Here's a seldom-asked question: How does a band perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live, play at the Grammy Museum, and get itself interviewed on NPR's Weekend Edition With Scott Simon — all with no label and one self-recorded demo?
Alex Hwang, whose band Run River North has done all of the above, is as mystified by it as anyone.
"It just seems really surreal," says the singer-songwriter, whose Los Angeles-based band will be releasing its debut album on Nettwerk Records in late February. "It's like, 'I can't believe this is happening, so let's just keep playing shows, and wait for the album to come out, and then see what people really think.'"
Hwang and his five bandmates — who range in age from 20 to 27 and all come from first-generation Korean-American families — started playing together in 2011 under the name Monsters Calling Home. A year later, they released a video for "Fight to Keep," most of which was shot and performed inside their moving Hondas, with Hwang doing the vocal in one take.
Much to their surprise, the video got the attention of the car company, which then invited the band to play for a gathering of Honda execs.
But the surprises didn't end there: The band was already onstage, plugged in, tuned up and ready to play, when they were told that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the performance was being called off.
"They had fed us pretty well up until that point, they had all these photo shoots, and they were just saying, 'Leave this date open, you're gonna play this big show,' recalls the singer. "And in our minds, it was like, 'OK, if we do well for Honda executives, maybe we'll get into commercials, maybe they'll give us a car, or something outrageous like that."
Instead, the band was crushed. "We weren't like divas about it, saying, 'Oh my God, how dare you not have an audience for us' — it was just, man, they seemed pretty mean. We would probably have stopped driving our Hondas at that point."
Happily, it all turned out to be an elaborate prank. Still standing slackjawed onstage, the musicians were told they were actually going across the street to play on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Honda documented the bait-and-switch stunt in a video that's fast approaching 1½ million views.
The road to indie-rock
Last fall, Run River North recorded its debut album with producer Phil Ek. "He produced Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, Shins, Modest Mouse," Hwang enthuses. "Pretty much every single band that we really like."
While early covers of the Killers and Cold War Kids reflected interests beyond indie-folk, most of the material they've uploaded to YouTube has been acoustic. That'll change with the new album, which is being released in time to promote the band's SXSW appearances.
"I'm actually the only one who plays acoustic on the album," explains Hwang. "I think most of the videos online show a lot of acoustic elements just because of, you know, recording limitations and what we were doing video-wise. The album itself has more of a full rock sound, because we're kind of transitioning into more electric guitar and just a bigger sound."
Journeys through the past
While initial interest may come from a viral video and wily car company, the band's longevity will be more dependent on its music as well as Hwang's songwriting perspective. "I started just digging into my past and my Korean-American friends' stories," he says. "And I really wanted to tell that story. I can't not tell it."
Hwang, who'd grown up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, was also spending an inordinate amount of time listening to Arcade Fire's album, The Suburbs. "I felt like I was one of those suburb kids they were singing about," he says.
Somewhere between his suburban upbringing and cultural heritage, the songwriter began hitting on themes that proved more universal than he'd expected. The next step was putting together a band to get them across.
"I found half of the band through other bands that I really liked, and the younger half I met through the same church that we all go to," he explains, noting how Korean-American churches have served as a gathering place for culturally displaced immigrants.
For Hwang's generation, of course, there's considerably more acceptance and assimilation, even if the notion of a post-racial society is still more concept than reality.
"Living in L.A., I kind of get spoiled with how comfortable I can be about being Asian," says the musician. "And yeah, I think that's why it's gonna be interesting when our album comes out, and we get to tour a little bit more through the Midwest and just see what people think about the fact that there are six Korean-Americans onstage."