Sitting round a pub table with the six members of Sports Team is a little like watching the band play live. There’s the hustle and bustle, the verbal and physical tussle, the sense that you’re witnessing the modern-day equivalent of medieval jousting — that things could kick off, get a bit tasty, at any moment. Just like their songs, in person the band are vexatious, fleet of foot, quick on the draw, finding common purpose one minute, fragmenting into splinter groups the next. You find yourself marvelling that they ever get anything done — but that quickly gives way to the realisation that what you’re overhearing in the pub is what you hear in the songs, too. An endless back-and-forth with no give or take, a succession of vivid snapshots of modern Britain and the follies, foibles and frustrations of youth. “We’ve been told to disagree more,” says songwriter and guitarist Rob Knaggs. “That, rather than flailing outwards, we do it inwards. So that it becomes like watching a dog fight.” He says this in the middle of a lengthy encounter that calls to mind a loving but fractious family, bickering one minute, weeping with laughter the next. God knows what flailing inwards looks like, but this is ripe enough.
“You can always go to London.” That phrase occurs both at the beginning and at the end of Sports Team’s astonishing debut album Deep Down Happy — a record that alternately celebrates and excoriates the banal, prosaic and mundane, the claustrophobia, bigotry, community and creative fecundity of suburban life. Everyone in the band has experienced it, and sought an escape route. This they found firstly in Cambridge, and latterly in London. They had a cage to rattle, and music gave them the means to do it. Although an intrinsically social enterprise, they were deadly serious about the band from the get-go, says Rob. “When we first started, it’s not like we made a blood pact, or sat down and vowed that we would see it through to the three-star NME review — but we weren’t doing it just for fun, or to play covers and pose. We were doing it because we wanted to be a proper band, writing songs, playing gigs. Not a hobby band, not a five-a-side football band.” “The ambition was always there,” adds bassist Oli Dewdney. “Even when we had no songs, no demos, no nothing, we’d email major labels basically saying, ‘You should sign us now.’” Drummer Al Greenwood says the DIY ethos of the early days was a key bonding experience. “It really grew out of a love of playing live. Even when we had nothing, we’d plan the gig all day, we’d troop around the city centre buying charity-shop paintings and use them as our backdrop. It was all about the fun and energy that we had, and hoping that other people got off on that.”
After living together in various combinations since meeting at university, all six of them are now sharing a house in Camberwell. Pity the poor neighbours. What can they expect, I ask? “The full spectrum,” says Alex Rice, lead singer, ominously. “We’ve only been there two nights and we’ve probably already made quite a significant impression.” (You suspect that’s an understatement.) The band’s tour van is proving contentious, hogging the space outside. “There’s not enough parking for every house, and there’s this WhatsApp neighbours group that’s a bit prickly. I can see that being a problem.” Oh, you think?
A reputation for wild gigs, lippy, hostage-to-fortune proclamations, a boisterous army of fans and some legendary after-partying has sometimes followed the band and, while that’s a fun detail, and not without some truth, it has threatened to obscure the genius of their snap-crackle pop songs and the passion with which they approach every aspect of what they do. Some of the labels that have been attached to them — that because of the uni they went to they’re posh, that they’re dilettantes, dabbling in music rather than fiercely committed to it — are hilariously wide of the mark. They hail from all over the place — both Rob and Alex’s childhood was geographically scattered to the four winds; the others come from Cornwall, Leeds, Tunbridge Wells and Sheffield. And the scabrous songs on Deep Down Happy aren’t the work of people who are just playing at it; they’re sharply drawn pen portraits of smalltown suffocation, inequality and escapism, Pulp-like in their unblinking vividness and truth. “I think the reason those labels came about,” muses Al, “is that we were seeing with other bands a complete inauthenticity in their trying to inhabit another world that is clearly not true; and in trying to avoid that and instead be open and honest, I think that has tended to be misconstrued as our trying to shout about it and project this ‘thing’. It would be good to feel that, by now, it’s all about the album and how good the music is; rather than, like, ‘Are they all from Tunbridge Wells, then?’”
Rob, a bit like a professor in a laboratory, mints the songs, and is then forced to watch his babies fall into the clutches of the other five. “I remember reading a Pavement interview and the writer saying that the band worked because they stopped Stephen Malkmus being just pop. Cut Your Hair could have been a huge radio hit, but instead it was an alternative-radio classic that was this weird and terrifying thing. With us, I’ll write a song and think it’s the next Imagine and then we’ll go into the rehearsal studio and I’ll spend the next week sulking because they’ve all destroyed my beautiful vision. Ricey will have some avant garde ideas for the melody, Oli will change the bassline.” “And they change so much when we play them live,” adds Al. “That’s when you discover the key moments in each song. You can record a song, then learn how to play it live, and when you get the master back, go: ‘Hang on, this isn’t the song.’” When Oli first joined, he sometimes struggled to work out which song the band was playing. “Even now,” laughs Rob, “endings to songs are a big issue. We’ll often start a new song and have a verse, and you’d think: ‘Hang on, I’ve written the end now. To the one we were playing before!” “Oli’s always the policeman for that,” says Al. “I’ll often be sitting there thinking, ‘This is really great’, and he’ll say, ‘It’s a different song!’
Documenting modern Britain in all its messy complexity, and their own lives as young tyros fine-tuning their plan to ravish the charts, songs such as Fishing, Here’s the Thing, Stations of the Cross and Lander manage to be both affectionate and disdainful — much like the band’s oft-cited folk hero John Betjeman, whose poems and documentaries poked around suburban habitats with appalled fascination. But they can take the gloves off, too: The Races lays into the gammon brigade with undisguised contempt. The 12 tracks on Deep Down Happy add up to a biting and unblinking survey of contemporary society. Their word-perfect fans are with them every step of the way. “We meet all our fans and they are by and large young, and it’s a real community,” says Alex with obvious pride. “And the thing that really comes across is that what they most hate is being patronised; they’re completely engaged and sussed. They don’t want someone looking down on them because of where they live. All our fans have got our numbers on this WhatsApp group. They’ll be coming round the house, I’m sure. So in that sense, it is more than only the music — it’s a gang. And I think that the reason why guitar music has got any life in it left is because there’s this identity to this group of people, a dynamic, and you can buy into it. That’s surely the most appealing thing about any band, and always will be.”
Many of those fans have been with them since the early days — though not, it becomes clear, in sufficient numbers to prevent some car-crash gigs at the very start. “The first gig I played with them was at this venue that was set over three floors,” says Oli. “Our old guitarist Jerry convinced the promoter that we’d get 200 people down, at least. There must have been fewer people in the crowd than there were on stage.” “And the music was playing through the speakers on all three floors of the club,” adds Rob. “And they’d staffed all of the floors,” Oli continues, “so there were these completely empty bars, with these bouncers. That was my first gig, and I thought it would be the last.”
“When we did our first gigs,” says Alex, “our mates didn’t want to come and see guitar music. You’d have to drag them down and buy every single one of them a drink. You’d have this audience was basically not interested, so it was a case of, ‘Ok, tell a few jokes, have some bizarre gimmicks, really go for it.’”
Another show in Brighton witnessed what must surely be a live circuit first. “I actually got heckled by the sound man,” says Alex, with delight. “Ricey was throwing the microphone about,” says Oli, “and we heard the sound guy heckling him through the monitors. Ricey thought it was coming through the PA so he was really coming back at him, but it was this one-way conversation and you could see the audience going, ‘Huh?’”
As they gear up for the release of Deep Down Happy, the band speculate about how it will be received. “There’s almost this requirement to have a narrative about your album,” says Al, “but to us, we recorded it piecemeal, in gaps between touring, so it’s quite difficult to ‘see’ it from an objective point of view, and take a particular line on it.” “To me,” says Alex, “it’s about the combination of English lyricism and a certain flamboyance, but with a visceral guitar sound that’s more like Iggy Pop or Pavement or Parquet Courts.”
For now, they’ve got a new place to settle into, and neighbours to annoy. Camberwell’s answer to the Riot House? We shall see. It beats his old place, says keyboardist Ben. “Me, Alex and Henry have been living in the rehearsal room for 18 months. It was meant to be a two-month thing.” “My bed was by my amp,” says guitarist Henry, “and I’m quite a heavy sleeper.” “There’d be mornings,” Al says, “where I’d have to do a couple of paradiddles to wake him up.”
On the cusp of releasing a sensational debut album, the six of them confess to feeling slightly amazed that they’ve got to this point, and to having moments where they can get a bit nostalgic. “Lots of bands do that recording-in-the-bedroom thing and put songs out,” says Alex, “and then work out how to play live. We did it the other way round. We met this guy called Dave McCracken at the Old Blue Last, and he said he’d got this studio in Hammersmith, and that we could record there after work.” “It took a lot of learning,” adds Al. “At the start, we’d be like, ‘Finish work, go to the pub, pop into the studio and play the song live a couple of times — awesome! Back to the pub!’ You listen now and there was no click track, just the six of us rattling through it, so the time shifts are shocking. Going from that to recording with Burke Reid, who’s worked with Courtney Barnett, has been such a different process. It’s so much more intense and mapped out.”
“We were all working normal jobs,” Alex recalls, “and hating them. We’d get there at seven each night and think, ‘There has to be something more than this.’ We’d work till midnight, then stay up till three or four, and then go into work the next morning. I don’t know how we stayed employed.”
Well, it turned out there was something “more than this”. It’s called Deep Down Happy: 12 scabrous vignettes about the trials and tribulations, the hopes and the dreams, of young Brits — and about the obstacles they face. Made to be played at maximum, neighbour-riling volume. Or sung along to at one of the band’s notoriously incendiary shows. But no heckling, please. That’s a job for the soundman.