Sports Team are the rising indie stars, a fun-filled guitar band, who romantise about Middle England, who like to sing about fishing, pubs, motorways, and the everyday in our lives, and who are at once dismissive of some of their fellow musicians, whilst being fully paid up members of the I Love Music club. Coming up on the back of word of mouth live hype, the six-piece band (made up of singer Alex Rice, guitarist and songwriter Rob Knaggs, drummer Al Greenwood, keyboardist Ben Mack, guitarist Henry Young and Oli Dewdney on bass) released their first EP, Winter Nets, just a couple of years back, the cover of which features a mock tudor house, sitting behind a flowering front garden. It is decidely a suburban setting. And it set the template for what was to come after; fleet of foot, and energetic indie music, the band consistently setting themselves apart from the acts they came up playing with, always pulling out the stops on the live stage. Although according to Alex it was tough at the beginning, with guitar music seen out of favour with many. “When we did our first gigs, our mates didn’t want to come and see guitar music. You’d have to drag them down and buy every single one of them a drink. You’d have this audience that was basically not interested, so it was a case of, ‘Ok, tell a few jokes, have some bizarre gimmicks, really go for it.’”
There’s no doubt there is some amazing guitar orientated bands out there, flying the flag, as it were, but doing it utterly on their own terms, organically. The flamboyant and charismatic frontman loves his guitar music, is obsessed by it even. And he makes no apology about that. “Shame, Working Men’s Club,” reeling off a couple of acts he really likes. “Sorry’s album is amazing. We’ve never been the people that needed convincing. We’ve always liked that sort of thing. We’ll listen to Pavement B-sides… I do think guitar music has a problem, where it’s always quite keen to pat itself on the back. ‘Ah, brilliant’. I remember when we did the Scala, which is just a bit bigger than a pub, and people were suddenly saying, ‘Indie is back!’ ‘Really!?. This is 600 of our mates’. It’s not troubling the singles charts, these new bands aren’t playing stadiums. I do think there are some incredible, absolutely unbelievable bands, but it’s nowhere where it should be now. It should be really permeating the national consciousness. It should be what your parents know. ‘Do you know Fontaines DC, Or Sorry’. ‘No…’
“We’d be the weird kids,” says Aex, “sitting around listening to Pavement all night, rather than a house playlist or something. It’s not cool, guitar music. We’re very aware of that. I think that’s what we all bonded over, this love of it. We’re not musicians, although maybe we are now. It’s always been a big part of the appeal, the kids who may have hanging on the wall, ‘my first Fender’, that sort of thing. You might have taught yourself AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, like a YouTube tutorial, that sort of thing, when you’re 16. And then just left it.
However, a strong underlying belief, allied to a series of cracking singles and eps, all self-released, got tongues a-wagging, swiftly cementing the band as one to watch. Their debut album Deep Down Happy looks set to deliver on all the promise that first came to light with that exquisite tale of vivid mundanity, ‘Winter Nets’. It’s 12 tracks add up to a savagely satirical yet sympathetic survey of contemporary society. It’s also about being young, the hopes, dreams and fears of young Brits. “I don’t think we were conscious of doing it but the album maps the journey of moving in together in Harlesden, moving back to home towns to sleep on floors for 18 months, then coming back to London, weighing up whether being in a band with your mates, being young in London is still the best thing in the world. I think it probably is.”
“You can always go to London.” That phrase occurs both at the beginning and at the end of Deep Down Happy, a record that alternately celebrates and excoriates the banality and mundanity of suburban life. Everyone in the band has experienced it, and sought an escape route. First in Cambridge, where they met at university, and then in London. They have, despite their educational credentials, become synonymous with some kind of authenticity, stemming from their organic-DIY background, their passion, and indeed calling out others who they see as being inauthentic.
And the love of London manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Like on ‘Fishing’ for instance, which came about due to Alex and Rob’s love of long walks, exploring London and it’s incredible diversity of life and culture, in this case the city’s canal system. “Me and Rob are really into walking. Like a lot of kids, I grew up in towns, rather than cities. When you get to London, there’s a sense of escapism to it. All we did for the first week was pick a direction and walk, as far as we could go. We walked from central London to St. Albans on the first weekend; 20 miles. We came back with bleeding feet. Even before we all moved to Harlesden, me, Rob and Ollie were in Queens Park, just off the Harrow Road. There’s the canal system – Regents Canal, Little Venice, Camden – you can walk all the way through London. I’m sure it was a dead river, basically. But there were all these commuters coming back from work who would fish in it. It always seemed like this bizarre, aimless thing to do, fishing for nothing.
“I think we are more conscious of writing for live than anything else,” he says. “You release an album, upload it, Spotify it, it’s very abstract, until you are playing it to a crowd, and the crowd are singing it back to you, and the moments when they go nuts. ‘Fishing’ is like that, people just rolling over themselves, when the chorus kicks in. I remember, when were doing that in the studio, consciously putting it together that way. ‘Alright, this will kick off’,”
Opening track ‘Lander’, meanwhile is a strong statement of inventive intent, exploring, as much of their music, their love of American guitar music. “I think it’s deliberately surprising. For a start, it’s got Rob singing on it. This is different, already not quite what you expected. But, it’s what we do. It’s got that driving, American guitar sound to it. It’s aggressive, it’s punchy, visceral guitar sounds. It’s like Parquet Courts, Iggy Pop, that sort of stuff. But it’s the very lyrical stuff we do, very English, John Betjeman, Pulp, things like that. It’s one of those tracks that’s very us.”
Then there’s the almost anthemic, sorry-state-of-the-nation ‘Here’s The Thing’. We were touring in the US, sitting in the van, reading the news, election coverage was coming in, Brexit was happening. This tendency to have a legitimate view, where everyone is going to get heard – an extreme poll, and absolutist view, especially on social media, you see a lot of that. I was doing my challenging, my sardonic piece around the lyrics, condemning both sides, you know.”
Sports Team is very much a group effort, although centred on the gifted ideas man Rob Knaggs, whom Alex formed a musical partnership around which the group quickly developed. “It will be Rob who will come up with the main idea basically, and we workshop it as a band. I’m aware that there is a lot of chance, mistakes, things like that. When we first started playing we genuinely couldn’t play our instruments, and when we went into a studio, we had no idea what we were doing. And now we can! For a few years years, I was like ‘professional musicians, ugghh’. It’s trying to maintain those rough edges, that unpredictability which gives it all that charm. We try and consciously do that, from a musician’s point of view. It’s been quite different on this album.
“We worked with a guy called Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett’s producer) He’s very good, very committed, and doesn’t do any of the studio tricks, none of that ‘we’ll just run it through this’. Everything is played live, and if that means doing 200 takes, then that’s what we will do.
“No one wants to hear a tight band live, no one wants to hear true renditions of the songs. A lot of people do the recordings first, and then think ‘I’ve got to do this live’. For us, it was the other way around. We didn’t put tracks out for ages. And then we had to go and learn how to record.”
On the surface it looked they came from literally nowhere. Form a band, play a few gigs, release your own music… “If only it was that simple,” syas Alex. “We, probably more than anyone, like to give the impression we sauntered towards it. Actually, a lot of it’s been… we had jobs in London, coming home, rehearse ’til 4 in the morning, have a couple of hours sleep, go back to work. It’s always been a lot of graft.” As Alex sings on ‘Fishing’: “If the band doesn’t work just get a regular job.”
The DIY ethos of the early days was a key bonding experience, and which got stronger and stronger as the band played live show after live show, also forming lifelong bonds with a growing, teenage fanbase, who got off on the energy, spirit and fun of the Sports Team way of life. Iggy Pop apparently went undercover to witness one of their gigs, while Noel Gallagher enlisted them as tour support. In the meantime they wrote a bagful of inventive and snappy pop songs, all imbued with a passion and social incision, detailing the lives of smalltown Middle England, were escapism is the holy grail for the young and young-at-heart. They know this because, even though they were at Cambridge University, they hail from the four corners including Cornwall, Leeds, Tunbridge Wells and Sheffield, and have taken a keen interest in what surrounds them, as well as poet John Betjeman, who combined satire with observation in detailing the eternal within the ordinary. Sports Team are, in some ways, the musical equivalent, albeit a great deal more raucous.
This is a band in the true sense, a bunch of people that have lived and breathed together, under one roof, in a tour bus, and on the live stage. “We all lived in a house in Harlesden, North West London, together,” says Alex, who on stage comes across like a hybrid of Mick Jagger and Jarvis Cocker. “And we all moved out. Last year we did think about 150 tour dates. Every other night, basically. So, it didn’t make sense to rent a house, we were always away. We were about six to a room for about a year, which was awful. I think this whole deep down happy thing,” he says, in referencing the album, “is like weighing up, ‘is this the dream?’, sort of stuff. ‘Is it alright, are we still friends’? Do we like this, or are we living in some kind of young professional hellscape in Camberwell (which is where they all live now, again under one roof), with our overnight oats in the fridge, doing workout routines, things like that. It’s questioning the spirit, you know?”
Certainly, when they are on the road, playing gigs, it’s where they meet head-on, the underlying reasons why they put themselves out there, rather than fall back on safe, but unfulfilling jobs. “We meet all our fans and they are by and large young, and it’s a real community,” says Alex. “The thing that really comes across is that what they most hate is being patronised. Our fans are much more switched on than when we were, those aged 15 or 16. It’s much more subtle. They’ve heard enough of this fuck Boris style politics. I think the press have got a problem where as soon as you have a kid fanbase, people start writing about you as cheeky funsters, or kooky whackos. Really, as if that is what we are! Our fanbase is quite fun. And I think that the reason why guitar music has got any life left in it is because there’s this identity to this group of people, a dynamic, and you can buy into it. That’s surely the most appealing thing about any band, and always will be.
“For us, its more harking back to these formative experiences – Egyptian hip hop, having your first beer, coming out of a mosh pit. We see that with people in front of us, having these same formative experiences around seeing a band, which is incredible.”
For the moment however, the band are in lockdown mode, writing and demoing new music, carrying on with the other stuff they have always done, like designing the artwork, and coming up with ideas for videos. Of course, they hope to be back on the road, where they truly flourish, before long. And their fanbase must surely be desperately itching to get out and see some live music. I say to Alex, that living, and working together, it’s a minor miracle that you are loving each other, and working beautifully together. “Oh, fingers crossed! You wait… I always remember that Peep Show episode where Jez is fighting about royalties over that FIFA soundtrack for £100, that football montage. That’s where I see us in about six months.”