Match Fit: Sports Team

Just missing out on Number One with their debut, Sports Team are getting back in the ring with “intense” follow up ‘Gulp!’. Rural writing retreats! “Less songs about roundabouts!” It’s all go on LP2…

You probably know the iconic scene from Looney Tunes when Wile E. Coyote, on an endless quest to finally catch his perpetual arch-nemesis Road Runner, finds himself momentarily suspended in mid-air. As he becomes increasingly aware that he’s about to fall off a cliff, the cartoon canine glances towards the audience before gravity swiftly does its job.

It’s this moment, and those from similar cartoon classics, that has inspired the title of Sports Team’s upcoming LP ‘Gulp!’. “That’s kind of what a second album is really,” frontman Alex Rice offers over a late afternoon pint near London’s Kings Cross Station. “Just like, chucking yourself off a cliff.”

Set to arrive later this summer, ‘Gulp!’ follows the band’s 2020 almost-chart-topping debut ‘Deep Down Happy’. Back then, a couple of weeks before the album’s release in June, Alex had told us, “No one’s gonna be sitting around waiting for a second Sports Team album, let’s be real.” But the reality the band find themselves in now is undoubtedly to the contrary.

Sports Team have always leaned towards self-deprecation, knowingly toying with novelty act quirks such as writing songs about Ashton Kutcher, organising annual bus trips (read as: piss-ups) with fans to Margate, and readily engaging in some light Twitter beef. The strength of ‘Deep Down Happy’, however, took the sextet beyond their tongue-in-cheek tendencies and proved that the band - completed by Rob Knaggs, Oli Dewdney, Al Greenwood, Henry Young and Ben Mack - were genuine contenders not to be so easily brushed off. The album would go on to get a Mercury Prize nod and only narrowly missed out on the Number One spot to Lady Gaga (although, as Rob discloses, “Alex was definitely expecting the Number One!”). It seems that the sentiment of their recent posters scattered around the capital is actually bang-on: “It’s okay to like Sports Team”.

Match Fit: Sports Team Match Fit: Sports Team

“I feel like we’re releasing something that feels like it’s genuinely part of a movement.”

— Alex Rice

You’d be forgiven, however, for thinking the pandemic might have taken the wind out of the band’s sails a little. With ‘Deep Down Happy’ having arrived in the midst of the first lockdown, it was a weird time for the group to be celebrating these undeniable goals. In fact, their album release party ended up taking place with some select close pals in a graveyard, “worrying about there being too many of us sitting around a table”.

“The last gig we played was at The Roundhouse,” Oli recalls, “and then as we came off stage, we heard SXSW was cancelled. Then in the next few days our manager rang us like, ‘Every gig you have for the foreseeable is cancelled’. So I guess we were kind of forced into the position of just writing all the time. It probably wouldn’t have happened until way later [if not for that], but we were kinda pushed into that position.”

The band decided to head to a studio and lockdown together, relocating to the countryside. And it was in a shed in “the middle of nowhere” in Devon that the majority of ‘Gulp!’ truly started to take form - a stark change in pace to how its predecessor was made, with the band recording tracks between festival appearances when they could test out new material.

“This time,” Oli notes, “it was like, ‘Right you’re in a residential studio for a month, go write an entire album’.” Henry points out that ‘Deep Down Happy’ was mostly pieced together of “singles which I think most fans already knew,” but that this time it’s “like, all new stuff”. “They call that a ‘body of work’,” deadpans Alex.

While the record came into being in remote, rural Devon (a few bits ironed out via iPhone recordings when they all decamped back to their family homes later), the core themes of the album were formed a bit closer to home while the group were living together in a house in Camberwell. “It was [influenced by] that experience of living together and having our relationships with people in the band tested in a way that was very different to before,” Rob explains.

He continues: “We were always on tour, and there was all this new stuff, and so many people around buying drinks and taking us to places, and we were going on these stupid little ridiculous adventures. Then suddenly it was just a really aggressive fallout where all the nice little bits that make being in a band really fun go away, and you’re sort of sat around trying to figure out what was there when everything else disappeared.”

Described as “more intense” than its predecessor, ‘Gulp!’ is filled with moments that reflect on themes likely to be familiar to any cohabiting pals. As Rob puts it: “The first time we’d just sit around the room and record, and this time it was like group therapy.”

The thumping second track on the album, ‘Dig!’, boasts lyrics like, “When you’re deep in the ground, dig”, and explores the common experience of making terrible decisions every night and then, as Alex says, “You wake up like… quick drink?”. Elsewhere, the infectious ‘Cool It Kid’ - which features a special guest vocalist whose contribution came from a bribe of the promise of breakfast - is a little more on the nose with its message: “Living with you is making me sick.” “There’s a few tracks that are about living so intensely like that,” notes the singer.

Lead single ‘R Entertainment’, which arrived earlier this year, explores our relationship with social media, while opener ‘The Game’ - which the band have been playing live for a while - focuses on how easy it is to live your life even when the world is falling apart around you, Alex yelping “Life’s hard but I can’t complain”. “There’s a real slow burner at the end, which is great,” Henry adds of closing track ‘Light Industry’. “It was recorded all live in the studio. That might be the lights down moment where Alex goes off for a costume change…

Match Fit: Sports Team Match Fit: Sports Team

“The first time we’d just sit around the room and record, and this time it was like group therapy.”

— Rob Knaggs

Sitting on the album for a while, Sports Team have amassed about “three versions” of ‘Gulp!’, with some of Album Three already coming into shape. “We actually got a brass band in for a session,” Alex beams, “but I don’t think that made it.” Henry adds that they also wanted a children’s choir for the album, but concedes, “that’s kind of the death note for a band, though.”

Still rife with the indie bangers that fans have come to know and love from them, Rob promises growth in the band’s songwriting too. “The first one was drawing on stories from when we were, like, 18,” he admits. “So there’s less lyrics about dumb things. There’s less songs about roundabouts.”

With their sights obviously already set back on that elusive Number One spot (“And critical acclaim would always be nice!” Alex jokes), ‘Gulp!’ feels almost like a second debut. “It kind of feels like the first time, in a way, when we can go out and do the in-stores and make videos and meet people and chat about the album,” Alex says.

“The context in which we’re releasing it is so different,” he continues. “I genuinely feel like we’ve had maybe a bit of an impact on the way guitar music has gone. You now have the Wet Legs, and Courtings, and Dry Cleanings, and it’s a lot more of the music that’s a bit more joyful and cathartic, rather than dirge-y. I feel like we’re releasing something that feels like it’s genuinely part of a movement.”

‘Gulp!’ also finds the band ready to get back on the road and do what they do best. But, after a triumphant Brixton Academy show last year, what could be on the cards for their next live highlight? “Have you seen those bands that do weird, interesting multi-shows?” Alex asks. “Didn’t Metallica do that? You do one with a string quartet, and the other one is a really grimy rock show, and you just have shows with different vibes. That’s what I want to do.” As always with Sports Team, get ready to expect the unexpected.

‘Gulp!’ is out 22nd July via Island.


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