Safety first: Indie Rock's stubborn cling on to a '90s sense of security

Words by Jacob Bernard-Banton - @jberndt_art

Sports Team refuse to face forward. In today’s indie landscape, that’s unforgivable – but it’s also understandable.

About a decade ago, Viva Brother were touted as the future of British indie rock. They were doomed from the off. Having reinvented themselves twice, taking the shape of an overwrought emo outfit before embracing swaggering post-Britpop fare, the Slough quartet was so indebted to Oasis you wondered if they’d stolen the Mancunians’ clothes and amplifiers to duplicate their look and sound. As well as suffering the indignity of being forced to change their name from the equally uninspiring Brother. Their career ended when the gulf between frontman Lee Newell’s grand pronouncements, in time-honoured Gallagher style, about having written “the best songs of the last 20 years” and their actual music bordered on laughable.

Viva Brother’s debut did not hold their own amongst best songs of the last 20 years and they subsequently disbanded, later reinventing themselves, yet again, as a stylised synthpop act. At present, Sports Team are in the same position Viva Brother were before their hubristic fall: stubbornly rehashing British Indie from a decade ago, repackaged for an audience young enough not to remember the much-maligned noughties bands pejoratively nicknamed “Landfill Indie”. Like Viva Brother, the six-piece have set their sights beyond NME approval, desperate to graduate from the club circuit and start packing arenas, attracting a lot of excitable hype in the process, said to be making Indie “cool again”.

It should be noted that these are all perfectly fine aspirations. Parochial Indie tribalism that pedestals authenticity and “realness” amounts to little more than loathsome rockism, best epitomised by the enraged folk who drew up a petition against Kanye West headlining Glastonbury. Instead, something else about Sports Team’s ascent remains troubling. For one thing, their songs feel like cynical forgeries. There’s a touch of Blur to their track ‘The Races’, but, by and large, they all conform to a derivative, post-Strokes clamour; you might hear a riff nicked from the Vaccines or a melody pinched from Vines, but nothing tells you who Sports Team are besides the sum of their influences. Nothing suggests they’ve adapted the disruptive shrieks of feedback or dishevelled songwriting smarts of Pavement, whom the band regularly cite as a key touchstone, but who rarely grazed the Top 40 of any chart – proof they favour a Radio 1 listenership.

Living in the past is hardly a crime in pop music, but it’s what frontman Alex Rice has said in interviews that unsettles the most. In a Guardian profile late last year, he accused Idles’ unapologetic anti-Boris political fury of being trite and lazy, which feels tone-deaf in the era of Dave’s righteous invective at this year’s Brit awards or Stormzy’s pointed single ‘Vossi Bop’. He started a light-hearted beef with the south London Indie scene that’s incubated the likes of Shame and Goat Girl, which, if you were being charitable, might merely be him following the fight-talking, self-aggrandising Gallagher playbook.

When Viva Brother repeatedly told journalists how great they were, in spite of the vast lack of any corroborating evidence, they weren’t really trying to scare the competition; they had similarly gobby contemporaries like Peace, whose frontman Harrison Koisser decried the rise of Pop-House: “You’re not going to tattoo the lyrics on your chest,” he opined. Sports Team, however, have no such peers – and no such camaraderie. Their chances of success rely on how much of a noise they make not just on stage but in print. After all, if you shy away from Rock and Pop’s bleeding-edge, comfortably recycling old sounds for a new generation, you need to be an ace salesperson. Especially when, nowadays, what passes for Indie Rock is tougher, deeper and weirder.

The scene is more diverse, not least in the growing visibility of musicians who are of varying colour, gender and sexuality: Indie-friendly but genre-resistant, the success of Jay Som, Big Joanie, Mitski, Marika Hackman and Nilüfer Yanya has invigorated Alt-Rock on both sides of the Atlantic. Irish bands Murder Capital and Fontaines DC have added a richly literate flavour to guitar music. And the one outfit flying the flag for Pavement-indebted DIY noise remains Wisconsin’s Disq. As such, there’s a sense that Sports Team potentially feel threatened by the current landscape. Zany escapism, the kind they provide, can admittedly be fuel for Rock’n’Roll. Their fun-loving live shows are laudably communal and joyous at a time of severe disharmony. Nevertheless, their romanticised, backwards-facing nostalgia perhaps reveals the music industry’s craven, risk-averse default setting, cosily reviving the 90s boom of commercial success in the wake of sub-Oasis chancers, the only time in recent memory record execs can remember when rock was on top: at the risk of fevered conspiracy-theorising, it is telling that Sports Team, like Viva Brother before them, have major label backing.

As a result, Sports Team’s retrograde Indie Rock makes a lot of sense. They’re a safe, undemanding option in an increasingly volatile world: they’re not angry, nakedly outspoken or uncompromising like their peers, adored by a more discerning audience precipitated by an era in which, quite understandably, rappers are pop stars and Billie Eilish wins multiple Grammys. In times of distress, you tend to reach for a security blanket.