Rapidly becoming known for their electric and explosive live shows, Sports Team, who met at Cambridge University, have spent the last two years touring Europe non-stop, packing out 2,500 cap rooms and generating a near cult-like fanbase.
On the cusp of releasing their debut record, Deep Down Happy, the world was put on indefinite hold and the band’s touring schedules and release plans quickly followed. The band, who share a house in Camberwell in South London, headed straight to a studio in Devon to start demoing for album two. But, just three weeks in, the council closed that down too.
The band’s heaving, frenetic momentum came to a sudden stand still.
Instead of moving back to Camberwell, they all decided to move back home and see out the rest of the lockdown.
“I’m pretty… bored,” says singer, Alex Rice, who Zooms™ in from his parent’s home. It’s a bright, sunny day in his little pocket of England and the only room in the house with reliable WiFi is his sister’s room. What appears to be moody black and white photos of his band above his head are, in fact, just pictures of his sister and her friends on a night out. He picks up the phone and waves it in front of the pictures laughing, “See!” He says. “They’re not some cool rock shots – just my sister and her friends!”
Alex has become known in some circles as a bit of a loudmouth, bagging out other bands and declaring his band to be the greatest, and so on. But it’s not as one-sided as some would have you believe. He is cheeky, yes. Rude, sometimes. Charming, absolutely. If there was an award for world’s best wry smile, he’d win it by a country mile. But his determination to poke fun at the scene comes from a place of jest. He’s on a quest against ‘cool’ – a tirade against those in the entertainment business who refuse to entertain us.
It’s this kind of energy that makes Sports Team their very own unique beast in the punk revival scene that is, once again, grasping the UK by the unmentionables and shaking it silly. They aren’t concerned with pushing a typical blasé band image – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They want you to know about them and they’ll be damned if you’re not going to have fun doing so.
The band have little patience for pretentiousness.
“When we first got to London,” Alex says. “We would go to a lot of gigs – like Speedy Wunderground – which is cool, but you’d think everyone was in some kind of art-rock outfit. Everyone would walk around dressed like wizards and play this unlistenable, atonal music. And sure, you’d also see the ones that are quite good that get through the top, but most of the scene is dreadful. We saw those bands and just thought ‘This is no fun. This is so boring.’
“We remember our formative experiences as kids seeing bands. It was all like ‘landfill indie’,” he laughs. “That’s what it’s called now. Like, The Vaccines and stuff. That was the kind of stuff we were seeing as kids. And we just wanted that kind of experience again. Where you go to a gig and sneak beers and that’s your first drink and you miss the last train home and you’d sleep on the street in London for the whole night.”
To truly understand the nature of Sports Team, you have to go back to their fledgling days at Cambridge University. They wanted desperately to play shows but they understood that ‘guitar music’ wasn’t as popular as it used to be.
“Our first shows were for our mates,” Alex says. “And nobody liked guitar music. We recognised that guitar music isn’t competing with other guitar music, it’s competing with the charts and the club down the road and that’s what you’ve got to make a gig better than – not the new post punk act down the road.”
It got so grim that even their best friends were ditching the shows for the happy hour at the next pub over. So they had to spice things up a bit. Instead of selling a ‘gig’, they started to sell a night out.
“Those gigs were born out of a lack of self confidence in what we were doing,” he says. “We were trying to compensate in a millions different ways. And then we started to pack out shows because we sold everything to distract from the fact that we were six people onstage with a guitar.”
Various members of Sports Team filled the opening slots, performing in rap acts, their other bands and even an ‘ambient duo’ (whom Alex describes in his characteristically honest fashion as simply ‘terrible’ – bear in mind, these are his best friends and fellow band mates). A cover band would always headline and there would be after parties in everyone’s dorm rooms.
“So you’d go just because you knew that you were getting a night out of it which is what made it great,” he says. “Instead of being like ‘hear our art,’ we just did it because we really loved it.”
After they finished their studies at Cambridge they all packed up and moved to London and started to take things a little more seriously. They met their manager and cut their teeth playing formative, or, as Alex calls them, ‘proper, ticketed’ shows at venues like the Moth Club and The Old Blue Last in East London. After a short while, they started to release music.
Early songs like ‘Stanton’ and ‘Beverly Rose’ put them on the map as ramshackle, punk infused middle-class upstarts. But it was their romancing of middle England and urgent lyrics, spawned from a disdain for societies hypocrisies, that caught them a batch of fans untapped by other bands coming up in the UK.
The chorus of single ‘M5’ is a fist pounding refrain that would act as the perfect backing track for football commercial.
Sun! Light! splashes off the bonnet on the M!5!
No one else is on it, it’s an open wide motorway
On the surface, it’s a song about a car with 1.5 million streams on Spotify. But it’s these seemingly mundane vignettes of British middle-class life that unearth a sort of existential dread that fuel Alex and guitarist/co-songwriter Rob Knaggs’ songwriting.
“There’s always a kind of stream of consciousness to the lyrics,” he says. “Some of it is about suburban upbringing and recognising that you’re a part of it, all the while sort of sending it down. But also having this vague, loving take on the characters that live within it. So it’s a strange sardonic, condemning tone but also recognising that you’re so stuck in it and your need to pull yourself out of it.”
Most of the lyrics on their upcoming record Deep Down Happy chart the journey of the band moving to London and into adulthood. The album is bookended by the same lyric ‘If you wanna find love, you can go to London’.
“It’s kind of about being sold a dream,” Alex says. “As kids we were always told that that’s what you do. You move to the big city. You all live together and live the dream and it’s going to be brilliant. And we got there and we were all sort of working normal jobs and I think we had a sense of like, ‘Is this it? Is this what our lives are gonna be?’
“I think a lot of people our age – sort of early to mid-twenties – have that feeling about the dreams they’ve been sold. The sense that it doesn’t stack up to what they thought it should be and the need to look for a solution or an alternative way of living that they can turn to.”
“So the lyrics while they are humorous and, I hope, uplifting, they quite often have that yearning inside of them – even in the way they’re delivered.”
The band played 160 tour dates last year while recording the album with Australian producer Burke Reid. They began the straining task of trying to bottle their energy into a 10 track album that summed up their live show.
Fitting in time when they could, the band would take all-night flights (or, in one instance, an all-night ferry from Holland after a 50-date run across Europe) and be thrown into the studio at 9am. Reid would then make the band do their takes over and over again until they got the right one.
“That’s the spirit we brought into it,” says Alex. “He [Reid] wouldn’t let us use any of the tricks. Like, those studio tricks where I’d be like, ‘Go on… just autotune that last little bit so I don’t have to do a whole take again. Please, Burke, mate, come on…’
He smiles that award winning wry smile again. It’s a wonder Burke didn’t give in.
“He’s an incredible guy,” he continues. “He doesn’t eat all day. He just sort of eats nuts and is first in, last out.”
Reid’s production managed to keep the ragged edges of the band’s early sound but polished enough to be consumer and radio ready.
“It was a weird one. Because none of us are really musicians,” Alex says. “That was part of the amateurish appeal. We love bands like Pavement. And I think when we started playing and recording it was really true – we really could not play our instruments. We made stuff up and faked guitar solos and got weird and just kinda threw stuff in and that was charming. But now I feel like we can’t really pretend that anymore. That’s our job now. We can all clearly play our instruments.
“But I think you should be able to hear the record and see us when we play and think, ‘God, being in a band doesn’t seem that hard. I could be in a band.’ So I hope you still get that.”
They do make it look easy.
He laughs, “Or we aim very low.”
Forever entertainers, Sports Team have garnered an online, meme riddled fanbase that describe themselves as a ‘Hate Community.’ Alex says that the band has a strange model of fandom where their fans don’t really like them.
“It’s more like they’re sort of… involved commentators?” he says, just as confused at this idea as anyone else. “It’s quite hard to describe because there’s so much tied into being involved in this thing. We meet them all the time and we treat them like you would your mates. We take the piss out of them a lot and they take the piss out of us. They’ll say stuff like ‘You’re such a terrible band, how are you still pulling this off?’ But they still come to the shows.”
It seems that just like the early days at Cambridge, a Sports Team show is still about the event.
“It’s almost like it doesn’t even matter what the music is, it’s about the experience seeing everyone you’ve engaged with through social media for however long and dressing a certain way because that’s how you dress at a Sports Team show.”
But he also hopes that they sell tickets for more traditional reasons – like being good performers.
“Hopefully it is good live. We put the energy into it. But we do think about it quite a lot. Like, why are we appealing?”
The video for their latest single ‘Going Soft’ might hold some of the answers to his question. It’s a video shot by the band and their fans depicting what Sports Team do best.
It’s collective energy like this that Alex laments is missing from other bands in the scene. He and his fellow bandmates have, in the past, been unashamedly forthright about some of their peers. Taking the piss out of bands like Shame and Fontaines D.C. for peddling a level of ‘leather-jacket wearing Strokesey-ness’, sitting in darkened pubs smoking and drinking whiskey and getting divine lyrical inspiration from James Joyce himself.
It’s a sort of mild dose of the Oasis vs. Blur beef NME ate for breakfast, lunch and tea everyday for a whole decade. Despite the ribbing, Alex says he and the band still listen to those bands ‘quite a lot’.
“But…” he says. “I think sometimes those kind of bands take guitar music to its worst points where it gets sort of academic about trying to be niche and trying to be cool when, actually, that music is at its best when it is ambitious, when it’s shooting to be the band your mum knows about.
“We always talk – jokingly – about Robbie Williams at Knebworth. But we do want to be doing massive shows that everyone in the country wants to go to. I think once you build something up to that stage of grandeur you get a level of shared experience – which is what we are always trying to push.”
But for now, any level of heightened shared experience in Europe and the UK – or anywhere in the world, for that matter – is off limits.
“Yeah, we’re taking it pretty badly. It was good when we were recording, it kind of took our mind off it, but even then it was like what’s the point? It’s strange though because you see achievements coming in – you’ll get a lot of radio play, you’ll be put on a playlist, you’ll get a huge press piece, your Spotify streams will go really well – but it’s all so abstract and you’re just looking at a number on a screen.
“And you can comprehend that stuff like that makes the live stuff happen. We’re not some sort of weird live cultists but that’s the only bit that actually feels real. Because it’s physical and it’s vital and you see people in front of you and they sing it back to you and that’s when you know if it’s going well or not.”
This is the first time in the entire interview that Alex has let the cheekiness and wry smile fall back. He’s speaking earnestly, like a man who just felt the solidity of his entire dream start to seep through his fingers into uncertainty.
But he doesn’t despair for too long at all. Almost immediately he starts describing the band’s plan to play live shows the second they get the green light. As soon as small 50 capacity venues are able to have people in them, Sports Team will be there.
“We were thinking of doing a three month residency like the ‘60s bands did – same venue, table seating, and we play every night. Or we’ll just play every town that doesn’t get music in the UK and Australia hopefully, because that’s the kind of place we grew up in. We’d have to go to London to see music, so why not go to them and play their pubs, even if they’re 50 cap. We’ll do a huge, grinding 200 date pub tour and pretend we’re The Clash,” he says, the wry smile returning.
Thankfully, the band have some experience throwing huge nights in small towns.