“It’s great here, isn’t it? Like a big prison for people who like us, and none of them are allowed to leave” – we’re all off to Margate with Sports Team

Sports Team's annual Margate bus trip has levelled up for 2021. Unfortunately for them, they've yet to stop us tagging along for the ride.

Sports Team‘s annual Margate bus trip levelled up for 2021. Unfortunately for them, they’ve yet to stop us tagging along for the ride.

Words: Jake Hawkes, Liam Konemann. Photos: Jamie MacMillan.

The important thing is, we don’t miss the bus. Sure, it’s a very close call due to someone deciding to go to the bathroom at the most inopportune moment, but everyone makes it in time, and that’s what matters. The less said about a mad dash across Liverpool Street station carrying two cartons of Signature Brew, the better. 

Longtime Sports Team Bus Trip fans will know that in previous years the in-bus temperature has been less than ideal. On the inaugural trip in 2018, there were casualties. 2019 saw a distinct improvement, and now, in 2021, we have two coaches with air conditioning. It putters along and doesn’t do much, but it exists. Before the doors are even closed, though, Bull have got out an electric guitar, a snare drum and an assortment of the kind of percussion you might find in a primary school music class – and they’re singing ‘Wonderwall’. Swings and roundabouts, eh? 

By the time the bus is weaving its way past the Docklands, a bright green trombone is in the mix. No, we don’t know either. Where does one even acquire a green trombone? And why does the lead singer of Bull know how to play ‘Valerie’ on it? 

These are the big questions that must be asked. Nevertheless, all the big singalong hits are present and accounted for – ‘A Message To You Rudy’, ‘Mardy Bum’ and, erm, ‘Will You Go Lassie Go’.

We won’t say it’s a blessing when the buses pull into the services at last, but it is worth noting that even the smallest members of the party hit their heads in a rush to get out. Those Signature Brew boxes are looking conspicuously empty though, so perhaps it’s just the pressing need for a comfort break causing the exodus. 

M&S salads and Greggs sausage rolls in hand, the Bus Trip attendees mill about inside the services and cluster on the grass outside for some good old fashioned summer fun. Bull get an increasingly theatrical game of frisbee going. Someone holding a microphone asks a nearby labradoodle for comment. Sports Team’s Alex Rice confidently informs a fan they have another twenty minutes before the bus leaves. No such schedule exists.

Back outside in the sunshine, someone notes there’d be no way to tell if anyone got left behind. There are no headcounts, no names to tick off on a clipboard. Team Dork make another ill-timed trip to the bathroom, and are lucky disaster does not ensue. The buses press on. 

As the convoy of two rattles into Margate, the Bull-led singalong reaches a truly piss-taking volume. The driver loves us.  

Then the atmosphere changes. Even with the windows closed, you can sense the sea air. Someone – in their defence, not a member of the band themselves – plays Sports Team’s ‘Margate’ through a minuscule speaker. The bus rounds a corner, and then there it is. The sea. What a sight for sore eyes. 

The hordes are released on Dreamland. The rollercoaster is closed, but never fear, Dear Reader. We’ll get by on the thrill of pure, unadulterated live music alone. 

Also, the dodgems are open. 

As we stand and watch Rob Knaggs and Alex Rice of Sports Team infamy attempt to roller-skate, we can’t help but wonder: what are we doing with our lives? And yet the hard work of the indie music scribbler never stops, meaning that after a very wobbly couple of laps of the deserted Dreamland roller disco, we finally manage to convince the two of them to sit down and talk to us.

“It’s great here, isn’t it?” says Alex. “Like a big prison for people who like us, and none of them are allowed to leave, which keeps capacity nice and high. This is literally my fantasy – theme park rides, people that love you and free beers!” With that last exclamation, he knocks his entire free beer over the table, coating our recording equipment in a fine film of lager (and we still can’t get rid of the smell – Ed).

“I really like Margate,” says Rob, watching Alex wipe the spillage onto the floor with his hand. “Henry, Ben and I moved down here, and it’s much nicer than London. Loads of rides and chip shops and arcades, and everyone has a dog. Loads of bands and creative spaces, too – a real home away from home.” 

“Our greatest threat is from Courting. Little known fact is that they were created by the label just in case at any point we’re incapacitated. They’d dress Courting up, and nobody would ever know”

Rob Knaggs, Sports Team

Despite being nicely settled in the very place they were putting on a big gig, Rob, Henry and Ben were still forced by the rest of the band to get a train to London and partake in the ritualistic bus trip which bookends their annual event. “I was reluctant, but it was genuinely lovely,” he admits. “Everyone was having a great time, Bull were playing amazing cover versions of little known songs like Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’, just lovely stuff. Also, a lot of free beers, and I got to sit at the front and pretend to drive. Plus, only one person smoked on the bus, which is a real win.”

“I was on the other bus,” says Alex, wiping the rest of the beer on his trousers. “The single-decker, a nice calm moment with my thoughts, away from it all. Just me, Crazy Oli and Cool Ben. I just thought to myself: ‘I’m not going to go to bed later thinking I haven’t had enough fun, or I haven’t drunk enough hot lager on the bus down to Margate, so why not relax for a couple of hours instead?’” And what does he say to allegations that the rest of the band refuse to speak to him? “I had half the band!” He protests, pausing before adding. “Well, Al did leave my bus actually…”

Bull kick off the afternoon, somehow not worn out yet despite having played for an hour and a half on the drive down. It’s very normal that the singer drapes a tea towel over his head while playing. It is! 

Now, at this point, it’s worth mentioning that this is not just Sports Team’s Ego Trip. We are here by the grey English seaside to watch some bands, yes, but also to support those in live music who haven’t been able to work during the course of the pandemic. For those who let us rock, we salute you. 

Right. Back to the bands. 

After Jalen N’Gonda helps everybody chill the hell out with some soothing soul, English Teacher rock up to play latest single ‘R&B’. And others, obviously. Having spent most of their life so far as a band during pandemic times, English Teacher feel so fresh it’s like they’re practically brand new out the box, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing. 

Elsewhere, after pints and pizzas and with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, posses are assembled to take on the dodgems. Rumour has it Sports Team’s Alex Rice was hiding in there alone to avoid talking to Dork, but those reports go unconfirmed. Are we being lied to? You be the judge. 

How was your set?

Sean Murphy-O’Neill: It’s so nice to be able to get behind the stage after 18 months of doing absolutely nothing. Or on top of the stage, whichever is the correct term. I’m really badly sunburned, though, sort of tomato coloured, so that isn’t great.

Sean Thomas: But the sun was just our spotlight, shining on the gig.

Sean M: That is profound and beautiful; thanks for sharing.

If Sean Murphy-O’Neil, frontman of Courting, could bodyswap with any person from a day, it would be Elsa from Frozen. Not sure what we do with that, really.

This is the third seaside town you’ve been to in the past week, what’s been your favourite?

Sean T: We went to Blackpool a week ago today…

Sean M: We went to Blackpool to celebrate my 20th birthday, and we experienced four levels of G-force on the Pepsi Max Big One. It was truly, truly exciting. 

Sean T: And then we went to Crosby beach near us. Less exciting, but a nice beach.

What’s been your highlight of the day?

Sean M: Lowlight was not putting suncream on. Highlight will be putting moisturiser on this evening.

Sean T: I’m smarter than Sean. You know what I always say to him? Put on suncream. And you know what he doesn’t ever do? Put on suncream. That doesn’t answer your question, though. Highlight was probably playing the show; that was exciting. Our last shows were a year and a half ago, and in basements, so this is such a huge step up.

Sean M: You don’t get sunburned in a basement, though.

Sean T: You don’t, but you do get very sweaty. It was just great today, to hear everyone sing along, and chant our name; that was pretty insane. They didn’t shout Sean, though; they shouted ‘Courting’, whatever that means.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining on Courting. Maybe a little bit too much for their liking, actually, as frontman Sean is wearing a vest and can be heard bemoaning his horrifically sunburnt shoulders for the rest of the evening. They don’t get much sun up there in Liverpool. Their energy is irrepressible, though, and alongside ‘Grand National’, Courting play two new tracks – bangers both, naturally. 

As deep tan take the stage with their modern new wave, members of Sports Team and Courting engage in some definitely Dreamland-sanctioned backstage roller disco. The backstage bar is looking a little depleted at this point, so we’ll leave you to draw your own connections there. Then it’s on to TV Priest’s sharp-set and some instrumentals from Los Bitchos, as the sun starts to go down and the breeze picks up. 

How was the gig?

Charlie Drinkwater: Yeah, it was great, really good. *laughs* I don’t know how to respond, I’ve been in my house for so long, and now I’m actually speaking to a person; it’s quite weird!

How was it being back on stage after all this time?

C: It was really, really fun; I had an absolute fucking blast. I cannot say enough superlative words about how good it was. It was nice to be playing with our friends and to just be with a load of other bands as well. That’s why I got into a band. It’s nice and fun and good.

Why didn’t you get the bus down?

C: I had a hard veto from my wife, who called it ‘the Covid wagon’, so I drove a van full of gear over instead. But I’ve been twice before, so I feel I’ve had the bus experience. I feel like that was a past life for me, which I’m happy for, but I’m now older, maybe wiser, who knows? But I’ve progressed now to air conditioning.

TV Priest frontman Charlie Drinkwater admits then when it comes to birds, he “likes a chiffchaff”.

How’s being down at the seaside?

C: Normally, I’m just north of London, so I’m loving it. Loving it large, as they say. Haven’t actually seen the sea yet, or maybe I have once? Staff here are lovely as well, four stars on TripAdvisor.

What’s been your highlight of the day?

C: Meeting bands, meeting people, seeing people play. Something niche though, really into the Formica tables that we’ve got here. I’m into it. It’s a wipe-clean surface, you can get different colours, it’s nice.

Any plans for the future?

C: We’re writing another album as we speak. Literally, as we speak – this interview will be an ambient track for it. We’re still on Sub Pop, which is great, but we’re doing all the recording ourselves. We’re just getting ready to play lots, hopefully. But the new album is really exciting; I’m hoping it showcases some different… motifs? Vibes, let’s say that.

Finally, the hour is upon us. Cometh the Bus Trip, cometh the band. 

For all we like to tease, Sports Team just never disappoint. It helps that they’ve got bangers for days. Kicking off with ‘Here It Comes Again’, Sports Team barrel through recent single ‘Happy (Gods Own Country)’ and the requisite ‘Margate’ with fizzing energy, Alex Rice bounding back and forth across the stage like a wind-up toy.

When Rob Knaggs steps up to deliver his vocal on ‘Long Hot Summer’, Alex “tries something out” and slings Rob’s guitar strap over his head, strumming away. And he does pretty good, you know? We can’t fault him. Nor can we fault the unmitigated hit parade that forms the rest of the set, from the anthemic ‘Camel Crew’ to snarky ‘Here’s the Thing’ and closer ‘Stanton’. By the time the lights go down, everyone is sweaty, and hoarse, and happy. Who could ask for more?

Live music is back in business, baby.

Taken from the September 2021 edition of Dork, out now.

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