Run River North as a Heuristic Device

Founded in 2011, Run River North is a six-piece Korean American indie/folk-rock band based out of Los Angeles. RRN is part of a minority as an entirely Asian American music group, and most certainly one of the only Asian American bands in the indie/folk-rock genre. The band, as well as their music, serve as heuristic devices in analyzing the desires to both assimilate to and, simultaneously, distance themselves from general American musical culture, as well as discovering identities across a new generation of Asian American immigrants.

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Run River North (image from NPR)

In an effort to draw in a wider audience, Asian American music is often unacknowledged as such by the artist, no matter how prevalent or obvious their “Asian Americanness” may be. RRN often finds themselves in this position as an all-Korean American band performing music in a typically white-dominated genre. Former RRN drummer John Chong, in an interview with NBC Asian America, emphasized this point: “I don’t want it to come to a point where people listen to us just because we’re Asian American, but because they like our music.” This channels the “Violin Concerto” by Earl Kim, which is left undiscussed in discourse of Asian American music because Kim goes to no great lengths to explicitly identify his work as Asian American in a musical realm controlled by whites. “Kim composes with a musical language that is supposed to have transcended cultural, ethnic, and national boundaries with universal meanings” (Lam 15). Frontman Alex Hwang even acknowledged the band’s relative musical assimilation: “…there wasn’t really any overt Asian-ness to the music.” In the same interview with NBC, Hwang says forming an entirely Korean American group was not intentional, just coincidental. RRN’s desire to appeal to a wider group of listeners comes through their self-declared transcendence to rise above any gaps between themselves and the audience through musical assimilation and diminishing of their Asian Americanness.

At the same time, RRN is acutely aware of their unique standing as Asian American artists, making the extent of their “assimilation” difficult to identify. Hwang sings barefoot on stage, as a slight nod to his roots: “As an Asian, you grow up in your house not having shoes,” noting that he feels most comfortable without them. Though Hwang said the band being all Korean American was a coincidence, most members met through Kollaboration, an Asian American arts/entertainment organization. Their first few performances took place in Koreatown and at Kollaboration competitions, playing to niche audiences. RRN’s active use of the Asian American network and initial cultivation of a specific audience shows the band’s hesitance to completely break away from their Asian Americanness. Further, Hwang said that the band would like to perform particularly in Asia one day: “It feels like we’re kind of a world band. We’re not this white, Korean band, and we’re not this Asian, Korean band.” They recently played at SXSW, during a part of the festival specifically showcasing Asian American artists. Hwang said then, “Our Asianness is something that we can’t not be,” acknowledging the band’s cultural identity, but continued, “But as a band, that shouldn’t be what we’re about. We should have good music for you to listen to.” RRN’s constant back-and-forth between connecting with their Asian Americanness and wanting their music to be listened for aesthetic value exemplifies the divide between cultural assimilation and maintaining some sense of identity.

“Monsters Calling Home,” the first song on RRN’s first album and arguably one of their most well-known songs, is the most explicit musical/lyrical representation of the band’s Asian American, second-generation immigrant identity. “What is it like growing up with immigrant parents? What is it like doing something as non-traditional as being in a band?” Hwang says of the thought process behind the song. With lyrics like, “They’re walking to the/beat of a broken drum/Digging for worth in/a land under a foreign sun/The children call bitter words/of a strange tongue,” the song looks at the Asian American experience through the personal lens of second-generation immigrants. The members of RRN are American-born, but saw their parents struggle with pursuing the American dream while growing up. The song draws attention to the distance between generations of Asian American immigrants. This cultural gap can be the largest to overcome because of the drastic differences among the two generations, and “Monsters Calling Home” sheds light onto these differences and the consequences of such a divide. According to Hwang, the “monsters” (not in a totally negative connotation) are their immigrant parents, who have changed and struggled in coming to a foreign country. The lyrics touch on topics not often discussed in the Asian American immigrant community, such as alcoholism or the quiet, submissive model minority stereotype (“some hold a bottle/some hold back”), and a longing to return to native countries (“hear the monsters calling home/no, they don’t wanna be alone”). Instrumentally, the song builds on a violin pizzicato, or plucking, which mirrors the sound of the traditional Korean gayageum, a zither-like string instrument also played by plucking. An entirely Korean American ensemble singing about their immigrant parents over an instrumental that sounds like traditional music helps bring these ideas of immigration and identity together.

Run River North, as a group and as musicians, will always have to teeter between being “too Asian American” and “not Asian American enough.” Their assimilation to/distinctness from American music and construction of a new immigrant identity helps them find a balance between the two worlds.

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