Ray Chan – guitar

Dylan Keeton – bass

John Langley – drums

Julian “Jazz” Pranskey – guitar, keyboards

Gerard Starkie – vocals, lyrics


Ironic, isn’t it?  Along comes Witness U.K. with Before The Calm, a debut album “stripped of all affection, and daring to  be understated” (so declared New Musical Express), and the entire British Music scene promptly goes nuts.  Despite the album’s title – and the band’s decidedly reflective style – the storm of excitement over Witness U.K. has only increased over time.  Now, with MCA’s impending release of the album in America, Witness U.K. is set to take its subtle power to it’s widest audience yet.


Since last summer’s U.K. release of Before The Calm on Island Records, a feeding frenzy on the part of the British music press has ensued.  Comparisons to bands like Joy Division, Whiskeytown, R.E.M. and Counting Crows abound.  Melody Maker praised “the baroque fragility of Gerard Starkie’s vocals and the effortless, atmospheric swell of Ray Chan’s guitars,” while the London Times/Metro called Witness U.K. “a band to cherish.”  The album appeared in a host of British media reports of 1999’s best releases.


The brainchild of guitarist Ray Chan and singer/songwriter Gerard Starkie, Witness U.K. first formed in 1997 in Wigan, a small northern English town sandwiched between Liverpool and Manchester.  Best known to music fans as the hometown of Kajagoogoo and the Verve, Wigan provided a sufficiently gray backdrop to Gerard and Ray’s technicolor imaginations.


Produced by Phil Vinall (Placebo, Auteurs, Elastica), Before The Calm is petulantly defiant in its avoidance of anything “au courant.”  Says Dylan Keeton, “It wasn’t about doing whatever Oasis was up to right now.  It was about promising ourselves to do something worthwhile.”  From the tempered guitar and glockenspiel in the opening bars of “Second Life,” it’s clear Witness U.K. kept that promise.  Though Gerard Disdains analyzing his songs (“Listeners shouldn’t need us to to hold their hands and tell them how to react,” he once told a journalist), tracks like the elegiac “Freezing Over Morning” and the other-wordly “So Far Gone” typify Witness’s muted euphoria.  Other tracks, like the upbeat acoustic-flavoured “Hijacker” and the mad minimalist waltz “My Own Old Song” reveal the band’s genius for the fine brush stroke.


One writer once noted how “the smallest detail takes on a world of significance” in Before The Calm, and this is never more true than in the droning organ tones of “Heirloom,” the ominous tremolo in “Cause And Effect,” or the ticking guitar arpeggio of “My Friend Will See Me Through.”  Noted Gerard, “A lot of these songs could have lent themselves to big orchestrations, but that was the last thing we wanted to do.  We just wanted to use our own humble talents to make things sound right.”  Adds drummer John Langley, “It took us a while to figure out how to shape this music, but once we started, we found we could easily communicate with each other.”


Both Ray and Gerard grew up in and around Wigan, and both selected music as a sole career goal from an early age.  Ray describes himself as “BBC” or British-born Chinese, but his bandmates affirm he has the thickest Wigan accent of all time.  He took up guitar as a teen, and later breifly attended art college, where he me Gerard Starkie, who remembers as a kid watching bands on “Top Of The Pops” and wanting to do what they did.  “I began writing songs around the age of fifteen on a little Casio,” he recalls.  “Then I started forming bands, and playing in locals pubs.”


He became friends with Ray, but not for musical reasons… at least not at first.  “He came to school every day with a different brand of cigarettes,” says Gerard.  “I used to poach smokes off him.  Then we got into conversation, and we’ve been best friends ever since.”  Ray played with various bands, some with Gerard, most not; but the two always stayed in touch and kept tabs on each other’s musical growth.  “We finally decided that the two of us should do exactly the kind of music we both wanted to do,” remembers Gerard.  “So we got a 4-track and started writing songs.  It took a year to get them as good as we wanted.”


Next task: enlist fellow band members.  Enter Dylan Keeton.  Born in Nottingham and raised in the outer reaches of western Australia (“All I remember are the trees, the rats, and the spiders,” he says), he moved back to Liverpool at the age of 8, spending the next several years “desperately trying not to get beaten up every day.”  By age twelve he’d taken up the guitar, joining his first band within a year, and turning pro before leaving school.  Dylan was a featured player in several Manchester/Liverpool area bands, and had a run as a solo artist before meeting up with Ray and Gerard after answering their ad in a local music paper.  “W gelled immediately,” he says.  “There weren’t many musicians in England combining all of our respective influences, everything from Joy Division to Tom Waits and Neil Young.”  Dylan switched from guitar to bass, openening new possibilities for Witness U.K.’s overall sound.


The band found the right drummer in John Langley.  A native of Bristol, he’d made a name for himself as a member of Strangelove.  John was particularly taken with the songs of Gerard Starkie.  “He lives in his own world a bit,” he says.  “Gerard’s very individualistic, very sensitive.  But he’s also a very funny, very normal guy.”  The band landed a record deal on the strength of one demo, and in late 1998, they made their recording debut with the single “Quarantine.”


The band got their live act together, touring with  such bands as Sun Volt, Whiskeytown, Grand Drive and Gene.  They also released a second single, “Scars,” in early 1999 – a song that would wind up on Before The Calm – and by last summer, with the release of the single “Audition,” Witness U.K. had made their first national TV appearance on BBC-2’s “Later With Jools Holland.”  Around that time Julian “Jazz” Pransky was brought in to round out the band’s line-up.  Also a Bristol native, Jazz gained fame as a member of Jazz Butcher, having toured the USA and lived in L.A. for a number of years.  Equally skilled as a web designer, Jazz not only beefed up Witness’s musical profile (he plays guitar, piano, banjo and harmonica), he also put together the band’s website (www.witness.uk.com.)


Jazz joined the band up in Wigan, but soon wearied of small town life.  “John and I were staying at this weird motel,” he says.  “I’d end up at the petrol station staring at the motor oil cans just to have something to do.”  That didn’t last long.  In the fall of 1999, the entire band relocated to Bristol near England’s south east coast, which has made a real difference to the band’s esprit de corps.  “Now we’re one big brotherly unit,” exults Gerard.  “We all live in the same town, see each other every day: it’s one big communal vibe.”


That should help them when they come to America which is one of the band’s ultimate dreams.  “We really feel our main influences come from the States,” says Dylan, “and we always felt we would go down well there.”  Adds John, “American audiences are a bit more genuine than those in the U.K., who are too swayed by press and image.”  The prospect of traversing the vast American landscape has Gerard most excited.  “Getting in a van, driving around for a few months playing the shitholes with chicken wire in front of the stage: that’s the real way to see America.”


Once Before The Calm hits American shores, the response here ay well be as enthusiastic as it has been in England.  Not bad for a band that less than two years ago could be found rehearsing in the basement of a Wigan fish and chips eatery owned by Ray’s parents.  The transition from basement to world concert stages is in full-swing, as WitnessU.K. brings to music a depth and pulse best served by sharing it with the largest audience possible.  On Before The Calm, Witness U.K. provides it’s own best testimony.

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