Indie / Alternative, Interviews — September 2, 2013 at 3:47 pm

A Chat With Noughts and Exes

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They’ve been called “indie-folk”, one of Hong Kong’s best bands, the city’s most original and the accolades could go on. They’ve been compared to the late Elliott Smith and Damien Rice. But the truth is that Noughts and Exes are really forging their own unique path.

They’ve had many obstacles and happy accidents, for starters. The group was formed from the ashes of singer/guitarist Joshua Wong’s last act Whence He Came. When he wanted to move away from that tried and true indie guitar sound, he hooked up with Gideon So. But he felt that the songs needed more, and in came violinists, cellists and all manner of personnel and music changes.

Read on to find out more. During a recent interview with Wong, he detailed the group’s saga at length (there are now six members). And there are big plans ahead for one of the city’s most acclaimed indie acts. A new album will be released this month. A documentary is soon to follow. One thing’s for sure—they’re on a winning streak… 

Noughts and Exes_bench

 

Scott Murphy: Let’s start off with your efforts to record using Kickstarter. Did it help?

Joshua Wong: Well basically, the last album had such a huge response, yet we did so little marketing. We thought this time, instead of approaching labels, we would start with the people who were supporting us.

We didn’t have a huge expectation to make a lot of money. We had a budget of US$10,000 and set up a campaign. It’s not easy, because you need to be a U.S. resident. We actually went over. The whole experience was amazing because you can really connect with the people who support you. We had support from really strange places—like Africa—where we had no idea people were listening to us. It’s really lovely. It’s great. There’s no question that people are good with their payments. The real challenge is to stay true to those commitments. We want to stay true to those relationships and deliver as much as we could.

We offered advance copies of the album and we offered people to come in on the album and have dinner with the band. We signed instruments and sent them off.

It’s a real charming way to build a personal relationship with fans.

 

It seems that the group is quite active on social media.

We’ve never done anything, except for social media. When it comes to independent music, that’s really all we are. We got signed to a company in the U.S. through social media. But they didn’t do very much so we left them. We do tours through social media. We do everything through social media. It’s a good way to get friends. Essentially, it’s a good way to build a community. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. We have a website, where we blog infrequently. We’re all very social in general. When we play shows, we go out to meet people. The line between social marketing and communities gets blurred. We hope that people like and love our music and that builds relationship. It’s really great.

 

Over the course of the group, there have been several personnel changes in the band. What happened?

The lineup we have now is the set lineup. It’s taken a while to have the right chemistry. Hong Kong is transient so Westerners and tourists come through, but we’ve managed to find an incredible balance. We have two expats from the UK, both named Alex, a guy and a girl (Alix). We have two girls, both from Hong Kong, both Chinese, both named Winnie Lau. And we have two third culture members, born outside of Asia, who are Chinese. I was born in Australia and Gideon was born in Canada.

The chemistry is amazing because we have three guys, three girls. It’s the perfect balance for an international city. In terms of why the others left, there is just different timings, different journeys. It originally started as a side project by me. I enlisted Gideon to play it live. For personal reasons I broke it up and two years later I started writing very different material, so a two piece became a six piece organically.

 

How serious are all of you as a group? What’s the goal?

Every time we do something big, people say what’s next? We don’t have any tangible plans like getting signed or doing world tours. We’re a very hardworking band. We produced these albums ourselves and have co-producers. But in terms of the music, art work, print work, photography, video…we do ourselves.

The album cover is 70 of us in this beautiful photo in Sheung Wan. We used a photographer, Carmen Chan, and do art direction and post-production ourselves. We love it. We practice twice a week, have full time jobs and put in our own money to put out the album and go on tours. I’m not saying “Look how amazing we are”, but we’re just one of those acts that want to make music that people want to listen to. My personal hope is that people are blessed or inspired by our music. We hear stories about how this song or that one is really life changing. If you can help someone out of a difficult stage in their life and you touch someone, that’s really great.

Noughts and Exes new album

 

What IS everybody’s day job?

Gideon is a full-time finance guy. Alix is also in banking. Alex is a writer and a drum teacher. Winnie Lau (Wizza) is an engineer and the other Winnie (Bago) is a full-time musician and artist. I’m a creative director for a creative production house.

 

For those who haven’t heard you, what’s the overall sound of the group?

I used to play in Whence He Came. It was so full band driven. When that band ended I went back to my roots, like the Beatles, and I came to the conclusion that if you stripped everything back, a great song is a great song. I started writing on my acoustic guitar and harmonized with it. Like Smith, he used his guitar as a duet to sing with. I brought Gideon on board and people call it melancholic—I never saw it like that—I wanted to bring Gideon on piano, so you have guitar and these wonderful keyboards. But, bit by bit it just kept growing. We brought the drummer in because we couldn’t agree on the time signature to one of our songs.

 

And then there are the other instruments.

I always wanted to have a female in our group and I’m eager to try new things, so I told a girl named Kerrie-Anne that she could join us. She had such a different sound to what I was expecting. I have a wispy, soft voice and she brought in a thin, beautiful jazz sound. I didn’t think I wanted it, but I let it sit. And her sound was just incredible. I always loved the idea of a cellist. It wasn’t like “We want a trumpet here”. It was more a case of what the song needed. And it just kept growing. And Marianne, our cellist, left for work reasons—a Kerrie-Anne and a Marianne—you can’t make this shit up (laughs). The bass came out of a necessity. I met Winnie Lau at a concert and that’s how that came about. I thought “chick bass player, wow!” I’m pretty superficial that way.

 

And the lyrics are quite personal.

I think lyrics all came out of something personal. What I strive for is integrity and transparency. I think people connect with that. I think people connect with our integrity when we’re onstage. We’re not there to show off, but rather share with what we have—and I think people connect with that. I hope they do! Everybody gets up onstage and really loses themselves, instead of counting steps or whatever.

 

Talk about the new album.

Some people are amazing musicians, but I’m not. There’s a definite border and boundary and outside of which I’m going to struggle. When I joined up with Gideon, he changed some of the songs, then half of the songs were written with the band. The new album is really exciting because there are some songs where people came up with a riff and we built on it, and there are some songs that just found us while jamming—we record every practice— It’s like that quote by John Lennon where “Creativity is in the ether and you just have to reach out and grab it”. We’ve been playing together for so long that we have an understanding of each other. We’ve written a whole bunch of songs on this album and there is no on specific genre. No one person brings in only their influence. It’s like this amazing dish where everyone brings a different ingredient. We’ve got songs that came out of nowhere. I would get so bored if it was just my music. It’s really exciting that I have these five incredible people with me, writing.

 

What’s the group’s recorded history?

Our first album was in 2008, which was called Act One, Scene One. Our second album was at the end of 2011, called The Start of Us. And now we have the brand new self-titled new album, which comes out on September 14th.

 

How do you feel the band has grown?

There’s an incredible growth, mostly because music becomes out of our relationships and our personalities. As we’ve grown as friends, we’ve been able to go to different places. We write everything together and that really comes out of a real place of intimacy and trust. I hope the music is mature. I can’t say it’s the best we’ll ever be, but it’s the most exciting music we’ve ever written. We’re really proud of the songs, and that’s why we doubled our budget for this album.

 

Do you want to be an international act, or feel content to be in Hong Kong?

It’s a question that can bring out so much controversy. We’ve never wanted to be labeled JUST a Hong Kong band. We’re proud of being from here but what we’re really hoping to do is surprise people that we’re from Hong Kong and what their perception is of what comes out of here. We would love people to love the music because of the music. Don’t listen to it because it is or isn’t from Hong Kong.

Noughts and Exes_street

 

And at some point you recorded in The Netherlands.

That was only the first album, because that was my own project. I already worked with the engineer, Martijn Groeneveld, and he has worked with us in some capacity since then. He produced The Start of Us over here, and then flew back to Holland and mixed it. On this album we worked with a different engineer and then we ended up giving the mixes to Martijn…and then we re-recorded two of the songs again with an award-winning engineer in Hong Kong named Kelvin Avon (who has worked with Sandy Lam and Jun Kung). And in the UK he’s worked with some of the biggest. We remixed two of the songs on the record. We started recording in June, 2012. There have been a lot of delays.

 

You’ve had some innovative videos. Talk about them.

That’s my day job. I wanted to keep making our own music videos. Our first one, there was talk of things happening. We’re unsigned and major labels wouldn’t sneeze on us. IDN Magazine did a huge feature on us and we got a lot of attention because of that. The last music video got into a L.A Pan-Asian International Film Festival and we didn’t even submit it. It was really exciting. We were on the same bill as Linkin Park.

 

What are the best lyrics on the new album?

I can’t tell you off the top of my head. I’d prefer for listeners to decide. The lyrics are coming from personal observations, whether I walked those steps or observed it in somebody else’s life.

 

And you plan to make a documentary about the group. What do you have in mind?

Basically, we’re at the really early stages. I have two docos that I want to make. I’ve been fascinated with the Hong Kong music scene because there are no indie labels here. There are small ones, but they don’t put money behind the band, and that’s because no market will put them up. So I want to make a doco exploring independent musicians in Hong Kong and this question of identity. We’re not English and we’re not mainland Chinese. We’re a third culture. We don’t have a national anthem and so many people have found their identity through music and the creative arts. I want to explore that area. Why do we have such a thriving passionate scene of musicians? They’re struggling with their day jobs, not touring like you can in the U.S. I’ve always found that intriguing.

And then when we were making the album, I thought that I should be documenting it as a filmmaker. We did a flashmob recently with 60 musicians from different bands and groups across hong kong and they all played one of our songs together. We had glockenspiels, a piano, horns, strings, accordions, drums and they all played live at Times Square [a popular location in Hong Kong]. That will be the first video for the new album, a song called “Hearts”. It mirrors community really beautifully.

That reinforces the idea that I could make these two documentaries the same thing. So I brought [Hong Kong-based director] Niall Phelan on board to direct the concept for this. And he’ll be directing a shoot at our upcoming show.

 

What do you have planned for this album launch concert?

It’s really exciting! We’ll have two guest bands opening for us. Killer Soap is very popular in Hong Kong, really lovely guys who play Canto-rock. And the other band is from Singapore called In Each Hand A Cutlass. They’re a melodic, instrumental metal band. It’s not hardcore, but really clean. It’s done so beautifully. Less post-rock, more straight rock. We’re very good friends with them. It’s a real honor because they’re flying all the way over to do this.

We’re selling the album at the show. You can get it with the ticket if you pay slightly more for it. It’s at an amazing venue in Wan Chai called The Vine. Great place and they’re very supportive of us.

 

Where has the group travelled to date?

We just went to Berlin, which was great. The Hong Kong government sent us over to represent Hong Kong at a festival. It was in conjunction with HKETO and CreateHK. We flew to Canada for a small tour a couple years ago and have also done China, Singapore, Malaysia… and that’s it for now. We’re surprised by how much support we have all over the world, so there will be more. A festival in New Zealand has invited us to play. We have day jobs, so we’re as committed as we can be.

 

What about press? What’s your favorite accolade so far?

Hands down, Time Magazine highlighting us in 2011 as one of the Top 5 Bands To Watch in Asia. That was by far the biggest. The editor there raves about our music in a way that makes me uncomfortable! It’s humbling. Time Out Magazine, of course are huge supporters. We’ve gotten CNN Go. We know for a fact that quite a few heads of TV shows like CSI are fans of ours. We haven’t paid a cent for marketing, so anybody that puts their mouth out about us we really appreciate—it’s really special.

 

What’s the big goal for the rest of the year and into 2014?

For me, the rest of this year, we’re quite swamped. Hopefully, we’ll be playing Clockenflap festival in Hong Kong. This year we won’t be doing long distance touring because I’m getting married, and I’ve already been very pre-occupied working on the artwork and videos for Noughts and Exes. We might head over to China and Southeast Asian areas. But next year we’ll hopefully play overseas festivals and we’ll be working hard on the documentary. But we don’t have any lofty goals of fame and fortune. But we do want to play this music as long as we can.

 

Final question: you have 24 hours in which you can go anywhere, do anything, eat anything… where are we off to?

That’s tough! There’s this cabin that my fiancée’s family owns in Canada. It’s a log cabin on its own island. I think I’d want to go there with my fiancée. In terms of food, I’d want a gorgeous Boston lobster with lemon juice, fresh herbs and a light salad next to it. Or else playing a concert on the main stage at Glastonbury. They’re polar opposites, but why not?

 

NOUGHTS AND EXES ALBUM RELEASE CONCERT

September 14, 6:30pm, The Vine Centre, 29 Burrows Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
With special guests : KillerSoap and In Each Hand A Cutlass
Tickets Adv: $230 incl. CD / $160 no CD
Tickets Door: $250 incl. CD / $180 no CD
First 100 tickets bought with CD will receive an exclusive numbered and signed copy of the new album.
Tickets on sale here.
More details on the Facebook event page.

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