Just over a year ago, Sports Team released their debut album and promptly shot to Number Two in the UK Official Albums Chart. Finally able to take it on the road properly for the victory lap it so deserves, they’re already thinking about what’s next. Jake Hawkes trawls Soho with indie’s most chaotic frontman Alex Rice to find out more.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Most interviews with bands are relatively simple affairs – you meet the band at a pub / café / venue, you speak to them all, then you go home and write it up. Well, Dear Reader, would it shock you to learn that our interview with the most chaotic band in indie didn’t quite pan out that way?
“I think it’s full up,” says Sports Team frontman Alex Rice, craning his neck to look through the window of The French House, a pub in Soho. “That’s a shame; I’ve got some vouchers I wanted to use. That’s why I picked it.” As he talks, he scans the street for an alternative venue, singing parts of ‘Golden Years’ by David Bowie under his breath as he does. So far, so normal.
The rest of the band are unable to make the interview, with guitarist Henry Young, songwriter / guitarist Rob Knaggs, and keyboardist Ben Mack all self-isolating in their Margate house as a precaution after contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19. Drummer Al Greenwood and bassist Oli Dewdney are similarly absent (although whether that’s due to Covid or a reluctance to take part in any kind of plan arranged by Alex Rice is never confirmed). “Prepare to be bored by me over an entire evening,” Alex tells us before the interview.
Back in Soho, he goes door to door trying to find a pub with any space, at one point musing on whether a patisserie might serve him a pint and a pain aux raisin if he asks nicely enough. A failed attempt to get into a members-only club brings us no closer to actually finding a venue to do the interview, but it does lead to some celeb spotting, as Alex jogs across the road to ask for a photo with Colin from Love Actually. “I know him more as Nick from [sitcom] My Family.” He says with a grin, before peering in the window of yet another pub with no spare tables.
“What’s the worst that can happen, a bad album? So what! Make another one – it’s not exactly hard to make music”Alex Rice
Eventually, we end up in a basement bar which Alex confidently asserts is “part of real Soho,” adding: “Well, that’s what our manager Stu always says anyway.” Real Soho or not, it’s got a spare table, so we can finally sit down and begin the interview, just 45 minutes later than planned.
Seated around a circular table covered in the baise from a pool table (for some reason), Alex begins to wax lyrical just as the speaker above his head starts to blast out Louis Armstrong’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ at full volume.
“The big news is that our new hero is [Roxy Music frontman] Bryan Ferry,” he says, gesturing at his bright yellow shirt. “That’s why I’m dressed like this, channelling Ferry. Seriously though, the new music is a genuine departure from the first album. We realised that whatever we try to do, it’s always going to have me singing in a bad voice, Oli playing the root notes on bass, Henry trying to riff his way out of anything and everything. So with that in mind, we decided to experiment a bit more and trust that those things will keep us sounding like Sports Team.”
These might sound like bold words from a band who are only one album in, but it’s typical of the mentality Sports Team have always carried with them – forever pushing at the edge of their box and seeing how far the walls will move. Debut album ‘Deep Down Happy’ could easily have just been a repackaging of all the songs they’d released up until then, but instead opened with the off-kilter ‘Lander’, two and a half minutes of chaos with Rob on lead vocals instead of Alex.
“I do think it’s important to keep trying new stuff,” Alex says. “I don’t think the whole band would agree with me here; I think Oli would be happy not to rock the boat and just keep doing what we’re doing, because that’s what people like. But then we’d just be selling out the same venues forever and never getting anywhere new. Oli’s tried to quit the band about four times now anyway, and he’s still here, so I think we’re safe on that front no matter what we do.
“My view is that you just have to keep shooting for it and get it wrong a few times. What’s the worst that can happen, a bad album? So what! Make another one – it’s not exactly hard to make music.”
It’s in this spirit that the band decided to release ‘Plant Test’, a vinyl-only collection of demos that had been gathering dust down the back of the sofa. Again, not the most conventional thing for a band to do off of the back of a surprisingly well-performing debut, although Alex disagrees, of course. “Just put some music out; it doesn’t have to be a big deal!” he insists. “We’re constantly jamming stuff when we’re together, and we have this backlog of hundreds of songs and half-songs, so why not release it into the world? A lot of people get so fixated on the idea of a difficult second album that they get paralysed and fuck it up.
“I think also, because the debut actually did better than our label were expecting, we’ve now become this sort of antique vase that everyone wants to overmanage in case it breaks. ‘Plant Test’ was sort of a way around that. We just wanted to release something which isn’t exactly polished, but I don’t think it’s bad either. It’s just where we’re at as a band, and what’s wrong with that?
“A few of those tracks are actually from the start of the pandemic,” he continues, in full storytelling mode. “So we went over to Cornwall for a few days to record ahead of SXSW, get a few tracks started and enjoy the sea air. Then lockdown happened, and suddenly we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with two options: do some kind of Mad Max-style journey back to London and maybe eat slices of Oli’s dried thigh to keep us alive while we did so, or stay there for a few more weeks and do some more recording. It was a tight vote, but option two swung it in the end.”
Sounds idyllic, and at a time when most of the country were getting far more familiar with their living rooms than they’d like, it probably was. But Sports Team are a band that thrive on live music. Averaging “probably 150 shows a year,” before lockdown, they were suddenly a group with far more time on their hands than they were used to and, once back in London, in a house they’d rented on the assumption that they’d never really be there.
“It was horrible,” Alex groans. “We just sat around for so, so long, feeling like social media managers. It was just messages from management telling us to get a post up, and that was basically it. We felt so disconnected from everything because we weren’t fulfilling the two functions of being in a band – releasing music and playing live. So again, that was partly why we did ‘Plant Test’, just to make us feel like a proper band again.
“Not that making music is actually enjoyable, though, don’t get me wrong on that. The only fun bit of being a band is playing live. We want to play the first night we’re allowed, we’ll be there at midnight hammering on the door. Honestly, we’re all so desperate to get up on stage again – this past year had made us feel like we’ve done nothing, and you just end up beating yourself up about that and losing so much of your identity.
“You try to pretend it isn’t true, but you do end up being defined by the fact that you play live. It’s the only thing in the world that I will never be cynical about, because something in your DNA just clicks when you walk out on stage, and you carry that with you for three or four days afterwards, so to not have that changes everything.
“Every interaction we had in the year before Covid was based on having been on stage that night, so your personality twists and you just become ‘Alex Rice, stage performer!’ So to have that stripped from you is so hard, because what do you replace it with? I guess I could try drinking or hard drugs, but I don’t know if they’d quite match playing live, and they cost money, rather than bringing it in. So to summarise: morbid time, everyone has hated it.”
The end of that dark period is imminent, but with the shifting goalposts of the lockdown roadmap, coupled with a complete disregard for live music from the Tory Government, it’s only just becoming clear exactly when live music will be able to properly return. “Those glimmers of hope, things like a festival on the horizon or a show coming up, you need that to get through,” Alex says, referencing the recent cancellation of Truck as an example of an unnecessary casualty. “These things just fill me with rage, because they’re so avoidable. All the Government has to do is underwrite festival insurance, then they could plan to go ahead without worrying about financial losses, and we’d all be in a field drinking a warm Carling come mid-July.
“And what pisses me off even more, is that Tory MPs seem happy to chuck money at sport, at F1, at the Royal Albert Hall – what’s a few hundred million for some ‘high culture’ like the Royal Albert Hall? – But they absolutely refuse to engage with music aside from the huge corporate interests; it’s just bizarre. We were lucky enough as a band to struggle through over the past year, but we weren’t eligible for grants, for furlough, for anything. I don’t think the appetite for live music has gone away, and I do think the industry will bounce back, but it’s been a pretty fucking close thing, to be honest with you.”
“I guess I could try drinking or hard drugs, but I don’t know if they’d quite match playing live”Alex Rice
“Having said that, I do still think the appetite is there. In fact, it’s stronger, if anything. And I also still think we’re the best live band in the world, I really, really do. You come to our shows and you see the people that go to them, it’s a young, vibrant, diverse crowd. The 5000 tickets we sell when we inevitably sell out Brixton will be a completely different 5000 to the ones a lot of other bands sell, and we’re better for that. We haven’t had a chance to have that first album victory lap, but we’ll make up for it, I promise.”
Alex pauses to have a sip of his beer and enjoy the incredibly loud jazz music which is now filling the bar, before saying casually: “You know the thing I hate most about the music industry?” Do you hear that, readers? It’s the sound of the rest of the band sorely wishing they’d been around to change the subject when Alex says dangerous sentences like that. “What I hate most is that it’s now this culturally established thing to be a musician; it’s just normal. You get Sir Paul McCartney on the breakfast shows with no controversy at all.
“But alongside that, there’s this weird ‘true artist’ mentality that a lot of people have towards musicians, where they think these people see the world in some mysterious and unique way – which is absolute bollocks! Bands are just like everyone else, and the sooner they start admitting that, the better. If Paul McCartney is up there saying he just enjoys making music and having a laugh, then god knows some band who can hardly fill a mid-sized pub should be able to do the same, instead of pretending they’re some genius and sucking all of the joy out of the whole process.
“And without the joy, what’s left?” He continues. “God knows there’s no money in any of it. Which, on a serious note, is actually an issue. Access to being a musician is increasingly restricted, especially at the moment – Sports Team wouldn’t have made it if we were starting out now, we’d have all got other jobs instead, and that would have been the end of it. It is definitely not an equal access situation, and for bands, that’s getting worse. Bedroom pop seems to be thriving. Although I’m sure they’d also love to be playing live, playing live isn’t the core feature of what they do like it is with guitar music. This is a genre which is so viscerally about live performance, and that’s why people still like bands.
“The bottom line is that our lives are really dull, everyone else’s lives are really dull, and the only thing that punctuates that is these tiny moments of intense community, intense experience and closeness to other people. It’s such a part of who we all are that I think it’ll always find a way. A lot of venues are at risk, but the desire for gigs has increased. People want to go to shows far more than they did before, because they can’t at the moment. I have never wanted to go clubbing in my adult life, and right now, I would love to go clubbing. In a weird way, that heartens me. Independent people who are slippery and quick and have made it this far will help the industry bounce back. They’ll be the heroes, not this government which has done absolutely nothing to support any of us.”
All in all, a mixed picture for the future, but for Alex, it isn’t venues or infrastructure which provide hope; it’s the bands themselves. “Look at our bill for the Margate bus trip – it’s great, and it’s all new bands. I haven’t even met some of the bands because they weren’t really around in a big way before Covid, which is crazy. And undoubtedly at some point half of the people on that bill will surpass us in every conceivable way. I think it can be easy to paint too rosy a picture because there are a lot of bands who won’t have managed, and a lot of venues and festivals which won’t come back. But music’s still there, gigs are returning, and we’re ready to finally play a massive show at Brixton Academy and then book out a huge nightclub for the afterparty. So there’s that to look forward to at the very least.”
Interview done, we emerge from the gloom of the subterranean bar into the still bright street. “Shall we go for a final drink somewhere else?” Alex asks, before escorting us into a place called Garlic & Shots, a heavy metal bar with the aesthetic of a mid-level brasserie that forgot to take down its Halloween decorations. “I’ll have a garlic beer,” Alex tells the bartender, turning to us and adding: “Probably just the house beer, isn’t it? Can’t imagine it’s actually garlic flavoured.” A couple of minutes later, we’re sitting in the bar’s garden and watching him meticulously pick about three minced garlic cloves out of his drink while an Iron Maiden song plays out of tinny speakers above us. “Thanks for coming,” he says with a grin. “I think it all went quite well.”
Taken from the August 2021 edition of Dork, out now.