lot happening. We’ve grown up a little bit more since the album was recorded, and it’s interesting to see people be surprised about what they read about, what they hear on the album, and then what they actually see live.
J: When you think of folk bands, like Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters and Men, you think of 30-year-old white men with beards, sometimes in flannel or with banjos and mandolins. But you describe your music as “gangster folk.”
A: [Laughing] For me, personally, I always wanted to be a rapper. It’s going to be a life-long dream that I might not ever fulfill, so I wanted to put it out there into the world. If somebody latched onto the genre of gangster folk, somebody should do it anyways. I like how our music and the songs that we write are about folks that we know and our own folks. In a quite literal sense, it’s “folk music.” As for the gangster part, I just like how everybody in the band can not only play their instruments really well, but they can hold a note, they can sing, and their voices are also a part of the whole make-up of the band. I think that’s really gangster for everybody to stand-up to the plate, not just hide behind their instruments, and be vulnerable enough to sing out loud. That’s the part that I really appreciate about gangster folk or the genre that I’m continually trying to press onto the world.
J: I can’t let that rap comment go. You’ll have to tell me a little more about that. Why did you want to be a rapper? Can you give us a verse or two?
A: [Laughing] No, I can’t give you a verse. But I can tell you we love listening to A Tribe Called Quest in the car on road trips. Kanye is a lot of fun to listen to. Personally, I just love free-style rap. There’s one that I was growing up with who’s still going around. He’s called Dumbfounded, but I think he goes by Parker now. He’s a Korean-American from Koreatown, and he’s kind of close to my age. Seeing him do his thing, speak his own opinion, and do what he wants to do in a genre that isn’t really dominated by any Asians, it was really inspiring to see that happening in that genre. I was really pulled to rap and hip-hop because of that. So having that background, I’m just inspired by people who can break stereotype and give their opinion on things and be heard. I think a lot of rappers have the potential of doing that well, if given the right platform. If you ever have a chance to check out Parker (Johnathan Park) and Awkwafina, they’re these Asian-American rappers who I personally find really interesting to listen to.
J: Besides the influence of parents and past generations, what else inspires your music?
A: You know, that’s interesting. Going on the road, people have been coming up to us telling us about their immigrant stories, their family lives, or what gets them through. It’s weird: when you’re an artist and, luckily for us get on TV, people then start gravitating to you and start sharing stories. I think the inspiration comes from fans and hearing these incredible stories that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. I think it’s continually finding stories out there already, reacting to that, and repurposing and packaging that to put out there. I really enjoy just writing songs about folks and that I know of or hear. We play folk music, but not in the sense that we play banjos. We just like talking about people and their stories.
J: I assume the audiences you’re seeing are a mix of all kinds of people. Do you think your music is helping improve or diversify the indie folk scene?
A: I hope so. I’m not trying to be crusader to be a diversity person for indie folk, but when you come to our shows, there’s not only ethnic diversity but a generation diversity. Parents are bringing their kids. Sometimes there’s an old couple, looking like they’re in the 70’s, listening in the back and politely telling us they heard us on NPR. It’s great to see so many walks of life coming through. I think that speaks to the fact that we try to write stories about people, so the more people we write about, the more different people will show up. It’s really interesting to see such diversity in the crowd. [Laughing] They’re always wondering why we’re all Korean. We’re trying not to be racist, it’s just the five people I first shared our songs with.
J: I noticed that the band covers quite a few songs on YouTube. Do you have any favorites?
A: Oh yeah! We haven’t done a video for it, but on our first head-lining tour, we did “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers. It’s a totally different take on it. It came from the fact that I probably listened to the album a thousand times over and be [The Killers’ frontman] Brandon Flowers. We made it our own, and I think it’s a lot of fun. A lot of the covers actually come from one source. Our friend started a relationship and wanted us to play a song for a girl, and right now he’s married to that girl. At each step of their relationship, they’ve asked if we could cover a song. They’ve been the only ones that we’ve said yes to the request. Each one has been great, and it’s been an interesting way of covering songs. They’ve always picked good songs for us, actually, ones that we didn’t think were going to be great or we didn’t personally connect to, but we just wanted to help this couple out. So now, whenever they ask, we’ll say yes because they’ve been so good about picking songs.
J: That’s so cute! So you’re not doing the covers because you like doing covers, you’re doing them because you’ve been given a quirky relationship request.
A: It is! If you look at the video for the City and Colour song, every place we go to in that video is a spot that our friend Cory and Bev really like about L.A. So the whole video’s like a “Happy Valentine’s Day” gift to them that Cory wanted to give to her. That asked us to play a song for them for their wedding, but unfortunately we were on tour. It was one we wanted to cover to as well, so you’ll probably see another cover come out because Cory and Bev are in love. We’re excited to see where that keeps going.
J: Beyond the cover songs, I also saw your cutesy music videos on YouTube. Did you have a favorite?
A: They’re both so much fun. The first one, [“Fight to Keep”] with [Napoleon Dynamite’s] Diedrich Bader, he was such a great guy. We got to go to Big Bear and get murdered by him, and that’s something I’m never going to be able to do again. But the “Excuses” video was near and dear. The two guys who directed it are good friends of mine, and the guy who stars in it is also a friend. We had so much fun running around L.A. and shooting it in a day and a half. I think it was great because it didn’t require too much for the band. We could all just go to different places in L.A. and watch him make a freak of himself. When we do videos, we like to support people that are our lives, and everything in that video was made possible by friends. It’s always fun to incorporate friends in everything that we do and support small businesses in the art world.
J: And in “Fight to Keep,” I didn’t realize Bader played “Rex Kwon Do” in Napoleon Dynamite until I looked it up.
A: He doesn’t really do music videos, but he was fantastic, and the fact that we was willing to do that for us was mind-boggling. He was really down to earth, and not only does he have funny lines, but he’s a great guy. I think somebody from our label had worked with him on The Drew Carey Show, so she just reached out and he was super excited about it. He doesn’t really do music videos so, once again, it was a friend relationship that made this happen.
J: Do you have any dream collaborations with musicians?
A: I think working with some of the artists that Phil [Ek, Run River North music producer] has produced like Fleet Foxes would be good. But on a way more serious note, there’s a group on YouTube called Turquoise Jeep, and two of the members of that group are Yung Humma and Flynt Flossy. If we could collaborate with them, it would be a dream come true. They are our musical influences, and they make the band really happy when we drive for long, long hours into the night. Collaborating with them would be a dream come true. It’s rap, but you don’t know if they’re serious or not. It’s really good.
J: The band was originally called Monsters Calling Home. Now it’s Run River North. Is there a new name for the band on the horizon?
A: [Laughing] Hopefully not. I think the first step was because we didn’t want to hold onto anything too tightly, but I think it’s hard for fans to find us again and to change our Facebook and YouTube and all of these things. It’s really stressful, so we might just want to keep this name, but you never know. I love the way Arcade Fire have a different name for each album, and each album they personify that and think of themselves like, “This time we’re Neon Bible, that time we’re Reflektor.” They find different ways to get behind a name. I do love Run River North and how it exemplifies what our band is holistically. It’s all about our music being like a river and being bombastic but quiet at the same time, and there’s this fluidity to it that’s great to talk about. But who knows. We might meet Flynt Flossy in a year and he’ll come up with a better name for us.
Run River North will join fellow folk rockers Boy & Bear on their North American fall tour. You can follow Run River North on http://home.runrivernorth.com/. Listen to "Fight to Keep" on Joni Deutsch’s “A Change of Tune” this Saturday at 10 PM EST on West Virginia Public Radio.