All aboard the fun bus! London-based, Cambridge-formed indie six-piece Sports Team are, for reasons best known to themselves, on the road for a jolly outing to the Kent seaside town of Margate – and NME has come along for the ride. Like shit-munchers in a tin can, we’re crammed on a coach from London on what must the hottest day of the year, along with fervent fans who’ve nabbed tickets to a show the band will play tonight (August 3) at the Tom Tom Theatre. Fun fact: at just 10×7 foot, the venue has the smallest stage of any public theatre in Europe. Another less fun fact: it’s hotter than Satan’s ball-bag on this infernal coach.
The reason for the trip is two-fold. Firstly, Sports Team’s manager recently bought a house in Margate, so it’s quite convenient. Secondly, they’ve just released a single named after the town. “I think the song’s more about the seaside in general,” explains bassist Oli Dewdney. “It’s about what Margate represents,” drummer Al Greewood adds. Alex Rice, the band’s plummy, charismatic frontman – you could mistake him for a swarthy, ambitious politician if summery guitar riffs weren’t so clearly his main motivation – is a little more effusive: “It’s about the summer that everyone’s been having. It’s been a real heatwave summer; we’ve sitting around beers gardens in pubs in north-west London. It’s celebratory full-stop, really. It’s joyful, and it’s something to dance to.”
Before we can dance, though, we must survive a coach trip characterised by tinnies and crackly tunes on the radio (there’s a mass singalong to Gabrielle’s 1993 soul banger ‘Dreams’). The driver, rocking a Hawaiian shirt and ponytail as part of a look that’s best described as Ace Ventura: The Later Years, steers us to utopia: the slowly gentrifying Margate, which has recently become something of a Mecca for artistic types priced out of London. If you want to put the heebie jeebies up a local, simply refer to Margate as ‘Shoreditch on Sea’. Even worse, there’s ‘Dalston-sur-mer’. Today, however, ‘Margaluf’ seems more apt.
Blokes redden their round tummies under the blazing sun, lazing on the beach, while swimmers splash about in the seaside lido. At one point, a photographer convinces Alex to hop in – fully dressed. Reader, the frontman’s trousers end up almost entirely transparent. No matter: time now for an NME grilling. Alex explains that Margate plays into a particular sensibility that makes the band tick. “We all come from the school of thought that’s at the very least interested in the idea of England, to put it very bluntly,” he says. “We read John Betjeman and Cyril Connolly. There is kind of an English lyricism. We come to Margate and the see lido and it’s not like, ‘Oh this is crap.’ It’s romanticism. And I think that’s different to what punk band do, and that’s where the point of divide lies. That’s not conscious, it’s just what we do.”
There are a couple of indicators here that Sports Team are not your average indie band. As Alex’s literary references suggest, the band met at the University of Cambridge, though deny that their parents are terribly disappointed to see they’ve opted for sweet jangle-pop over more lucrative careers. And the north Londoners are contrarians who’ve pitted themselves against the south London punk scene that gave us the likes of Shame, HMLTD and Goat Girl. They’ve used previous interviews to slag off their peers – and today is no different. “It’s very self-congratulatory, that whole scene”, Alex says. “Everyone thinks they’re the greatest band in the world, which I don’t buy. Most of them aren’t even from south London.”
When NME points out that cross-band beef has become a medium rarity these days, Al replies: “To be honest, I think it’s got to the point where people aren’t allowed to have any opinions. If you’re asked about another band, it’s got to be glowing – and that’s just fake, isn’t it?”
Of glam-punk heroes HMLTD, Alex deadpans: “They’re just not very good, though, are they?”
There’s room for debate here, though it’s a relief to see a new band willing to stick their necks out for our entertainment. And they’re equally naughty on record, too, lacing their superficially sweet indie-pop with scathing, serrated lyrics that carve up posers real good. “Go to Goldsmiths and they dye their fringes / And know they’ve made it only / When they sign the rights to Sony,” Alex intones on ‘Camel Crew’, taken from the band’s ‘Winter Nets EP’. He is blessed with a – shall we say – distinctive voice. It’s somewhere between a yelp and a croon, like Pete Doherty after elocution lessons (which is appropriate, since The Libertines, another British indie band obsessed with English lyricism, will soon open a hotel and studio in Margate).
Did any of Sports Team wonder what the hell was happening when Alex first opened his mouth to sing?
“None of us were good enough at what we were doing,” admits Oli, who explains none of them could actually play their instruments when they formed. At early shows, Alex would roll around on the floor, thrash his guitar and pretend to play a solo. The six-piece did everything the wrong way around: they decided to form a band and then picked up their instruments in a bid for world domination. “If you start from the point of having pretty severe limitations, you end up with quite a creative solution,” Alex reasons. “That’s why we have quite a unique sound, I think – you aim for something you really can’t reach.” Oli agrees: “If you start a band where everybody’s very technically gifted, you just sound immediately like the band you like.”
There’s an obvious lineage to what Sports Team do – it’s mid-noughties indie-pop with an acerbic twist – but you must admit no-one ever did it with this much élan.
Later, at the packed-out Tom Thumb, fans stand across the backs of multiple seats, riding them like surfboards to catch a glimpse of Alex’s onstage antics. He slices the air with his hands, dances spasmodically, and introduces the new single with the words: “This song is about Margate. We all got the coach down together; it’s been lovely.” He’s not wrong – we frolicked on the beach, necked tinnies and chortled at the expense of stuck-up posers. All that was missing was a fake guitar solo.