Somewhere down the line, for one reason or another, guitar music lost its bravado. The well-thumbed story of the six-string being dead may be a load of old tosh, yet if you had to name the genre’s biggest characters, spewing headline-worthy quotes in their sleep and becoming memes without even trying, they’d probably still look distinctly Gallagher-shaped (with Alex Turner the millennial addition).
Still, it’s been a while since such a character barked their way to the front of the fresh pack with the swagger of Alex Rice, and it’s been almost as long since there’s been a band with quite as much bolshiness and theatricality as Sports Team.
Take the group’s recent show at London’s Scala. A lofty booking and a risk (by their own admission), the months in the run-up to the show saw tweet after tweet from the band mocking their own confidence, talking of venue capacity and “gentlemen’s sell-outs” on a daily basis. Come the evening itself it’s an actual sell-out - a proper, pinned-against-the-wall-at-the-back one at that. Alex stands atop a speaker stack, hands on hips, a flamboyant overseer of the chaos below. Songs like ‘Kutcher’ and ‘Winter Nets’ are received like anthems-in-waiting, bellowed back at the band from the depths of a sweaty, fevered moshpit. Balloons rain down for a triumphant closing of ‘Stanton’. They walk on stage to Robbie’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’, for heaven’s sake. It’s absurd, commendable and very exciting.
The band have now announced a significantly larger show in the capital - the Electric Ballroom in March. As testament to their swelling popularity, it doesn’t even feel like too much of a risk this time. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Alex, so a few months back he legitimately looked into booking Wembley Arena for 2021. Sadly, they don’t take bookings three years in advance, he tells us, completely straight-faced. Whether you choose to believe him or not, there’s a world-conquering attitude to Sports Team. Draped in sarcasm it might be, but just look at where bands with the limitless enthusiasm and ambition of this six have gone before.
“The best way you can hang out with your mates is to form a band.”
— Alex Rice
Formed while studying at Cambridge University, the six-piece - completed by guitarist and songwriter Rob Knaggs, guitarist Henry Young, drummer Al Greenwood, bassist Oli Dewdney and keyboardist/professional staring contestant/the band’s very own Bez, Ben Mac - started Sports Team, in Rob's words, "'cause we wanted to be in a band and we all love it. We could go and play at Veg Bar in Brixton back in the day, to like five people, and come out feeling like we’d done Knebworth."
"The best way you can hang out with your mates is to form a band, believe me," Alex confirms. "It’s the best way to be a group, being a gang. What do you get to do? Go around Europe together in a van and shout at people every night? Brilliant." Though obviously they now find themselves metaphorical miles away from the Veg Bar days, there's an unwavering passion and commitment evident with Sports Team, something not tied to venue capacities or traditional ideas of success. Six best friends who also live together, they've become a gang in the truest sense.
"We’d known each other a long time before the band," Rob says, "Every time we meet a producer, they'll say 'You guys are reeeally horrible to each other. It’s funny, but like, it’s genuinely cruel'. We've got to the point where we can say literally anything to each other, which is good, because you see bands who've got together quickly, basically off the back of meeting as musicians, and it gets difficult when it gets up close and personal. But for us…" "it’s always been personal," Al finishes off.
"And I think we’ve always felt ambitious," Alex continues. "Genuinely, as soon as we started the band, we felt it could go a long way. We've always had that ambition to write amazing songs and put on enormous gigs."
"I feel like some bands, they form and suddenly have like 10 labels looking at them, and stuff gets taken for granted," Rob says of their journey up to now, "whereas every bit of hype we’ve had, it feels like we’ve grafted for."
"Pleeease don’t pitch us as grafters," Alex quips back quickly, gesturing in our direction. "If you could call it meteoric that’d be great." "I feel like we have different takes, Rice and I," Rob - the band's principal songwriter - laughs. "I'm down in the engine room, trying to write songs, whereas this guy… You push him on stage and it's like, 'HELLO! IT’S ME!'"
"'Ooooh I like to dance!'" Al mimics with fervent hand gestures, to the frontman's despair. "It's actually VERY hard."
“That’s what guitar music’s lost recently - it should be really polarising.”
— Alex Rice
In Alex, Sports Team have a true frontman. He commands the band's live show with a genuinely intoxicating stage presence, adding buckets of personality to a band already overflowing with it. He's also got the chat to back it up, side-swiping every buzz band in sight in harmless and often hilarious faux-beef, while at the same time truly believing that Sports Team are the best of the lot. He's a one-man quote machine providing a sense of grandeur that's sorely missing in guitar music at the moment.
"People like it because it's better than the other stuff out there," he lays out simply. "It is, it really is. It's better. They should like it." 'It' in this sentence, to clarify, is his band. "You look at the [success of the] Gallaghers this year, people do seem to miss arrogance," Rob is quick to agree. "The guy who was promoting our show at Scala used to be in Viva Brother. He was a lovely bloke, but said 'You know, it was a joke for us as well, but after about six months we became pricks, and no one got the joke anymore, and it suddenly overtook us.'"
"It’s not a bit by the way - I genuinely think we’re better than…" the frontman bites back in, refusing to let the point go. "No, Rice does think that," Rob near-sighs.
"Who do you think’s better?!" Alex questions, before continuing. "It’s great when people actually really slate people and have an opinion. That's what guitar music's lost recently. It should be really polarising. It should be like gang stuff. You should hate bands as much as you love them."
“I think a lot of indie bands at the moment, they forget the bit where you have to actually do fun nights.”
— Alex Rice
Sports Team's swipes at their contemporaries may all be pretty humorous, but they come from a genuine place of wanting the British guitar music scene to be better, more vibrant and more varied, and for bands to put on truly memorable live shows too. Never in danger of talking the talk but not walking the walk, their Scala show saw them follow through with their promise from DIY's June 2018 interview and construct their very own shark mascot, which sat atop a speaker stack at the side of the stage.
They're also putting their money where their mouth is, setting up new label Holm Front, with a first release from Cambridge weirdo rockers UGLY. "We’re quite opinionated about the bands we like, and the bands we don’t like," Alex smirks. "[The label is] us saying 'Look, this is what we think guitar music should be, and this is how it’s gonna get cool, and these are the bands we like'."
"We’re very conscious of the live stuff," the frontman continues. "The achievements of, say, radio plays, or streams, or press are obviously fantastic but nothing actually changes for you in your life until you're in front of a thousand people. The live moments are the ones where you feel like you've achieved something, and when you feel like you’re doing well as a band.
"I think a lot of indie bands at the moment, they forget the bit where you have to actually do fun nights. It has to be fun, and interesting. We always feel slightly apart from a bunch of those bands. For us, it's a case of 'Can you actually make a show? Can you make your music feel uplifting?' If you're going to make art, and put on shows, and [want people to] actually buy a ticket, and travel, and take the day off work… You want them to come out joyful."
“It feels like an identity thing, coming to see Sports Team, which I don’t think a lot of bands have.”
— Alex Rice
"There’s enough shit going on currently in the socio-political climate to shout about," Al notes. "[We're] not necessarily saying 'Everything is fine' but there are still things to celebrate." "You go to shows in London, and the band will seem bored, and the events will be crap," continues Alex, on a rant now. "It’s that sense of 'You’ve got this huge stage, and huge forum, and you're just gonna stand there and do nothing?!' Going to those gigs isn't fun, and you come out and say 'Well yeah, that was pretty good...' and actually you've spent £50 on that day, on travel, drinks, tickets, and at the end you're not happier.
"A handful of obsessives is always better than a hundred thousand casual streamers," the frontman hammers home, the community already being forged around the band's live show there for proof. "You go to our gigs, and people are pretty obsessed. It feels like an identity thing, coming to see Sports Team, which I don’t think a lot of bands have."
With the confidence, the chat, the gang mentality and - most importantly - the songs to take them a long way, Sports Team make devotion easy, and there are few bands around who'll give you more bang for your buck.
"[Guitar music] is only a sense of self-confidence away from being [held up as great and important] again," Alex theorises. "I really think that. As soon as someone says 'This is the best thing right now, and you need to go and see it', it becomes true."
Wanna prove him wrong?
As featured in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of DIY, out now.
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