With their new album ‘Gulp!’ finally here, it’s time for the second coming of Sports Team.
Words: Jake Hawkes. Photos: Patrick Gunning.
It’s the classic indie band pipeline: first, you write some songs about flip-phones, motorways and middle England, then you plan an annual bus trip to Margate, sign to a major label and narrowly lose a chart battle against a completely disinterested US megastar.
Okay, so none of that is exactly the standard route, but it’s the one Sports Team have somehow taken since they burst onto the scene a few years ago. Debut album ‘Deep Down Happy’ kicked off the first of about three thousand chart battles which filled the bleak, empty days of lockdown, with the band squaring off against Lady Gaga and gracefully losing after accidentally selling their album too cheap on Google Play.
“Did you know you can’t sell your album for 99p because then they disqualify all the sales – who would’ve guessed?” says frontman Alex Rice with a grin as we discuss things the band might do differently for album two. We find him and the rest of the band out the back of a pub in East London. Inside, the bartender changes a lightbulb while the only other customer plays pool against himself. Rumours abound of a ‘quirky’ L-shaped pool table, but it’s hard to make out in the bulb-less gloom. “Great little pub, this,” says Alex, although presumably, it’s the proximity to the band’s rehearsal space he enjoys rather than the mid-afternoon ambience.
One of the reasons for the rehearsals is the upcoming release of the band’s second album, ‘Gulp!’. The title (and the alternative album artwork, drawn by the band’s keyboardist Ben Mack) is a reference to the feeling of putting a new album out, which Alex describes as “wondering if you’re Wile E. Coyote hovering over the edge of a cliff and about to fall.”
The album itself is both a marked departure from ‘Deep Down Happy’, but also follows the same threads laid out by tracks like ‘Lander’ on the debut – a willingness to experiment without abandoning the sound they’re known for. ‘Gulp!’ has classic Sports Team moments in the form of ‘R Entertainment’ and ‘The Game’, but it also has pianos, a snippet of a children’s chorus, and even a banjo.
“Oh god, we wasted so much time on the banjo,” groans guitarist-slash-songwriter Rob.
“I think you’ll find it was pretty much a one-take wonder,” counters guitarist Henry, to laughs from the rest of the band.
However long the banjo took, the result is a very different album, but one that’s still unmistakeably Sports Team through and through. Gone too are the lyrics about hyper-local English minutiae, replaced by far more universal themes. “Hopefully, people will be able to relate to this one wherever they’re from,” says Alex. “It’s a bit more ‘human-themed’ than the debut. I think it’s also a bit more mature. It just sounds a bit fuller, really.
“We just realised we had to acknowledge that we’re detached from those regionalised experiences of the first album. We’ve been in a band full-time for five years now, so I don’t think there’s any way we can pretend we have these normal life experiences anymore. That’s not to say we’re huge stars,” he adds with a laugh. “We’re just in a different place to the one we were in when we wrote the songs for the first album, and the lyrics reflect that. The one constant we do have is that the six of us see each other all the time, and that dynamic brings out love and hatred and all those sorts of things, which to me is what a lot of these songs are about.”
Alongside the love and hatred, there are also a lot of lyrics about death on ‘Gulp!’. Whether it’s ‘The Drop’ opening with the lyrics “Katie died / Just waiting for the right time to retire”, or ‘Getting Better’s acknowledgement that “Every foot you place / Is just another step into the grave”, the possibility of a swift exit from the world is never far away.
“Singing about depressing stuff is freeing”Rob Knaggs
“Classic universal theme, that,” deadpans bassist Oli. That may be the case, but we do have one question for the band in light of the topic choice – is everything ok, or has hitting their late twenties caused an existential crisis?
“Early 20s, actually,” says drummer Al, willing a Wikipedia change into existence.
“If you could start this with ‘As Sports Team move out of their teens…’ that’d be great,” adds Rob.
“I think it’s more regular reminders of death than a fear of it, to be honest with you,” says Alex. “I’m just spitballing here, but do you ever really grow up when you never change the people you’re with? People always say this cliched thing about how celebrities get stuck in the era they ‘made it’, so maybe that’s part of it.
“We still feel like we’ve just quit our jobs and are incredibly excited to be in a band. We’ve never got past that, especially as we never got to do it last time. So time moves on, but we haven’t really. We’re still giddy about everything, which is a bit of a juxtaposition. I do also think the ‘template’ for a happy life has disintegrated a bit. There was probably a time in the past when you knew what you were supposed to do in life a bit more, and what the steps were to reaching contentment. Whereas now, a lot of the people I know who are the least happy are those that are super engaged in issues, because it can be quite bleak.” He pauses, adding: “Although, of course, we don’t know too much about that, because we’re all making music around our school commitments right now – we are a very youthful band of fresh-faced teens.” (Good save, Alex – Ed.)
“There’s a catharsis in there, too,” says Rob. “Singing about depressing stuff is freeing in a lot of ways. There’s a feeling that you don’t have to constantly pretend everything’s great, and of course, there’s darker stuff around. It’s the juxtaposition that makes it work.”
This expansion into broader themes is partly a side-effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sports Team’s packed touring schedule suddenly ground to a halt just before the release of their debut, and the band were left with nothing to do but stare at the walls or start work on album two. This was an unwelcome change in gear for a band built around their live shows, but it did give them more breathing room than they’d had in years.
“We were very much forced into a position where we had time to work on album two, because we’d put so long aside for touring, and none of that ended up happening,” explains Oli. “It felt like we weren’t quite ready, but we went straight into the studio regardless, which I think was the right choice in the end.”
This extended period with nothing to do but think about the album has led to a fuller and more fleshed-out release than the debut, both instrumentally and thematically. Despite this, Sports Team are still a band in the business of making songs which sound good live, and the pull towards depth mercifully hasn’t resulted in a full-blown concept album.
“We’re not Pink Floyd or Kate Bush!” says Rob with a laugh. “We’re not going to sit down and write a whole record about someone drowning. It just isn’t us. The first record had more localised themes and was tied to a sense of place, and equally, this one has threads running through it which make it feel like more than just a bundle of songs, but it is still a set of individual tracks. We want every song to feel like it can stand alone. There’s no joy in tracks two, three and four only existing to set up the narrative for track five – where’s the fun in that?”
The shift in gears extends beyond the lyrical themes and into the instruments in use – as the controversial banjo playing shows. It’s two steps forward for a band who have always been comfortable venturing just enough outside their comfort zone to get people’s attention while also not jumping so far away that they alienate their intensely loyal fanbase. It’s a confidence that never bubbles over into a detachment from what makes the band work, both live and in the studio.
“The extra time definitely gave us the luxury of experimentation,” says Al. “I think that enables the album to have so much more depth and contrast than the debut. Some of the lead lines in tracks like ‘The Drop’ just wouldn’t have happened on the first album because we weren’t writing around Ben playing synth, for example.”
“As well as the extra time, we also realised that we can always win the tent if we try hard enough,” adds Alex. “You can always walk out to a crowd and put the work in to win them over, which is a freeing thought to have.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re as happy playing a Brixton headline show as a pub”Alex Rice
“We listened to loads of Bryan Ferry before we recorded ‘Gulp!’ and just had this epiphany that music can be big and ambitious and next level, while still being engaging and catchy. I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve made it to being a stadium rock band, but you learn a little bit more every time you go onto a slightly bigger stage. It’s a constant experiment in what works and what doesn’t.
“We’ve always written to play live, and as our live situation changes we need songs that sound different. You can’t walk out to twenty thousand people and exclusively play scrappy tracks with jangly guitar lines – you need variety. We’re getting to the point where we’re as happy playing a Brixton headline show as a pub, which is great. I also think any crowd gives you this primal reaction when you go up on stage, and I don’t think you could ever put that in the locker and go pro. Even a crowd that hates you is going to inspire an adrenaline rush – it’s fight or flight!
“Having said that, it is tough when you play a new track and people don’t know the words,” he continues. “We’re used to it because we did so many gigs before we’d put anything at all out, but it’s such a stark change when you record something, put it online and suddenly people turn up and sing along. Even now, we look at setlists and we’re quite conscious of where the new songs go, because they do have to be broken in somewhat – nobody wants to stand there while you play three tracks they’ve never heard before.”
With the album campaign now in full swing, the band are using every tool in their arsenal to ensure people engage with the new songs and get to know them just as well as the old favourites. To this end, they pulled out all the stops for the music video for ‘The Game’, booking everyone’s favourite celebrity… John Otway?
“Let me tell you about John Otway,” opens Alex, leaning in. “John Otway is a man who played market squares in Aylesbury years ago, then got signed to a massive million-pound record deal because people thought he was going to be the new face of punk music. He goes on live TV, jumps over his bandmate’s amp and lands square on his balls, which went whatever the 1980s equivalent of viral is. Now there’s a character arc.
“Jokes aside, though, he does all these stunts like asking his fans to vote for one of his lyrics as the greatest lyric of all time and then somehow coming above ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. He mobilises this devoted fanbase to make everyone else look ridiculous – something we’re very keen to emulate. He showed us that you can change the world with a few thousand people and build your own fantasy.” Alex takes a sip of beer. “Oh, he also agreed to do the video basically instantly, so that was good.”
“We also told him the morning of the shoot that we were gonna put a load of snakes around his neck, and he was totally fine with it,” adds Henry.
Even with the context, it’s a left-field choice. But Sports Team have always been a left-field band, roping in Jeremy Wade, host of TV show River Monsters, to do a plug for their last album, and posing for photos backstage with Rick Astley.
“We’ve always been the outsiders of the whole thing,” acknowledges Alex. “We’ve never been critical darlings – we’ve always had to go and win people over, gig by gig. We’ve developed this sense of trying to entertain people on a basic level, rather than trying to make people believe we’re the coolest band ever. It’s an attitude that may backfire, because if you look like you don’t want to be there, you can never fail. You just pretend you didn’t want to be there anyway, so you don’t care. It takes a special kind of courage to walk on stage and make it immediately clear that you really, really need this,” he says with a laugh.
“Speaking of which, you know A-ha?” It’s not the opener we were expecting, but Alex pushes on regardless. “They played the day before us in Norway recently, and Rob told me that A-ha had an iconic dance they always did on stage. It’s sort of…” he mimes, punching both fists downwards very quickly. “Anyway, to cut a long story short, I did it on stage, and everyone was incredibly confused – didn’t have the barnstorming response I was hoping for.”
“Our tour manager told me that it’s actually [early-80s Men Without Hats classic] ‘The Safety Dance’, and has nothing to do with A-ha,” Oli says, offering a potential explanation for why it fell a bit flat.
Despite the novelty 1980s dance moves (and definitely not because of them), being honest about how hard they’re trying is a path that’s worked for Sports Team. They sold out a much-delayed Brixton Academy show to celebrate the new album, and have planned a special gig at the Roundhouse in London for album two. And they’ve done it all while making it incredibly obvious how much they love playing.
“I’d say to anyone starting a band now, alongside the live stuff and the willingness to be excited about doing what is essentially the best job in the world, just sound different to everything else,” says Alex. “It stands out so much when you hear something fresh and unique, and you can literally draw from absolutely everything. You can go and listen to the entire Queen back catalogue before you even touch any of the new music playlists.
“I genuinely think we sound completely different to any other band around at the moment. Whether it’s good different or bad different is another thing, but we can at least promise you’re getting something different. It doesn’t necessarily have to be complex… as long as you avoid sounding very, very bad – that’s the real key.” ■
Taken from the September 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Sports Team’s album ‘Gulp!’ is out 23rd September.