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RUN RIVER NORTH’S SALTED SOPHOMORE

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American-Korean six piece band Run River North (who started out life as Monsters Calling Home) have just released their wonderful second album Drinking From A Salt Pond. When Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with main man Alex Hwang on the phone, he was driving around Korea town in LA, filling in time before a nerve-racking dinner in which he and his girlfriend would be introducing each other’s parents for the first time. Needless to say, he was more than happy to take his mind off proceedings by talking about the band’s new album.

Run River North’s new album Drinking From A Salt Pond is the sound of a band finding its own voice. There were hints of it on their folk-focussed self-titled debut but essentially the themes and direction emanated from main man Alex Hwang’s head. The penny dropped for Hwang while touring the debut album, when he began to actually ‘listen’ to and accept the sonic ideas coming from his fellow band mates. That philosophy carried over to the writing and recording of the sophomore album too, where Hwang was intent on letting go and opening up the floor to the other musicians to add their creative input. Consequently, Run River North have created a an exciting, multi-faceted, richly-layered record, which divulges subtle and ornate new surprises with each listen.

“Our philosophy as a band, always from the beginning was never to hold onto anything too preciously and that that happened with our band name change from Monsters Calling Home to Run River North,” Alex explains. “I just feel that anything that is good, you should be able to let go of it and it should be heavy enough to stay in your hands, so you don’t need to hold onto it. While we were touring with the first album, there were so many moments when either at soundcheck or at other times, when Joe would have a great bass line or John would have a great beat and I would just take a back seat and let that be the first step into a song. It was more interesting that way and I felt less of a burden because sometimes it does get tiring writing all of the songs.”

Drinking From A Salt Pond is as much about the textures, beats and ambience, as it is about the songs. Whether it’s the intricate drum stick work in Ghosts or the atmospheric piano sounds in Winter Winds, it’s a band at work, with each member contributing their own unique ingredients. It was an aspect of creating the album which Alex enjoyed more than anything else.

“With me not having to worry about all of the sounds, I could let go and when that happened, everybody else had a voice,” says Alex. “It was a little noisy at first but it was just so much more interesting. Part of it was that we did get a little bit bored previously, having just an acoustic guitar and thinking let’s just harmonise the choruses. We were having a lot more fun experimenting with different ways to find the melody or the feeling of the song this time. Even now, after we have recorded it, we are still trying to find different ways to make the recording sound more like our live show sound. It’s always constantly evolving. We are never too comfortable with what we have recorded because it is just a snapshot, so after the snapshot we are thinking, oh what else can do we do to this?”

Conceptually, Drinking From A Salt Pond is a tale of a band spreading its wings and taking flight. The album opens with Intro (Funeral) Parade, a two part musical piece which bookends nine other tracks. The Funeral part of the song is an unlisted secret track which reveals itself almost three minutes after the tune, Winter Winds ends. “If you keep playing track 10 it will eventually go to the Funeral part and transition smoothly into the beginning of the album again,” says Alex. “We felt it was a good transition song from our old album to the new album and for people that really enjoyed our folk songs, our folkiness could kind of ease into the second album. Sometimes you have to put to death some things in order to move on to the next stage and I think I felt like in one way we were honouring what we did on our first album but knowing there was going to be a transition into something bigger. There’s always this thing where you need to destroy to reconstruct kind of thing.”

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Alex’s workhorse guitar in general has always been his Gibson J45, which he likes because “it can get beat up and still sounds great!” The album producer Lars Stalfors offered a wider range of guitars in the studio for the album. “Lars had a lot of really shitty guitars that were terrible to tune but had the exact tone that we wanted,” says Alex. “I used one of the Cold War Kids’ Teles on probably every song, a really beat up old Tele. I recently got myself a Fender Telecaster to mimic what was going on in the studio.” However, due to the greater scope of instrumentation on the band’s new album, the whole band has had to rethink it’s stage set up. “Oh yeah,” sighs Alex. “Daniel and I have been going all around the city looking for the right amps and guitars and pedals because I just had an acoustic guitar and Daniel comes from a classical background as a violinist, so we are just entering this whole new world of electric guitars. Everything is changing. Sometimes I don’t even want to play guitar and just sing, so I am trying to figure things out. Jennifer too, our violinist is playing guitar as well so there are a lot more interesting things happening on stage and a lot of gear being switched around.”

The album is not only a triumph for the band musically but also as an example of the benefit of perseverance. There were many occasions in the past where the band was in danger of implosion. Clearly the new album is a high point for Run River North, however Alex Hwang can just as easily sign post the band’s darkest days.

“I would say there were two valleys,” a brutally honest Hwang begins to explain. “One, right after we got back from touring our first album in 2014. We did our first and only headlining tour of the US and the one thing I can remember from that tour was, there was a show where our bassist was watching football on his phone while playing bass. For the entire tour I realised I wasn’t friends with one of my band mates and I was just so pissed that he was there. At the end of it I was just thinking I don’t want to be in this band with these people. How am I going to write songs with people I don’t even want to hang out with? So it could have gone so badly but from that low point, the thing that we worked on was communication. We are getting better. We’re still not perfect obviously now but we’re getting better which has opened communication so we were able to say these kind of things to each other. I think when you put it out there and not talk behind people’s backs about these things, first of all you have to own up to the feelings you have and the words that you have. But also, it doesn’t seem as life threatening. It doesn’t seem as bad when you can actually say it in front of that person, so we started a long process of dealing with a lot of conflicts in the band. So that was the first one. The second one was after recording the album, still people in the band could not get along … and for legitimate reasons. But we had to have another ‘come to Jesus’ moment, where we could sit down and talk about things that didn’t seem to be part of the band but were equally as important and I think those are the two low points and those make the album seem like a really big high point because at any of the moments where we had those low points, if we just said let’s call it quits and leave and run away from each other, we would not have got the album we did this time around. There’s a bitter sweetness that comes from this album. I mean, it is not just our band either. These problems happen in every single band, it just comes out in different ways and our way was to just stick with it and drink from that really shitty salt pond and I think we came up with a lot of songs that we are all proud of and really love as a band.”

http://home.runrivernorth.com/

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