Photo Credit: Carmen Chan
I discovered Noughts and Exes one morning after seeing countless Hong Kong friends posting this unique You Tube Flash Mob video on Facebook. Once it goes viral, I HAVE TO WATCH IT. I clicked on the link, and was brought back to a place where I grew up with beautiful sights and sounds. Noughts and Exes are a folky indie band based in Hong Kong, with Third Culture Kids rocking this group. Check out the video below because it’s fun, unique, whimsical, and inspired.
(Or watch it here:)
I got a chance to chat with a few band members, Joshua Wong, Gideon So and Alix Furquhar to learn about the relationship and music of the band. Have a read below, and give a whirl with their music. This band has style, grace and sound.
How and when did your band form?
Noughts and Exes actually began way back in 2007 as a side-project. The first album, ‘Act One, Scene One’ was written largely by Joshua Wong, who brought in musicians from other bands to help record on the album and perform the songs live. After the release of the Act One album, the band went on hiatus, and it wasn’t until 2009 that Noughts and Exes resurfaced with a mostly new line-up. Gideon and Josh were the only members present from the original incarnation, and when the band resurfaced they were playing largely all new material, which became the basis for the band’s 2010 album ‘The Start Of Us’.
While band members have come and gone since then, the line-up for the 2013 self-titled ‘Noughts and Exes’ album is now considered to be the ‘truest’ incarnation of the band.
How did you come up with the band name?
There’s a little bit of mystery surrounding the band name, but Joshua claims it’s inspired by the Elliot Smith album ‘XO’, which was influential in his musical life. More interesting than the actual band name are the myriad variations which result from people mis-hearing the real one such as ‘Noughts and Axes’, ‘Naughty Exes’, ‘Noughts and Sexes’ etc.
Being expats to HK, has the Third Culture held the band back, or has it blossomed of ways you didn’t expect?
The demographic make up of the band is pretty special. Two local HK girls (both named Winnie Lau funnily enough), two Caucasian expat Brits and two ethnically Chinese guys born and raised abroad (Australia and Canada, respectively). This definitely has been a plus in that there’s always someone in the band that anyone can connect with and culturally, we’ve just got a lot of different perspectives amongst us.
An interesting story though is that we were signed to an American label a few years back for distribution. At first, they actually didn’t bother to listen to our album as they thought “What are we going to do with a Chinese speaking band?”. Finally convinced to give the songs a listen, they realised they liked the songs and we were, in fact, relatively proficient at English. We laugh, but in that sense we do recognize there’s a bit of a hurdle to cross as HK and indie music aren’t exactly familiar pairings.
Who does most of the songwriting?
The Noughts and Exes song writing process has evolved since 2010 from being largely centered around guitars, keys and vocals to incorporating every band member in a fundamental way. Many songs come out of the constant jamming that the band does – sometimes a spontaneous jam might result in an almost fully-formed song – and we’re careful to always record our practices in order to listen back. Having an organic writing process like this allows everyone in the band to bring their influences into play, and results in a much more free-form writing style. When the groundwork for a new song is laid, and everyone likes the direction it’s heading in, then we will spend many hours crafting the right parts for each instrument to ensure that the song breathes and builds and contains the right emotional journey. Up until this point, all lyrics have been written by Joshua, but that too may change moving forwards. The important thing is that creativity is never stifled by limitations or preconceptions, and the band members trust each other and give each other space to express themselves.
Who are the band’s influences?
When asked about influences, there are usually names thrown out to cover virtually every genre of music. While Wiz grew up largely influenced by the Brit Rock scene, Gideon was following the Canadian music movement. Alix is a trained jazz vocalist, while Alex plays heavy metal and electronica in other projects. From The Fugees to Bob Dylan to Blur to Bjork, the band’s influences are largely leaked out in the practice room in the form of a rogue bassline here, or a shuffled drum beat there. While we have no desire to ‘sound like’ any other band in particular, every artist is influenced to some degree by what’s come before and our primary concern is just to make what we consider good music. Whenever we achieve that, we know we’re headed in the right direction!
I love the layers of the violins, the cello, and the piano. How did you decide on these instruments and how to lay them into the tracks?
The instrumentation within Noughts and Exes was really just a result of having an open mind, and an idea of what might lift the songs to a higher level. It was largely Josh and Gideon who could hear string melodies in the songs they wrote for ‘The Start Of Us’, and felt that this was an opportunity to explore using instruments that you normally can’t get away with in a rock band. Piece by piece the band fell into place, though having so many acoustic instruments does come at a cost – the band’s live set-up can be a challenge for certain venues, and touring with 6 members is certainly more complicated than touring with 2. Ultimately though it would be impossible to go back to a smaller sound now – it’s just too much fun to be able to play around with so many textures and voices!
As an Indie band in HK, is it difficult to get gigs / exposure, and really carving your niche in a cold, hard city? How did you guys make the breakthrough?
Getting gigs isn’t hard. In fact, there’s loads of opportunities to gig. There’s quite a vibrant indie scene below the cantopop coated surface here. The tricky thing though is that HK is only so big, so it’s not like you can “tour” HK, like you can back in Canada or the US and may end up playing to a lot of the same crowd.
Your music is so fun, how does HK accept this music? I understand you have played in different parts of the world, which city has warmly accepted you the most?
This latest album has gotten a lot more local media exposure too than we’ve had in the past – in large part due to the success of the music video for Hearts. We believe music preferences are slowly changing here, so it’s interesting to kind of be here doing something different stylistically to witness it firsthand.
We’ve played in Canada, Singapore, Germany, Malaysia, China up till now. Each is quite special, but we have to give a shout out to our Singapore fans who have been really supportive.
Will you be coming to Toronto to play?
We already have in fact! Back in 2011 we did a couple shows there in the fall. We had come to perform at Envol et Macadem, a festival in Quebec City, and Gideon actually grew up in Toronto and still comes back every year to see family. Toronto’s music scene is sorely missed by him and we’d definitely be keen to come back and slip right in to all that’s going on there.