Ducks Ltd. Are Moving Past Patterns

Ducks Ltd. 2024 interview with Northern Transmissions by Leslie Ken Chu
Ducks Ltd. photo by Colin Medley

Like the best jangly guitar-pop, the music of Ducks Ltd. feels like it’s constantly moving with speeding rhythms and swelling melodies. Be it the recording process or the experiences that went into its making, Harm’s Way (Royal Mountain/Carpark), the Toronto-based duo’s sophomore album, was shaped by movement.

Ducks Ltd.—singer-bassist-rhythm guitarist Tom McGreevy and lead guitarist Evan Lewis—began recording Harm’s Way in Toronto, at the same warehouse basement where they recorded their 2021 debut LP, Modern Fiction. After tracking most of the guitars, bass, and drums, “We went to Chicago to do the stuff that we felt could be elevated by having other people involved, like recording the drums with [Ratboys drummer] Marcus [Nuccio] and doing the string sections and vocals,” McGreevy tells Northern Transmissions by phone.

Ducks Ltd. spread their studio time in Chicago over two week-long sessions spaced one month apart. This approach gave them time to sit with think about the material they’d laid down. “There wasn’t that much that we did have to change, but it took away some of the anxiety and pressure that can be counterproductive in a traditional studio setup. You’ve got the amount of time you’ve got, and you’ve got to finish it in the time you’ve got,” McGreevy explains. “You’re moving on a schedule that is not necessarily related to whether or not the thing is done or good, which I think is the way in which a studio can be tough and detrimental.”

As for why the band chose to record Harm’s Way in the Second City, “We realized a huge amount of our favourite indie rock stuff, especially guitar music, was coming out of Chicago,” McGreevy says. After looking into which producers their favourite Chicago artists had worked with, they landed on Dave Vettraino (Dehd, Deeper, Lala Lala). It also helped that Ducks Ltd. were already friends with some Chicago musicians. Naturally, the band and these friends wound up working together.

Harm’s Way boasts a studded cast of Chicago collaborators including Finom’s Macie Stewart, Moontype’s Margaret McCarthy, Dehd’s Jason Balla, and Ratboys’ Julia Steiner and the abovementioned Marcus Nuccio. Other guests include Dummy’s Nathan O’Dell, Lawn’s Rui De Magalhaes, Patio’s Lindsey-Paige McCloy, and members of Ducks Ltd.’s live band, Julia Wittman and Jonathan Pappo.

“It feels like a scene that’s very non-competitive,” McGreevy observes of Chicago. “People are really friendly and supportive of each other. It seems quite easy—at least it was for us—to get to know one or two groups of people.” The tight-knit camaraderie became especially apparent during a backing vocal day in the studio. “There were people who came who knew each other that we did not knew each other. We only found out once they were all in the room, where it was like, ‘Oh shit, of course you guys know each other!’ It was a fun surprise to see all those connections.”

Like Modern Fiction, despite its bone-deep melancholy, Harm’s Way moves gracefully as its aimless narrators wrestle with ennui, unshakeable loneliness, and feelings of emptiness. But the albums differ in scope. “I think the last record is a lot more internal,” McGreevy says. After all, due to circumstances—namely the pandemic—the band wrote most of Modern Fiction during a time when the only people McGreevy and Lewis were allowed to see were each other. But after releasing Modern Fiction, the band experienced a breakout year that took them around the world and, as their expanding Chicago network testifies, allowed them to from bonds abroad.

“The songs [on Harm’s Way] are a lot more influenced by moving through the world the way we were moving through the world, which was on tour,” McGreevy says. “Some songs I wrote on tour were very specifically informed by that.” Hear the longing “Cathedral City,” for example, which McGreevy wrote while in a cathedral city, or the tranquil acoustic and string-laden “Heavy Bag” on which he sings of drinking until passing out on trains. “It’s like this everywhere, all the time, anyway,” he coos. And when he sings, “The pattern that we’re in, wearing thin,” weariness streaks his voice like warm country rain on the window of a moving train.

“When we were on tour in the U.K., the rest of the band was understandably not particularly interested, so I took a train from Brighton to Bristol by myself to see a Bristol Rovers match before we had a show that night,” McGreevy says, recalling the song’s origin. Despite being born in the United Kingdom, “It was an interesting experience because I hadn’t properly been on a train on a Saturday morning in the U.K. before. I’d never quite had the experience where—there’s an interesting atmosphere on that kind of public transit in the U.K. in the summer in which you get all different classes of people getting ready to have a good time.”

Good times—or at least the idea of them—inspired another Harm’s Way standout, the fast-burning “On Our Way to the Rave,” a singular outlier in the band’s catalogue. “There’s a specific kind of country songwriting—it’s sometimes called lifestyle songs, songs about having a beer with your buddies, the kind of songs about a Saturday night in summer, that kind of thing. I like the songs, and they’re interesting, so I wanted to see if I could write something that functioned like that but was more true to my experience. It was fun to try and do.”

It’s easier to take chances if you’re confident in yourself, and the more Ducks Ltd. played in front of audiences, the more confident they grew. Prior to Harm’s Way, McGreevy explains, “The way that our stuff works is we write the songs, and then we record them, and then they’re done.” But now that they’d had many opportunities to play the songs, “We developed a more intuitive understanding of how our songs work when they work from playing them because we just didn’t play them a lot before after we wrote them. Through that, we got a more concrete idea of what it is that we would do when writing a song, like, ‘What would be the natural move we would make?’ rather than trying to think about it a lot or listening to other stuff and being like, ‘How do they do it?’ It became a lot easier for us to be like, ‘This is the kind of thing that we would do; this makes sense.’”

As Ducks Ltd. continue moving through the world—reaching new ears and meeting new faces—McGreevy says, “I hope [Harm’s Way] makes sense to people who aren’t me. I think maybe more so than the last album, I’m trying to be as emotionally honest as I could be with these songs. I hope it rings true and is identifiable to other people.” Despite all his hope, he knows firsthand that their music has resonated with listeners. “It was really cool to get to go out on tour and meet people to whom these songs meant something. It’s just an insane privilege that I still can’t really believe happened. The idea that that could happen again is really cool and exciting to me. That’s definitely an incredibly meaningful connection to have when it happens.”

Pre-order Harm’s Way by Ducks Ltd. HERE


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