“I have no idea how anything sounds and I can’t hear myself or anything, so I apologise,” Alex Rice pants into the sweaty crowd, halfway through Sports Team’s set at a packed and heaving Bar Niagara in New York City.
“YOU SOUND GREAT!” an audience member yells. “Haven’t been to many shows then, have you?” Alex retorts, before the band launch into their next riotous number.
Tonight, the band - Alex, Rob Knaggs (rhythm guitar and vocals), Henry Young (lead guitar), Oli Dewdney (bass), Al Greenwood (drums) and Ben Mack (keyboard and percussion) - are playing the second show of their “New York Residency’, sandwiched between sets at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Bar Freda in Ridgewood, Queens. It takes about three songs for the East Village crowd to get truly rowdy and warmed up - which is about three songs longer than the band are used to back home in the UK.
On home turf, Sports Team have, of course, fully established themselves as one of the most exciting guitar bands, having renewed the genre with their effervescent live presence and wry lyrics. What started out as a “joke band” between six friends who met studying at university has turned into a group who boast a reputation as a refreshing addition to the legacy of British indie.
They’ve been to New York before, playing the intimate Baby’s All Right in 2019. But it’s their first time back in the Big Apple since releasing their much-beloved debut album “Deep Down Happy’ - and just a few short months before their highly-anticipated second effort, “Gulp!’. Luckily, “Gulp!’ is exactly the sort of second album to equip the band with the materials necessary for broader terrain.
Whereas “Deep Down Happy’ was a clever snapshot of British culture and politics, with plenty of sardonic references to suburban England and fishing, overtly-emotional football anthems and the M5, their second possesses themes that are slightly more universal subjects that extend beyond borders. It’s this mentality that they’re adopting as they gear up to its release and a summer packed with festival appearances far beyond their native isle: they want to be bigger and better in everything they do.
Second time around, the band’s humour is intact, but the record’s more amiable moments come intertwined with deeper existential crises and wider, generational anxieties. There are ruminations about death on “Getting Better’ (“And every foot you place is just another step into your grave”), and ponderings on mortality in the everyday drudge on “The Drop’: “Katie died waiting for the right time to retire.”
“It’s dark, but I guess it’s a funny kind of dark,” Rob admits. “But that’s the fun of it,” caveats Al. “It’s super dark, but you have the best night of your life dancing to it. That’s the perfect tonic.”
As featured in the Festival Guide 2022 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.
"In the lead-up to "Deep Down Happy', Sports Team established themselves as lovable underdogs - the sort of band who'd start a giant WhatsApp group with their fans to foster that all-important sense of community. Having narrowly missed out on a Number One to Lady Gaga, and with a nomination for 2020's Mercury Prize now under their belts, that camaraderie remains but there's a necessary extra level of ambition there too.
Armed with their second album, Sports Team are more than ready to raise the stakes. "I'd still quite like to beat Lady Gaga with our own Number One album one day," Al says, gritting her teeth comedically. "One day:" "You know who I'd like to beat to Number One? David Guetta," Alex declares, to the laughter and agreement of his bandmates. "He's always on the bloody charts every week! It's our turn now."
A jam-packed summer full of European headline dates and festival jaunts beckons, including sojourns to Spain's Mad Cool, Portugal's Super Bock Super Rock and Norway's Bergenfest among others. Meanwhile this week of gigs feels sort of like a soft relaunch for the band in the States - a chance to play some small, intimate shows with potentially new fans as a throwback to the group's nascent, early days. "It's nice to be in New York, and to see that we have fans here," Alex nods. It's been about 19 or so hours since their first Mercury Lounge show and all six band members are huddled around small bar tables, sipping daiquiris.
“I guess by playing smaller shows like this, we're kind of building from the start again. It's a good feeling," he continues. "One of our favourite bits of being in a band was always just playing these smaller shows, getting our mates down, not knowing what to expect. This feeling of, "How did you convince 20 people to come to this gig?!'"
Bar Niagara is a classic dive-bar gig spot, just around the corner from Tompkins Square Park and deep within the framework of the historic New York scene from yesteryear. It's not an obvious venue for a local band - let alone one from the UK - but Rob says that the venue's history lured them there nonetheless. "Apparently this used to be a really cool spot from back in the day, with bands like Black Flag and Beastie Boys," he enthuses. "But they haven't had shows here in a while. We didn't realise it was basically a bar. Our sound guy is very stressed..."
The band hadn't even planned to play the city in the week leading up to tonight's show, but after delayed visa issues caused them to have to cancel their set at Shaky Knees festival in Atlanta, they shifted their sights and - in somewhat characteristic fashion - booked an impromptu, last-minute series of gigs. "We were just sat there, the day before we were supposed to play Shaky Knees, waiting for the visas in this triple room in a hotel in London. But then we missed the set," says Rob. "And then as soon as the passports turned up, to cheer ourselves up we just went to New York. We announced the shows right before we hopped on the flight."
It's the band's ethos in a nutshell. Take an unexpected change in fortune, turn it on its head - GULP! - then try to do it again, on their own terms, but bigger, better, and one hundred per cent more mad.
There's an equal sense of nerves and excitement palpable in the air as tonight's set time approaches. But from as early as 7pm, the bar has already started to fill up with people antsy to get into the venue, eager not to miss out on their spot. By 8pm, the room is almost full, and when Sports Team's set finally rolls around, the tiny back room is absolutely rammed - so full that people have to stand on chairs in order to make room. Alex dons a pair of glasses for the first few songs that may or may not be a cheeky nod to a certain Strokes frontman. The six of them barely fit on the tiny stage, but it's just the way they like it - cosy, intimate, and completely chaotic.
Running through songs from their debut as well as a few offerings from their second album, the crowd jokingly boo Alex when he introduces new single "R Entertainment' by declaring that it's simply average. "Gulp!''s opening track "The Game', meanwhile, is sure to invite a joyous crowd sing-along in the near future: "Oh yeah, that's the game / Life's hard, but I can't complain," goes its chorus.
Sports Team hit the sweet spot of making infectious indie you can play at parties, but with lyrics that act as a means of catharsis, touching upon the cynical nature of modern life and the mundanity of the human condition. Their songs are about being anxious and contemplating the end of the world as we know it; if the apocalypse is coming, they seem to suggest, we might as well have fun. "If you just close your eyes then everything's alright," yells Alex during first album crowd-pleaser "Here's The Thing'.
Those themes of frustration make themselves known more than ever in "Gulp!'. During the recording of the album, the band packed into a house in Bath for about a month, with the living situation leading to mixed results. Certain songs on the album, such as "Cool It Kid', are about the suffocating feeling of blurring the lines between the friends, bandmates and colleagues that you live with, while others touch on being far too online and feeling oversaturated in our 21st Century world. "The first [album] is very English, but this record's a bit more universal with human themes," says Rob. "We were really trying to take these themes and push them outside of the UK."
In preparation, the band had been listening to a lot of "classic' second albums, as recommended by their producer - and a handful of songs are grungier and more raw as a result. "Lots of Pixies and Nirvana. We listened to "Nevermind' so many times," Alex notes. There's a momentary dispute, meanwhile, when talk turns to the inspirations behind album highlight "Getting Better'.
“NOT true!" Rob immediately interjects, when Ben suggests that they were inspired to write the song after copious amounts of listening to Thin Lizzy's "Boys Are Back In Town'. "We were listening to "So It Goes' by Nick Lowe, which actually ripped off "Boys Are Back In Town', and we ripped THAT off. So, in order, we stole it from somebody who stole it from somebody else." That's that cleared up, then.
A large bulk of the songs, meanwhile, were written deep in the quiet pandemic winter in a house in Margate, when everything was closed for lockdown. "We'd start drinking at about 11am," recalls Rob. "We had this record [we'd play] with, like, songs that sound like being in a pub. We'd sit there with cans of beer listening to this record, and in the background you could hear people talking in the pub, making weird jokes. You'd listen to the barman saying all sorts of things. It was just like being at a real pub!" "Then we'd record songs about death," deadpans Oli. "It was a cool time." "And that was our lives for three months!" Rob concludes.
In no rush to release another record in the peak of the pandemic following the bizarre Covid rollout of their debut, Sports Team were left sitting on their latest, affording them time to tweak and rejig elements at their leisure. "We kept going back and being like, "Oh, we have another year to put it out, let's keep messing around with it'. And then it just was non-stop, just tinkering with it. And then being like, "Oh, maybe we'll add a horn section'. Now, it doesn't feel finished and we're releasing it," Rob laughs. "But it feels really exciting compared to the first one, which really felt more like a collection of tracks that we'd been working on in between touring for six years. This one actually feels like a proper record."
Tonight's show is a success, and the bar is overflowing with Sports Team fans new and old - plus a few members of local favourites Geese and Bodega. If the crowd already seems familiar with the new album cuts, meanwhile, it's only to be expected. "We were talking to this amazing fan of ours last night who lives out here. She already knew half the songs from people filming them from other shows we've played," laughs Al. "We've only played a couple of songs live now, but it's so bizarre how quickly stuff gets spread from the WhatsApp group." "She was, like, livestreaming the gig to two of our UK fans last night," confirms Alex.
And so, in many ways, it's Sports Team's fans themselves who are building the bridge between the familiar territory of the UK and their growing fanbase overseas and beyond. It shouldn't be hard; having carved out a niche of chaotic, hedonistic good times in their live sets, you imagine the party will naturally follow wherever they go. "It doesn't feel like a crazy leap into the unknown because we're sort of building onto something that is already huge in the UK," Rob notes.
The discourse around guitar music and whether or not it's met its end will always be a cyclical one. But from Wet Leg to IDLES, there's been a renewed appetite for British guitar bands of late, and it's all about that feeling of being part of something - a feeling that Sports Team understand more than most.
“People want a community, somewhere," says Alex. "It's quite a disparate world. Live music isn't about the individual, it's about the collective experience, and guitar music doesn't work unless you're together and listening and moshing and forming circle pits."
And though Sports Team might be peppering their bangers with wry asides about our imminent proximity to death, there are few bands that exemplify the joy of that tangible, in-person connection quite so fully as them. Who knows what the future will bring, but for now you could do a lot worse than spend your summer, pint in hand, singing at the top of your lungs to "Gulp!'. Life is short - so spend it with Sports Team.
"Gulp!' is out 22nd July via Island.
Sports Team play Vestrock (3rd - 5th June), Live at Leeds: In the Park (4th June), Bergenfest (14th - 18th June), PiP (16th - 18th June), Vida (30th June - 2nd July), Mad Cool (6th - 10th July), Super Bock Super Rock (14th - 16th July), Zwarte Cross (14th - 17th July), Truck (21st - 24th July), Tramlines (22nd - 24th July), Kendal Calling (28th - 31st July), Valley Fest (4th - 7th August), Haldern Pop (11th - 13th August), Victorious (26th - 28th August), Andalucia Big (8th - 10th September), and Mad Cool Sunset (10th September).
As featured in the Festival Guide 2022 issue of DIY, out now.