Autumn 2006, and Joshua Wong, songwriter for up-and-coming Hong Kong band Noughts & Exes, was at a crossroads. The band's debut - and for all intents and purposes, Wong's solo - album Act One, Scene One had local indie aficionados salivating. The video for lead single A Minor to Major was playlisted by music TV channels across Asia and the West. Yet Wong wasn't comfortable with the dynamic, and the group disbanded before truly kicking into gear. 'We simply couldn't pull off the album well enough live, or at least, we didn't think we could,' Wong says now. 'The musicians that came together for the live incarnation, for the most part, were in the awkward position of having to play stuff they weren't involved in writing. 'I think unless there's a shared ownership of something that's being built, it's very hard for everyone to continue to pour their hearts into it. Especially if it's something creative. I've never liked the idea of being a solo artist because I see music being something better shared than done alone. It's the collaborative community that really makes making music something worthwhile for me.' After a three-year hiatus, Wong set about rebuilding. Reuniting first with his longtime live collaborator Gideon So (keyboards, vocals, glockenspiel and melodica) the pair worked on fresh material over the summer of 2009. By the end of the year a new line-up was formed and early this year an album started to come together. Act One, Scene One isn't so much an introduction as a prologue to the story, which now begins with their sophomore LP The Start of Us, released this weekend. Along with Wong and So, the collective 'us' of Noughts & Exes Mk II comprises drummer Alex Bedwell (with whom Wong also writes movie scripts), cellist Marianne Bunton, singer/percussionist Kerrie-Anne Butler and newest recruit Winnie Lau on bass. 'The Start of Us is a very different album to the first,' Wong says. 'It's a lot more mature and is no longer music that's trying to be something or prove something. It's simply a book of songs that came out of honesty, integrity and reflection. 'The songs are a retrospective look at one's own personal journey. Dealing with the emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual roller-coaster rides we all endure, especially in times like these.' It's a confident collection of highly crafted indie-folk pop, with commendable quality control. At its core is a charming simplicity inspired by the direct vocal melodies of Nick Drake and Andrew Bird, brought to life by a mastery of subtle emotional shading, affording the songs the time and space to breathe organically. 'The first album had a lot of electronics, effects and samples, and we wanted to get away from digital for a while and get immersed in acoustic sounds,' So says. 'Glockenspiels, cellos and melodicas all came out of an approach to be more natural.' There are songs that blossom more on multiple listens, and allow both interpretation and empathy in equal measure. 'I feel there's a lot of meat to chew on with these songs,' says Wong. 'I hope people will take the time to digest them. I've never been more proud of anything I've been a part of musically.' The success of the work is largely a result of their scrupulous attention to detail. 'We have a clear idea of what we want, so we're quite meticulous in achieving it,' says So. 'For example, we recorded and mixed a version of the entire album on our own before taking it to our producer. We effectively recorded it twice. We had lengthy listening sessions with that first rough recording, dissecting what we liked, which parts could be changed or scrapped. It was a great exercise.' The recorded blueprints were eventually passed to Dutch producer Martijn Groenveld from Mailmen Studios, who has now worked on both Noughts & Exes albums (as well as with Wong's previous band, Whence He Came) and developed a special bond with the band. 'We've grown so close that the first Noughts & Exes album was done over a month in Holland with me living with his family,' says Wong. 'The latest one had him coming back to Hong Kong for a further month, staying at my home and just making music in whatever strange spaces we could make sound good. It was all very natural and very intimate. The way music should be made, if you ask me.' 'The guy's a master at manipulating an environment for the right acoustics,' So adds. 'For the actual playing, it was done the old fashioned way - a good performance. As much of a genius as Martijn is, we still have to hold up our end as musicians. There's a really strong work ethic that lies under our creative side. We know that good ideas only go so far, and the harder part is implementing them and practising to get them right. That's something I'd say is special about Noughts & Exes - whether it's in the music or in all the stuff that surrounds being in a band, we just work damn hard.' And the hard work is paying off. From elevating their album packaging beyond a simple jewel case to their promotional poster designs, a noticeable attention to detail permeates all aspects of the Noughts & Exes brand that has seen them raise the bar across the board. 'I have always believed that the music ends with the song - but the message goes much further,' says Wong. 'It's essential to me to have something beautiful to look at while you're listening to something equally as beautiful.' Likewise, for their videos, the band will work with Wong's production company The Laundromatte (whose office also doubles as the band's rehearsal space and ad hoc venue). 'They will be more short film-based or animations, rather than purely traditional music videos,' Wong says. 'It's just another extension of the creative muscle that we love to flex. We're also working on some really exciting long-form projects which will use our music to drive them.' Most of the videos are due to be released in early 2011. Meanwhile, the sextet have clear designs on breaking through the glass ceiling for independent bands in Hong Kong. 'We're trying to raise awareness about Noughts & Exes, and want to share what we create with more people,' says Wong. 'Hong Kong is a ridiculously small place and so building a name for yourself here is not very difficult, nor is it very rewarding. 'I think Hong Kong bands have always suffered from a certain stigma. The phrase 'They're good for a Hong Kong band' has been thrown around a lot over the years and it can be quite demoralising. I really feel that if a band were to be a success outside of Hong Kong it would really turn a lot of heads, both in the music scene and in the creative community in general.' And the band's name? It was crafted partly in homage to Elliot Smith (and his seminal XO LP), but is more symbolically a nod to short-form signing-off conventions. 'Just as people write 'xoxo' at the end of a letter to someone they care about, I liked the idea of our band being the last thing you leave with someone as you say goodbye,' Wong says. 'Like a good song - it stays with you long after you've stopped listening.'