Witness to a new dawn


There's a new mood in the music coming out of Greater Manchester, a mood exemplified by two recently signed guitar bands; Wigan's witness and Bury's Elbow. Neil Davenport talks to both bands and argues that times they are a changin' for the better.

...In the same week Shed Seven were mercilessly dropped by Polydor, Bury five-piece Elbow publicly celebrated their deal with Island Records. Two months earlier, the same label quietly launched Wigan miserablists Witness to ecstatic acclaim. The similarities don't end there. Essentially, both bands are designed for staying in rather than going out. They're private contemplation over public revelry. They're late-night, low-key and terrifically sad and blue.

...Like Elbow, Witness are also small town dwellers and the influence is tangible. Without a vibrant music scene, precious record collections behind drawn curtains become a valuable option. At Witness' home in Lower Ince, there's an overwhelming aura of bedsit retreat: overflowing ashtrays, endless coffee, well thumbed records and well worn sofas.

"Its true," laughs Witness singer Gerard Starkie, "Its where we get our laid back sound from. When me and Ray (Chan, guitarist) started writing sounds we were just loafing around with a guitar. They weren't written around bass and drums. That's why they're so sparse." Without any prior knowledge, Witness could pass for an American alt. country band in the mould of Lambchop but with added Codeine. Decoded from obscure band speak, it means they fingerpick a slow burning country that's high on intensity. Comparisons with The Verve are also rife - and its not just because they're from Wigan. Ray and Gearard are long time friends with The Verve's guitarist Nick McCabe, and are managed by The Verve's press officer Tim Vigon. Occasionally, Ray hitches up a similar guitar storm to McCabe and Gerard sounds slightly Ashcroft-like on the soaring high notes.

"I don't mind people going on about The Verve connections," says Ray Chan, "at the moment its just a press angle. Nicks opinions on our demos' has been useful and we just see him as a mate rather than Nick McCabe from the Verve. In the end that will die down and people will hear Witness on our own terms."

So far, Witness have had the 'unofficial', limited edition Quarantine single out and, with a handful of demos, show that they're sofa bound rather than stadium bound. But for all the small town torpor, Witness and Elbow are not entirely reclusive. Ray and Gerard know Manchester's music scene well and used to go talent spotting for Rhythm King records. Prior to that Ray played guitar in Easter, a much-feted band in Manchester with singles put out on a small Chorlton label.

...At long last, a totally new and distinct form of Manchester-based music has emerged - precisely because it isn't 'Manchester music'. Of course, its not entirely without precedent - The Smiths and Joy Division more or less patented bedroom rock - but the emphasis is not quite the same. Witness, Elbow, Badly Drawn Boy et al don't present themselves as adolescent victims or neurotic wrecks. It's all about quiet contemplation, not glum resignation.

..."If there's a despondency to the lyrics", says Gerard, "its because they're written late at night when I'm stoned. They reflect the particular mood."

"One of the reasons we signed to Island", says Ray, "was so we could get our hands on Nick Drake and Tom Waits rarities. No, that wasn't the case at all, but it all kind of fits don't you think?"

Neil Davenport (City Life, issue 372, 20 Jan - 04 Feb)

Also, part of 'The New Alternative - an a-z'

Witness - US alt. country relocated to Verve land. Wracked, cracked and unable to get out of bed.