Sports Team: ‘We recognise we’re part of a system, but you have to laugh at some of it’

They’ve been criticised for their Cambridge educations and songs about middle-class suburbia, but the indie band say they’ve always been honest. They talk to Roisin O'Connor about checking their privilege, from a safe two-metre distance

Saturday 06 June 2020 13:45 BST
Sports Team: from left, Ben Mack, Oli Dewdney, Alex Rice, Al Greenwood, Rob Knaggs and Henry Young
Sports Team: from left, Ben Mack, Oli Dewdney, Alex Rice, Al Greenwood, Rob Knaggs and Henry Young (Rachael Wright)

Never has there been a stranger time to be a six-piece band releasing a debut album. Indie-rockers Sports Team usually rent a house together in Camberwell, south London – yes, they argue “a lot”, mostly about stealing each other’s food – but some members chose to isolate with family or partners elsewhere, so they’ve been trying to coordinate themselves from six different places.

First, they delayed their album, Deep Down Happy; then they brought it forward two weeks because they were “sick of waiting”. We were supposed to be meeting on Zoom, as you do now, until we realised that we lived nearby, so frontman Alex Rice and guitarist Rob Knaggs are here at a local park, drinking socially distanced beers in the sun, ready to talk.

Unsurprisingly for a band as reputedly gobby as Sports Team, their attention is not just on their debut but on Dominic Cummings, public enemy number one. “He should have been sacked,” says Rice of the prime minister’s special advisor and his now-infamous lockdown trip from London to Durham. Both Rice and Knaggs are forthright, but Knaggs, the band’s principal songwriter, is a touch more considered. “The excuses are so ludicrous that they’ve become the story,” he says, “but he’s been hugely hypocritical and endangered the very people who were following his advice.”

The band’s album launch show at the Nag’s Head, South London, pre-lockdown
The band’s album launch show at the Nag’s Head, South London, pre-lockdown (Jamie MacMillan)

Sports Team are still adjusting to the platform that comes with being a band on the rise. When they emerged in 2018 with their debut EP, Winter Nets, they attracted heat not just on account of their visceral live performances, sell out UK tours and a major label deal – but because of a few snipes about their peers. It’s hardly on the level of Johnny Borrell or Noel Gallagher, but Rice drew ire for declaring in an interview last year that Sony signees HMLTD were “one of the worst bands ever”, not content with archly referring to how they “go to Goldsmiths and dye their fringes” in their song “Camel Crew”.

Prophetically, perhaps, HMLTD have since been dropped. But taking potshots at a band for studying at Goldsmiths has rankled some people, considering that Sports Team themselves met while they were at Cambridge University. Maybe it’s the fine weather, as Rice doesn’t seem inclined to swipe at any other bands today. He does point out the rather OTT reactions to their comments: “The funny thing is, when you do it there’s this gasp, as though the singer’s going to be sat on their tour bus crying.” But it can make the subject matter of some of their songs – small-town angst; 9-5 drudgery – sound a little disingenuous, reminiscent of all those UK indie bands who arrived in the mid-Noughties trying to hide their poshness behind skinny jeans, jangly guitars and overwhelming bravado.

Rice, Knaggs and drummer Al Greenwood, whom I later speak to on the phone, say they’ve always been transparent about their origins from the start. They have said their music initially dealt with suburban mundanity (“Beverley Rose” is an early example) but have since turned their gaze to the political, Brexiteers included. “He wears a Union Jack, he wants to take us all back / He’s coming over, wants to talk about the war/ The way he’s going on you’d think he’d fought them off alone,” Rice squawks on “The Races”, about the kind of pink-faced man you’d find (pre-lockdown) muttering to himself at the end of the bar.

“I think that’s the best way to do social commentary,” Knaggs says of this kind of observation. “We’re self-aware enough to recognise we’re part of a system, but you have to laugh at some of it.” It’s this attitude that in the past has, perhaps, been mistaken for apathy; others have criticised their lyrics for lacking nuance and subtlety. They have been mocked: in a Guardian interview, Rice pondered guilelessly, “If you’re a kid from Tunbridge Wells and you’re going to Pitcher and Piano on a Thursday, where’s the music for you?”, which drew fierce criticism for their blind privilege as white, middle-class suburbanites.

Another review said the band “can’t quite shake off their entitlement” and even lambasted them for veering “dangerously close to a poverty safari” by going on annual trips to the seaside in Margate, where their manager is based. “It was b******s,” Rice says. “We had a think about whether to respond before deciding there are worse things in the world. And yes, me and Rob are privileged and middle class and lucky, but not everyone in the band is like that. We’re six very different people.” Speaking from her partner’s home in Leeds, Greenwood points out that the mere act of going to Cambridge can make “some people automatically want to call you a dick”.

‘Our live shows ... give fans a sense of community’
‘Our live shows ... give fans a sense of community’ (Jamie MacMillan)

“The ironic thing was,” she continues, “the reason [the Cambridge backlash] happened is because we tried to be open and honest about where we were from, and not try and paint ourselves as something different.” It’s something a number of bands have been criticised for, whether Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson accusing Idles of “appropriating a working class voice” or the aforementioned HMLTD adopting queer culture for their image, despite all of their members being straight. (They’ve also taken aim at Shame for posturing).

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She adds that they’re figuring out, as a band with a lot of members, how to conduct interviews where outlandish comments won’t detract from their music. “The challenge with our band is we’re six people with very strong and different opinions,” she says, and it’s problematic “when one thing gets picked and applied to the whole band. There have been some heated moments, I think it would be fair to say, in terms of comments about other bands.” Recent experiences have made them think twice about what they say. “We’re slowly learning,” she says, “that if you make a passing comment about something else that’s rare [for a band to say], that’s what [journalists are] going to take away. And on balance, is it worth it?”

Still, Sports Team demurred when their label apparently tried to go the opposite route and play up their privilege. While it’s hardly a secret that new artists are plied with social media strategies and makeovers before being marketed to the masses, it’s amusing to hear how Sports Team were almost presented by their label as the next waistcoat-sporting band, akin to their labelmates Mumford and Sons. Despite their stylist’s suggestions during an early photoshoot, guitarist Henry Young was allowed to remove the neckerchief, and Knaggs and Rice look relieved to be sitting here in shorts and T-shirts.

The band resisted a Mumford and Sons-style makeover
The band resisted a Mumford and Sons-style makeover (Rachael Wright)

Along with the social commentary on Deep Down Happy, there’s a clear appeal to a young demographic who, says Knaggs, “follow a path where you think it’s the right thing to do, but you end up with this enormous sense of yearning that there should be more to life... It’s important to recognise the mundanity and pointlessness of the work-office churn, and the way young people search for meaning.”

“There is something about modern life that people find unsatisfying,” Rice adds. “We’re not just trying to speak about it but to also provide an experience that takes people out of it, which I think has always been our live show. It’s escapism in a way, giving people a sense of community.”

It’s a shame that no one will get to see that terrific live show for the foreseeable, given the gig scene looks certain to remain on hold until 2021. In the meantime, the band have been exploring other ways to occupy themselves. Rice has taken up jogging, and jokes that he’s considerably healthier than he would have been coming back from tour. Knaggs has been writing new songs. Perhaps they’ll do a Charli XCX and end up releasing a whole new album before lockdown is out. Whatever happens, they seem determined to continue being upfront about who they are, and what they think. It’s hard to dislike them for that.

Deep Down Happy is out now

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