Sports Team: “We’ve got to the point where we’re just inevitable”

Ahead of difficult second album 'Gulp!', the six-piece tell Ali Shutler about cutting Jools Holland from the record, "ruining the charts for everyone" and why they still see themselves as "outsiders"

From the release of their debut single ‘Stanton’ in 2017 to selling out London’s O2 Academy Brixton in late 2021, Sports Team’s story has long felt like a miraculous underdog tale. A ragtag group of mates uniting to inject some much-needed fun into guitar music, all while inspiring a diehard fanbase? You can see the Hollywood trailer now.

Their against-the-odds victories so far have included reaching number two in the UK Albums Chart with their 2020 debut record ‘Deep Down Happy’ and being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, losing out to Lady Gaga and Michael Kiwanuka respectively. “We were a new band, so our mentality was, ‘Let’s put out a record and see what happens,’” vocalist Alex Rice reflects to NME. “It actually went well, so there’s pressure with album two.”

Now set for release in September, ‘Gulp!’ is the quintessential difficult second album. The title is inspired by the naively tenacious cartoon character Wile E. Coyote – specifically the moment he runs straight off a cliff in pursuit of the Road Runner. “For a split second, [Coyote is] suspended in mid-air before falling – ‘Gulp!’ is the moment you hope you stay suspended,” says Rice.

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Written early on in lockdown when their touring and release plans for ‘Deep Down Happy’ were unceremoniously scrapped, Sports Team had a bulk of ‘Gulp!’ ready to go by the end of 2020. With no idea when live music would return, though, the band continued to tinker. “We tried a lot,” explains Rice. “We got a horn section in, we made our producer [Burke Reid] try a bunch of different mixes; Jools Holland even got involved. Because we’re idiots, though, we ended up going back to most of the stuff we did originally. I don’t think Jools even made the album.”

Describing the legendary musician and TV host as “the nicest man around”, the band aren’t worried about any potentially awkward meetings in the future after ultimately scrapping his contribution. “We went to his studio in London, which he has decked out like a train station and there’s all these incredible pictures of him with The Beatles. He was offering us sandwiches his wife had made,” guitarist Rob Knaggs recalls. Holland then laid down about 50 takes, before discussing his favourite fish and chip shop in Margate and promising to take Knaggs next time he was down on the coast. “He’s not been,” grins Rice. “[Holland’s] a good bloke, though. He was obviously paid a fee by the label but donated it back to us, saying he knows how hard it is for bands.”

‘Deep Down Happy’ was a coming-of-age celebration, bundled together with the everyday anxieties and angst that you get in your mid-20s. “You can’t really continue to do that when you’ve spent the last five years in a professional band, because you’re not living a normal life,” Rice acknowledges.

Today, four-sixths of Sports Team are sitting outside a London pub talking to NME over lunchtime pints, while a majority of people their age are figuring out if they can afford a Pret for lunch due to the cost of living crisis. “A lot of ‘Gulp!’ has ended up more human, tackling these bigger themes that everyone experiences. It’s about challenging whether the way you’re living is living well,” Knaggs says. “I thought the first record was darker than anyone said it was. This record, I think, is really funny, but everyone keeps asking if I’m OK. There are a lot of songs about death, but I guess that’s what happens when you write during a pandemic and you’re forced to confront death on a daily basis.”

New festival anthem ‘The Drop’ is about living an unfulfilling life and “staring death in the face”, but was actually written by Knaggs to “try and make our producer, who never smiles, laugh”. Then there’s the chirpy ‘Getting Better’ (with a chorus that features the line “‘Cause it’s only getting better ‘til it starts off getting worse / And they put you in the garden under six old feet of dirt”), which is their take on Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’.

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“Because the subject matter is dark, we did try it as a bleak-sounding song. But it just didn’t work,” explains bassist Oli Dewdney. “We just couldn’t put out a miserable song with no joy. In the end, it had to be this energetic, fun song, but that’s what we do best – hiding bleak lyrics in this sunny sound. It needed to be cathartic.”

Knaggs hopes ‘Gulp!’ isn’t relentlessly bleak, but, as Rice explains, “music is the antidote for so many people right now”. “You go to a festival or a gig, and there’s this sense of community where you can confront these bleak things with your mates. It’s a simplistic way of dealing with life’s problems, but it’s one of those rare spaces where you feel connected to other people and can take on that shared anxiety.” Drummer Al Greenwood adds: “The pandemic was obviously really awful for us, but who wants to hear a band moan?”

Sports Team wrote ‘Gulp!’ while living together in a south London house, before they then spent a month in the studio recording. It’s little wonder, then, that there’s an intensity to the record. “Conflict is part of the band,” explains Knaggs, after confirming that getting six people to agree on anything is a nightmare. “You watch Bohemian Rhapsody and Brian May is there saying, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a song’ before he starts clapping, and the riff for ‘We Will Rock You’ comes out instantly while everyone’s smiling. Our thing is more everyone sitting in a corner, aggressively trying to not do the thing the other person wants us to do.”

Dewdney adds: “We got into a full-blown argument about a chord in this terrible Christmas song we were trying to write. It’s horrible, but you just see red.” The band, it should be stated, have tried to secure their pensions by writing a festive number numerous times, but “it just never works”.

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Sports Team, 2022 (Picture: Lauren Maccabee / Press)

Despite Knaggs going into lockdown loving Pavement and coming out the other side wanting to make big band music like early Bryan Ferry (whose name comes up a lot during our hour-long chat), ‘Gulp!’ isn’t a huge departure from ‘Deep Down Happy’. “There are songs like ‘Light Industry’ that we wouldn’t have been able to attempt before, but it’s still the six of us trying to make them work live as a band,” Dewdney explains. “It’s not a giant leap – it’s still a Sports Team record – but we’ve definitely progressed.”

After headlining Brixton, the band have also realised that you can’t go on to stages that big and “play songs like you’re still at [east London boozer] the Old Blue Last”, so ‘Gulp!’ was written for those larger rooms. “It’s something Wolf Alice and Fontaines D.C. do really well: create this fuller sound without losing the intensity or connection,” says Rice. “Anyway, I think the wankiest thing a band can do is change their sound. We say we’re now influenced by Bryan Ferry, but, really, we’ve just put some horns on the record. You realise how lucky you are to have anything break through the noise. Whatever we conjured up between the six of us [has] resonated with people. You don’t lose sight of how extraordinary and strange that is, so you don’t really want to change everything.”

Still, the band aren’t keen on repeating past glories. ‘Deep Down Happy’’s breakout track was the cutting ‘Here’s The Thing’, an evergreen, snarling anthem of fury that’s the perfect soundtrack to the latest political scandal (“Everything in life is fair and that’s the rules / It’s all just lies, lies, lies, lies”). There’s nothing as blatantly and outwardly political on ‘Gulp!’ because “the moment you start chasing past successes or looking at ‘the data’, you lose the joy,” says Knaggs. “People can smell the desperation as well.” Greenwood adds: “There’s commentary in all the songs on this album. It’s just perhaps not as in-your-face.”

Sports Team initially set out to prove that guitar music could be fun without losing its sincerity, and ‘Gulp!’ is coming at a time where “there’s more bands like us”. When ‘Deep Down Happy’ was released, the scene was very post-punk-focused. “There’s a lot of good bands, but we didn’t love [that sound]. Now you’ve got bands like Wet Leg and Yard Act,” Rice, who thinks the former’s ‘Chaise Longue’ has the same yearning, angst and energy as a lot of Sports Team tracks, says. Yard Act, the vocalist continues, “sing from a similar perspective. It’s nice to be releasing an album at a time where you feel part of something a bit bigger.”

This new wave of bands is breaking through, Rice says, “because guitar music [has] got a bit up itself”. “People want to be entertained – they don’t want a lecture. They want to dig into the music themselves and find their own path. Some bands really patronise their audience, especially if they’re young. If you’re not giving them an album that makes them feel good or they’re getting something out of it, what’s the point?”

Still, despite narrowly missing out on a Number One album last time round, Sports Team are putting less emphasis on the charts with album two. “We ruined the charts for everyone, really,” Rice says with a wink, alluding to band’s unashamed social media push for the top spot. “Now you see bands with a Rishi Sunak-style campaign to get that Number One album. You’ve got to find new things to entertain people… if it’s going to be entertaining for a group of six mates, other people are probably going to enjoy it as well.” Knaggs adds with a grin: “Fun is the key to our relentlessly bleak album about death.”

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Sports Team CREDIT: Lauren Maccabee

Being so vocal about their likes, dislikes and ambitions inevitably means that not everyone is going to be a fan of Sports Team’s chaos. “Just existing on the internet means you’re going to find people who hate everything you do pretty quickly,” Dewdney says with a shrug. Rice then points out that things “feel a bit less divisive at the moment”, before threatening to log on and change that.

“We’ve got to the point where we’re just inevitable,” says Knaggs. “With that first album, people on Twitter genuinely hoped they could end it. There was a small chance they could stop us, but now we’re endemic.”

Rice believes Sports Team will “always annoy people who want to be true artists”. He adds: “There are people who go on-stage, wear all black and carefully curate this polished image. Our thing is more about accepting you’re this flawed character and being open about everything. That helps other people feel like they can do it as well. Hopefully it empowers people to feel like they can change their life.”

That sense of giving it a go and seeing what happens has always been part of Sports Team’s empowering, if reckless, optimism. They’ve been talking about headlining Wembley since the beginning and, according to Rice, it’s still a genuine ambition.

“You can smell the fear on people when they stop believing in what they’re doing,” the frontman says. “Even if it’s 100 people in a room, you want to watch someone who really thinks they’re a star. You don’t want to watch something normal because you meet enough normal people in your everyday life. With music, you want to see something extremely odd that might actually go somewhere. The second we lose that, it’s over. There are enough self-conscious lads with guitars.”

With that in mind, Rice believes Sports Team “are still outsiders”. Yet, he says, “it feels fucking great when there are 5000 people together in a room, with that us-against-the-world mentality.”

– Sports Team’s new album ‘Gulp!’ is due for released on September 23 via Island Records

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