"I THINK WE'VE REACHED the perfect symbiotic balance," says Joshua Wong, founder and frontman of Hong Kong indie band Noughts and Exes, who are about to release their third album.
Noughts and Exes certainly have a structural harmony. There are six members: three women, three men. Two are from England (Alex Bedwell and Alix Farquhar), two are Hong Kong women (both named Winnie Lau) and two are "third-culture kids", or Asians who grew up abroad (Gideon So and Wong).
The line-up may sound premeditated, but it evolved organically, beginning with Wong. "Noughts and Exes started as a side project of mine," he recalls, sitting with the band in their Sheung Wan space. "I was playing in a band called Whence He Came, with a very different sound, and I wanted to try something new."
Wong met So through a Whence He Came collaboration. Three years after the band broke up, "I began to rethink music", says Wong. "I started going back to what I thought original songwriting was - dependent not on a big band, but on a great melody."
Wong approached So, who now plays keyboard and glockenspiel for the band, and asked to record his songs as a duo. But when they started recording, Wong began to feel that the songs required more.
By 2009, they had expanded to a five-piece, with a cellist and a kick drum "to replace what the bass could have provided", according to Wong. "But then we met Wiz [one of the Winnie Laus], and realised that we needed a bass."
"I thought you were going to say we needed a girl," says Lau.
"We already had two."
"Well, an Asian girl."
The line-up has changed considerably in the intervening years, the cello swapped for a violin, but Wong believes the latest iteration is here to stay. The members all agree that their cultural and musical diversity is a major strength. They have embraced a collaborative songwriting process, in which no single member or sound dominates.
Wiz Lau says, "We all come from different cultures with different influences, so we all bring our own thing to the band, making our sound unique."
"Some songs start as a tiny germ, and then something is born. Those are our best songs," says Wong, describing the songwriting process. "Sometimes Gideon will come to me with a riff, and play around with it, and then bring it to the band when it's a bit more formed, gestated. We never come up with a full song alone."
So, meanwhile, says, "With this album in particular, the songwriting definitely was much more collaborative as a unit. The sound is very different from the last album. We went from a sombre, quiet and melancholic sound to something fuller. It's more rock and less folk."
Noughts and Exes have been compared to Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Damien Rice and Andrew Bird - gentle, introspective artists with a sorrowful bent. This, however, discounts the rich six-piece sound that underlies their songs. Listeners can expect to hear something more electric on their new, eponymous album, to be released on September 14.
The album was two years in the making. It was, as Wong says, "a painful process". The band used the funding website Kickstarter to raise money, getting US$2,000 more than their goal of US$10,000.
After the initial recording and mix, the band weren't satisfied. They remixed it with another producer, but still didn't feel it worked.
Finally, the band went back to Kelvin Avon, the double-platinum producer of their first album. Under his direction they re-recorded and remixed a final time. The album landed a year after the original projected release.
"We went way over budget," says Wong. "But when you do something that you love, you want it to be represented in the right way. It's not about the money."
The album is ready for release, along with a music video, a launch show in Wan Chai and a flash musical performance in Times Square.
It is a jubilant, earnest album that swings high and low. The songs are still folky, amplified by a big-band sound reminiscent of Arcade Fire, The National and The Head and the Heart. Their music is at its best in sweet and sweeping songs such as Hearts.
They feel that the difficult production process has strengthened them as a creative unit. "We trust each other more," says Wong. "We've become more willing to experiment and try new things."
They've played internationally, in Singapore and Canada, and recently represented Hong Kong at Berlin's Wassermusik international festival, organised by the House of World Cultures.
"Hopefully, a lot of people will listen to it," says Wong. "But for me, the main hope is that people will be inspired by it, to make music … or just to get them through a tough time. My objective is to touch and bless people. And of course, I hope that we get taken seriously by people who make and know music - we're not just another Hong Kong band."
"Ultimately it's a passion project. We're not trying to be the next Coldplay," So says.
Wong says: "When we hit the stage, I think people see that we really love the music. We put our hearts into it. But of course, if it turns around, and we're able to do this without having to break ourselves financially, that would be great, too."
Noughts and Exes album release concert, September 14, 6.30pm, The Vine Centre, 29 Burrows Street, Wan Chai; HK$160 (advance) and HK$180 (door) plus HK$70 (includes CD). noughtsandexes.ticketflap.com