Photo by Mitchell Nguyen McCormack / KoreAm
As Daniel Chae tells it, he and his bandmates often liked to jam inside their cars while on their way somewhere. They all lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, meaning these could be long drives. Run River North’s lead singer Alex Hwang would start strumming his guitar from the backseat, while the others would start singing and harmonizing. So as they prepared to release their first single in 2012 and were brainstorming of unorthodox—and low-budget—ways to shoot a music video, the idea of performing their song, “Fight to Keep,” inside lead singer-songwriter Hwang’s Honda Fit naturally came up. That’s when Chae said, “Let’s just put drums in the car and actually record it.”
The resulting video shows the musicians, sometimes in the backseat, sometimes in the front, headphones on, Chae and Hwang playing guitar, Sally Kang on tambourine. John Chong, over 6 feet tall, is hunched over in the compact trunk playing the drums, with a small camera strapped to his head. They take turns at the mic, as the car is seen driving around town, including through a McDonald’s drive-thru, and their sound gradually builds—and builds. “Fight to keep the fire burning,” their voices boom to the up-tempo chorus.
Without a label or an album at the time, the band uploaded the video to YouTube, and it also found its way to some unlikely fans: Honda executives. So impressed by the video, they invited the band to perform for hundreds of Honda employees, only to tell the band members when they arrived that the concert had just been canceled.
Though their faces clearly show they are dumbfounded and disappointed, the musicians accommodate one of the Honda representative’s request to play a song before they go. As they start to play, he abruptly stops them.
“Truthfully, there never really was supposed to be a concert here,” he tells them, as the scene is being filmed secretly. “Honda has a better gig for you guys. You are booked as the musical guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. We picked this location, because Jimmy Kimmel is across the street, and that’s where you’re going right now!”
Just two hours after the Honda executive broke the shocking news, the six young members of this nascent band called Monsters Calling Home performed their song, “Fight to Keep,” on national television.
“We got punked, basically,” said Chae, 25, remembering that unforgettable day in September of 2012. “We were very shocked. None of us were prepared. If we had more time, we would’ve all freaked out, but because it happened so fast, we got through it. That was our explosion in terms of publicity.”
Performing on national TV not only boosted the indie rock band’s confidence and exposure, it also played a major role in winning over some of their toughest critics: their immigrant parents.
“A lot of our parents didn’t want us to pursue music, or they were questioning it,” said Chong, 27. “So it allowed us to give them a little bit of encouragement.”
Hwang added, “It gave us another year before our parents asked why we weren’t in law school. It gave a little bit of a guarantee, like, ‘Oh, wow, they’re actually getting paid to do this.’ So getting on TV made sure that this isn’t just a hobby that we’re doing. It meant our music is resonating with people beyond the Korean community.”
Further proof of that resonance would come later that year, when the band sold out a show at West Hollywood’s legendary Troubadour. Last spring, the artists, now going by Run River North, signed with Nettwerk Music Group, a label known for attracting “non-traditional artists” and launching the careers of Sarah McLachlan, Skinny Puppy and, most recently, Fun. The band changed its name last year at the urging of its management, which didn’t want it to be confused with Of Monsters and Men.