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Sports Team want to make British guitar music tribal again

Meet the Cambridge band who are unapologetically carving a path towards big, big things. Next stop? Knebworth...

If you’ve never heard of Sports Team before, attending their video shoot for new single ‘The Races’ is an all-encompassing, full-pelt introduction into what they’re all about. Set in a wedding scenario, what starts as a fine British day ends up closer to an EastEnders episode, with a fist fight, vomiting bridesmaids and a destroyed wedding cake.

Behind all this, the six-piece act as the wedding band, belting out their new single ‘The Races’, in which frontman Alex Rice interrogates the character of your racist uncle over Christmas dinner. “He wears a Union Jack, he wants to take us all back / He wants to talk about the war, the way he’s going on you’d think he’d fought them off alone,” he sings over rousing indie-rock, stopping only to be accosted by a particularly troublesome wedding guest.

Though staged in this instance, a similar level of chaos has become the norm for Sports Team in their two-year existence so far. Since releasing their debut EP ‘Winter Nets’ at the start of 2018, the band have emerged as one of the most fun, rabble-rousing live bands in Britain. They’ve also acted as an antidote for those young guitar music fans whose fires weren’t lit by the emergence of the furious post-punk of Fontaines D.C., IDLES and the like over the last year.

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“Our audience is bored, suburban kids a lot of the time, which I think is different from [those bands’] crowd,” Alex tells NME during a cigarette break in between wedding-based carnage. “I think those people haven’t had a voice in so long.”

In the same way that old punks have been brought out of retirement and have a fierce dedication to music again thanks to the breakthrough of IDLES (see the All Is Love Facebook page), there’s a vast swathe of younger fans to whom Sports Team have quickly become idols. “Loads of great music comes out of dull, middle-class suburbia,” Alex continues, before beginning to speak in the kind of tribal terms that used to define British guitar music, and that make Sports Team such a polarising prospect.

Sports Team
Sports Team at Thekla, Bristol. Credit: Jamie MacMillan

“Our audience are bored, suburban kids a lot of the time. those people haven’t had a voice in so long” – Alex Rice, Sports Team

“Everyone thinks you need to act like a down-trodden band,” he states. “There’s this huge gap that’s completely missed. I don’t want to be the champion of the Tunbridge Wells Pitcher & Piano crew,” he laughs, openly admitting the band’s middle-class upbringings while steering far clear from a ‘posh kids have it so hard’ narrative, “but there’s a lot of truth in it.”

The momentum Sports Team came into 2019 with has been accelerated even further across the year. A second EP called ‘Keep Walking!’ arrived in March, which was then followed by a host of singles that sound like pure anthems. Whether singing about motorways (‘M5’), nostalgia and idealism (‘Fishing’) or any form of unglamorous British minutiae, Sports Team make the unfashionable seem romantic and pride-worthy for a second, and it’s drawn in many a disenfranchised guitar music fan.

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Sports Team
Sports Team live at Thekla, Bristol. Credit: Jamie MacMillan

They also sit deliberately apart from those talking about a ‘resurgence’ of the genre; they, and their quickly growing legions of fans, never stopped listening to these kinds of bands, and their decision to write Pavement-esque indie-rock when they formed at Cambridge University was a necessity rather than a choice. “We used to say in our interviews a lot that all our mates don’t like our band, and that no-one likes guitar music. I think that’s probably still true,” Rob Knaggs – guitarist, songwriter and Alex’s right-hand man – says. “We’re not doing it because it’s a stylish thing to do.”

Do they think this is a positive thing, to keep their egos in check? “Uhh, no,” Rob laughs in response. “I’d love to totally lose track and write this absolutely terrible album and be detached from reality. If I could just be incredibly rich and not understand what it meant to be a normal human being, I’d probably take that over playing the Old Blue Last ten times in a row.

“We all bring each other down anyway. All day. Every day. If anyone gets a slight ego on them, it’s very quickly dealt with.”

“It’s a snakepit,” bassist Oli Dewdney winces.

Sports Team

“The Forum is not that big, in terms of where we want to be. That’s only a percentage of Knebworth” – Alex Rice, Sports Team

At every step in their two years as a band, Sports Team have exceeded expectation and showing the genuine ambition of a huge, huge band. Basically, they like to toot their own horn and they’ve earned the right to do so. They sold out London’s Scala with – as they gleefully reveal – less Twitter followers than the venue’s capacity, before going above and beyond again at Camden’s Electric Ballroom in March. While seeming like outrageous and even foolish bookings when they went on sale (the band consistently joined in the japes, such is their relentless and refreshing self-awareness), both gigs sold out and became joyous, life-affirming affairs. The next over-the-top graduation comes this week at the Forum (December 5), which is also creeping towards a sell-out.

“Forum’s not that big, in terms of where we want to be,” Alex responds bluntly to the band’s next lofty step. “If you’re genuinely ambitious about it, Forum isn’t even close. That’s only a percentage of Knebworth. I think guitar music gets like that quite often. Someone plays the Forum and everyone pats themselves on the back and says ‘guitar music’s back!’ It’s nowhere near.”

“We’ll do that, then Brixton, Ally Pally and then The O2,” he lays out without flinching. The well-travelled story of the frontman legitimately trying to book Wembley Arena for 2021, while the band only had one EP out in the world, stands testament to that.

“If you were in another genre, you’d be embarrassed to play the Forum,” Rob adds with the same unapologetic ambition. “We want to be U2, on our different flying saucers on stage on a beach in Rio De Janeiro to 8 million people.”

“Ah damn, we’ve lost that intimacy now we’re at Rock In Rio…” Alex chortles in response.

The road to the Forum begins a few days after the wedding disaster as their UK tour begins aboard the Thekla boat in Bristol. As with almost all of the 12-date tour, the Bristol show has been sold out for weeks. At the merch desk, the band are selling seed tins as a pre-order for their upcoming debut album, which they shift hundreds of on night one alone. Plant them now, the band say, and they’ll bloom in spring upon the record’s release.

Sports Team
Sports Team live at Thekla, Bristol. Credit: Jamie MacMillan

“The album’s going to number one – it’s coming out next April,” Alex tells the crowd before a raucous run-through of ‘Fishing’ in a gig that’s pure chaos from start to finish, with crowd surfers launching themselves from every corner of the boat and chucking themselves around to songs they already consider anthems. It’s lofty claim of course, but even to hear the frontman of an indie band make such a statement without irony is brilliantly refreshing.

Before the gig, keyboardist Ben Mack gets stopped by a fan who hands him a demo CD, with a message written on the back. “Thank you for helping to remind us that it’s cool to be in a band,” it reads. It’s easy to imagine hundreds of the sweaty bodies inside Thekla tonight rushing home from the gig to write their first songs, invigorated by the most fun, unapologetic guitar band around.

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