Given the general absence of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, bands tend to run away from middle England. But for Rob Knaggs, the songwriter with Sports Team, it’s where the action is. “I really like roundabouts, Britain in Bloom competitions, local parish newsletters,” he says. “High streets are covered in people’s symbols of belonging – like an Emma Bridgewater tin.”
His six-piece band are making something improbably big out of this minutiae. Formed in 2016 while they were studying at Cambridge, in the past two years their exuberant indie-pop has taken them from tiny pub stages to a major label deal and, the day I meet them, filling the 2,300-capacity Forum in Kentish Town, north London. Their debut album comes out this spring.
Along the way they have cultivated a young fanbase given to making memes and congregating on a WhatsApp group with the band. “Sometimes you’ll open your phone and there’ll be 2,000 messages, and they’re all bickering for 45 minutes about vegetable crisps,” Knaggs says. These are the middle-class kids who might have turned to rap, but now have, in Sports Team, a band singing about their lives.
“We had this experience of life being quite mundane,” says the frontman, Alex Rice, whose bandmates grew up in Cheshire, Kent and Leeds. “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? You want something that romanticises the world around you and makes you feel better about it.” Knaggs’ heroes are John Betjeman, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan; his songs, about fishing, Wetherspoons, flip phones and the M5, similarly find uplifting poetry in the everyday.
One of their first songs, Stanton, was about the fire warden at their Cambridge college. “He would stand on this barrow, and say: ‘I’ve seen people burn to death!’” Knaggs says. “He took his job seriously, but it was intense.” Musically, the band bonded over bands such as Pavement. “Guitar music was not very cool,” Rice says. So to make their shows seem like “anything but a guitar music gig”, they invented Poundland, a club night with £1 entry that would feature sideshows such as their keyboardist, Ben Mack, doing, by his own admission, “freestyle rapping over eskibeats”.
These japes evaporated when they graduated and moved in together in London, doing jobs in everything from social care to social media. “There was a sense of frustration at the social contract: you graduate, you get this job, and you’re supposed to feel fulfilled and happy,” says the drummer, Al Greenwood. “It very quickly became so routine. We were so lucky – it’s amazing to have a job and live independently in London. But there was a sense that there must be something more. A lot of friends are very successful, but very few of them say they are happy.”
Rice agrees: “We really enjoyed Cambridge, going to lectures, thinking about things. It was quite stark for me that, when you come out, you’re really required to stop thinking to an enormous extent.” He says that a big part of the band is “to provide people with an alternative way to live their lives – we try to make it look joyful”.
They are an endearing group, frequently bursting into laughter around the pub table, and weren’t always enamoured of their moodier London peers. “Having just moved to London you’d think everyone that was involved in music was a Goldsmiths graduate – some kind of Gucci magician,” Rice says, meaning the hyped glam troupe HMLTD, who Rice describes as “one of the worst bands ever”.
It’s rather refreshing to have them indulge in the kind of sniping that once powered petty intra-scene dramas in the NME – Shame have been another target of their light-hearted beef. “[Indie magazines] DIY and Dork, they have to call every band the greatest band in the world because they rely on social media shares, and we just got a bit sick of it,” Rice says. “Part of having a sense of identity as a band is saying: this is what we’re not.”
For Greenwood, what they’re not is “lazy, Martin Parr-esque” imagery; for Knaggs, it’s “posing in leather jackets with cigarettes in moody landscapes, that level of Strokes-yness. They’re like: ‘Oh, we’re poets, we got our lyrics by sitting in a pub and channelling James Joyce.’”
Hang on, you’re sitting in a pub saying you’re channelling Betjeman!
“At least our lyrics were written on a laptop in the studio, desperately trying to find a word that rhymes with rhododendrons,” Knaggs grins. “It doesn’t have to be a wilted rose to have some great significance – it could be a Motorola. It doesn’t have to be a skull, or a child smoking – it could be Ashton Kutcher. That could be your memento mori, that incredible poetic image. It doesn’t have to be a raven, or a grave, or Dublin in the rain. It could be London in the sunshine. It could be Thorpe Park on a Wednesday.”
“Dublin in the rain” is, of course, a lyric by the Joyce-inspired band Fontaines DC, but Knaggs says they all love them, and Rice agrees: “There’ll always be a place for post-punk, but no one’s doing anything that new in it. Fontaines played last week and the average age [in the crowd] must have been mid-40s – brilliant, but it’s not that punk. It’s incredibly wealthy craft-ale fans. You go to our front row, it’s kids, it feels more vital and important.”
Rice’s flouncing, peacocking stagecraft is a key part of the band’s vitality. “I hate every minute of being in the studio, I find it painfully dull, but performing is incredible – riling up a crowd for an hour,” he says. “People want something that feels a bit heroic on stage. They do want to feel a part of the gang, but you shouldn’t be too accessible.”
“And yet everyone has your number on a WhatsApp group,” says the bassist, Oli Dewdney, after a perfect comic beat.
With their Cambridge education and rhododendron-based lyrics, “there’s a risk of throwaway comments: ‘Oh, they’re Tories’”, Greenwood says. One journalist even accused them of a “poverty safari” by visiting Margate. Yet Sports Team’s complicated, sometimes contradictory character portraits are a noble, or perhaps naive attempt to avoid the factionalism of modern society and politics.
Rice says “we’re all pretty Labour”, but “not tribal … that Idles record, just coming out with a ‘fuck Boris’ attitude, it’s the tritest, cheapest form of politics. We’ve got this opportunity to be really subtle and actually engage people, rather than just trotting out talking points.” A union-jack-wearing character in their song The Races appears to be your typical side of Tory gammon – “He’ll never buy you a drink / But he’ll let you know he can” – but Rice says “there’s always an empathetic take. Even Kutcher, about a guy who’s frustrated with his haircut, is quite an empathetic portrayal.”
Lots of people won’t have empathy with middle England right now, of course – but it’s just as much a part of Britain as anything and, as Rice says: “It would be far more dangerous if we turned up in flat caps and started doing northern accents, and you’ve seen plenty of bands doing that.” For once, he doesn’t name them.