When Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis first decided to start a band called Ducks Unlimited, their goal was to become big enough that they would be forced to change their moniker by the hunting non-profit of the same name. Mission accomplished: now known as Ducks Ltd., the Toronto-based jangle-pop duo released their promising debut EP, Get Bleak, in 2019, and subsequently signed to Carpark Records, which reissued the record with three additional songs earlier this year. Now, having perfected their mix of jubilant melodies, driving grooves, and self-consciously nihilistic lyrics, the group have come through with their first full-length album, Modern Fiction, a consistently compelling collection of songs that nod to the pair’s influences – “The Servants, The Clean, The Chills, The Bats, Television Personalities, Felt” are just a few Lewis lists off in press materials – while carving out their own distinct sound. For as cohesive as the record is, it’s impressive how much the hooks really stick out – but also how it manages to vacillate between hope and despair with such ease and conviction, examining the tragedies of the modern world while effectively pulling you out of it.
We caught up with Ducks Ltd.’s Tom McGreevy for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the origins of the group, the process of making their debut album, and more.
What are your memories of meeting Evan?
Initially we were both just talking about our immigration experiences, because we’re both not from Canada, but we’re here. We both were trying to get permanent residency and deal with that kind of stuff, so I think that was the first conversation we had. We were on tour, we did some dates when we were both in other bands together, and that was when we first discovered that we had a lot of mutual interests in common. And that was when the idea of playing together first arose, was when we were spending some time together in that context and realizing that we were both really interested in this particular kind of guitar pop sound, but we’re interested in different ends of it.
Do you remember what made you gravitate to that particular sound?
I think for me, the moment in which I realized I really love this sound was when I was a teenager, when I first heard Orange Juice. And kind of immediately upon hearing it, I think intuition told me so: I was just like, This is exactly what I was looking for. There’s something here. That was the big gateway for me, so I kept digging and there were more bands in that scene doing that kind of stuff. I kind of had my area of it that I was pretty deep into, like the Postcard Records stuff, some of the Flying Nun stuff, some of the Sarah Records bands. But Evan had a whole different catalogue of the things that were kind of canon for him, like he really loves the Go-Betweens who he got me into and I’ve become a big fan of. He’s really into Felt, who I’d never really listened to before me and him became friends. It’s all stuff in the same continuum, we just have different pockets of interest.
Do you realize now what that “something” is?
I think it’s just this combination of really sharp pop songwriting delivered in this package that’s interesting and has musical layers to it. I think Orange Juice are maybe popular enough where it’s easy to forget how odd they are, what weird musical choices they’re making, while still making what is pretty straightforwardly pop music, and what is pretty straightforwardly often quite personal pop music. There’s no posing in it, which I think is interesting. Edwyn Collins is never trying to come across as being particularly cool – it doesn’t have that thing of something like the Velvet Underground or Lou Reed or Television, a lot of stuff from the previous decade that maybe informed Orange Juice, where its presentation is like, “I’m a cool guy in sunglasses who does heroin.” [laughs] It’s sort of inaccessible and mythic and exists in this other way, whereas Edwyn Collins is just like a guy who has feelings and thinks things. And he’s really good at expressing those, but there’s no distance in it. I think that I think that’s something that I found and still find really compelling about it.
Was that also part of what made you interested in making music, the fact that it was more approachable?
It certainly informed how I did it, but I think I was also pretty enchanted with the idea of bands from a young age. I don’t think a lot of what I did was very good until I realized that that was what was interesting to me – I think before that I was probably trying to strike the pose or find this sort of persona to present.
When did you start writing your own songs?
When I was a teenager I was really into it, and then I kind of stopped doing it for a few years, mostly because I find that I’m bad at following through on stuff unless I have someone to disappoint. And I think one of the things that’s been great about working with Evan on stuff and kind of what got me back into writing as a regular thing that I was doing, was that he believed in it. And he’s also a very meticulous person who is very into that discipline, like, you finish the thing once you’ve started it. That really helped me to be like, “Okay, if we’re gonna go work on stuff and I haven’t been writing something, then I’m gonna be letting Evan down, who was ready to do this and is gonna want to make this thing finished and round it out.” So that was a big aid in getting back into it as a thing that I took seriously.
When going from the EP to your album, did you feel like your approach changed at all, that it became even more serious and focused?
We refined it. The songs on the EP were written over a long period of time and we were trying to figure out how to do it, how to record them and how to demo them. Some of the songs on the EP were originally with a full band or at least partly written in that way, and we played them with a band before we recorded them, partly because of the circumstances but also because we realized the songs tended to get better when we drilled down into them together and tried to get really into the details, the small compositional pieces, like how a bass part interacts with the drum part, how a rhythm guitar part interacts with those, how those things are structured, and especially how those things will move from place to place and evolve throughout a song. So I think we figured out a process that had more attention to detail built into it and that was more edited as we progressed with it. Just trying to find what more purely is the sound we’re trying to make and what are the hallmarks of it, how do you play with the tropes of it. That got a little bit more maybe intellectual [laughs] and certainly a lot more rigorous as we went into the album.
One word that’s repeated on the album is “decline,” whether that’s in reference to a nation or society or one’s own self. How did that idea become central to the album, and how conscious were you of approaching it in a way that felt personal yet broadly relatable?
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a pervasive sense of societal and institutional and cultural decline that I think to some extent maybe is just a thing that people always feel, regardless of context, but also in the context of the way that the world has been in the last 20 years or whatever. Like, I don’t think I’m the only person to feel that way, nd I think it’s just that experience of it and, and the feeling in certain contexts of personal decline mirroring a broader societal one, or at least occurring at the same time, of being coincident to. I think it’s just the direction that my thoughts tend to go, and so it’s a thing that I end up writing about. And I’m never trying to make these songs relatable, but I am trying to make them… honest? And I think that sometimes that can have the same result. Like, I can’t be the only person who feels this way.
I love that the record starts with ‘How Lonely Are You?’, because it’s a song about long-distance friendships, but the central question also feels like a way of reaching out to the listener. When you were making this song, were you thinking of it just in the context of actual friendships in your life, or did you also wonder about how it may resonate with strangers and potential listeners?
I try, when I’m writing stuff, to think as little as possible. [laughs] That’s not entirely true, but I think that the initial process is really something where I have to let my brain go a little bit, and then the sort of thinking part comes a little bit later when I’ve got all these things that I’m like, “Well, is that really what I was trying to say?” And then I edit it and think about it from there. But I don’t think I ever think about an audience when I’m writing stuff, because I think if I do then I immediately become self-conscious, and it becomes harder to access whatever weird flow state it is where this stuff tends to work the best. And I find that if I come into something and I’m really trying to write the thing about a certain topic, it won’t work. It’ll be stiff and hard, and I’ll get caught in these repetitive paths, whereas if you just sort of let it happen a little bit, I will find out what I was trying to say and then I can edit it back afterwards. I often don’t figure out what a song is about until it’s almost finished, and sometimes not even then.
It’s obvious that a big part of the editing process is your collaborative relationship with Evan. How do you think that affects not just the structure of the songs, but also the way you then conceptualise them? Do you have conversations that go beyond the sonic elements of the song?
Yes and no. I think only really when we’ve done something compositionally and then it’s like, “Okay, this doesn’t fit anymore.” Maybe it’s more of a thing where we kind of sense it, and that will sort of dictate the direction we go in in putting something together. But it’s more of an intuition thing than intentionally trying to match it.
With ‘Under the Rolling Moon’, which is kind of an exception on the album because it originally came more from Evan, did you feel more conscious of how you were going to build and perform the track?
That was one where he’d kind of written it and demoed it, and I think with the lyrics it was like, he’s got an idea here and it works and it’s expressive, but the lyrics initially were just sort of there to take the space, to some extent. Like, he hadn’t fully finished the thought because he was just sort of trying to demo an idea and figure out some sounds. So I was just trying to take it and finish the thought, inevitably, to kind of do what I would have done if it had been my idea in the first place; just moving in a direction where it seems to express what he was trying to express, but maybe fit a little bit more into our style.
Could you outline what that process is like for you, after you come up with the bones of a song and you present it to Evan? How collaborative is it?
Yeah, it’s entirely collaborative. That part is also the most fun part. Basically what we do is I’ll track a demo of just me playing it on an unplugged electric guitar normally, and then we’ll track a rhythm guitar part to a click, and the vocal part over it, and then we’ll figure out basically how everything else works from there. And we’ll do that the two of us normally passing instruments back and forth, just testing ideas out, looping individual sections and being like, “Does this work?” And then sometimes, the other person will be playing something and you’ll be like, “Oh, you’ve got something there, but it should end like this.” Or like, “That idea isn’t really working with this part, so maybe we could change that part to match this other idea.” I think it works the way it does because we both know what the end result we’re trying to get to is, and also trust each other, where everything is worth trying and every criticism is valid if you know why you’re making it.
Sometimes one of us will do a thing where we’ll object to something just to see how the other one reacts, and if the other one is like, “No, I think it’s a good idea,” then it’s a good idea. [laughs] Like, “If you’d given up on it, that would have been proof that it didn’t matter, but it does because you didn’t. And so, let’s pursue it and see where it goes.” We know each other pretty well, so we kind of have a feel of when continuing to go down a path that’s productive and when it isn’t.
What happens when someone else steps into that process? Because I wanted to ask you about your collaborations with The Beths on this album – how did they come about, and what do you feel like they brought to the songs?
That was really cool, I was super grateful to them for doing that. They’re on our label, and we were just in a spot where we knew that we wanted some backing vocals in some tracks, and because of COVID we couldn’t bring anyone in. So, for the tracks that they did stuff on, I think one of them we had a solid idea and we were just like, “Can you do this?” One of them we had sort of a sketch, and then one of them they just totally invented something, which was great. They’re backing vocals masters, like the backing vocals on all their stuff are amazing. They’re really one of my favourite current bands, so it was extremely cool that they were up for it.
To get back to the themes of the record, with songs like ‘18 Cigarettes’, it often feels like the album is sort of alluding to a certain emotional place without necessarily delving into too many specifics, which is why the writing on ‘Twere Ever Thus’ really stood out to me. What do you remember about writing that song, and was it more difficult to record compared to the other tracks?
That one came really late, actually. I think I basically wrote that one start to finish in about 20 minutes, and it just sort of fell together. I feel like recording it, I wasn’t as conscious of it – I think when we perform it, now that we’ve started doing that again, I kind of feel the weight of it a little bit more. It definitely was kind of stepping a little bit outside of the normal process of how I approach them. Which happened a few times in the songs we wrote for the record, but most of the ones where I tried to step outside of our normal pathway didn’t end up being on the record. But that one did, and hopefully it works. I feel like I have a harder time knowing whether or not that one works, is maybe the biggest difference – I’m not sure. It felt important to me at the time.
It’s one of my favorites on the album, so I think it definitely works. Why do you think it steps away from your usual process?
I just think there’s a style of songwriting that I normally do which is like, they tend to be taking a little bit of like an empathetic leap in the writing. They tend to be at least partly about my friends, my friends’ experiences, conversations I’ve had with them, more directly than they are about my experiences. That one is different in that regard.
What do you mean by “empathetic leap”?
Oh, just trying to understand someone else’s perspective and sort of write about that or encompass that perspective within my own, I guess. Whereas that one is a little bit more closed off.
You and Evan have both moved around quite a bit, and a lot of the record explores how that can complicate personal relationships. With that in mind, I wanted to ask you about your current understanding of home. Essentially, what does home mean to you?
That’s interesting, it’s something that me and Evan talk about a lot. I moved around a lot when I was a kid and never really developed that concept [laughs], because I just don’t have a place to kind of go back to, one place that fully feels like that. It does a little bit, or does but it’s complicated, because it inevitably is. Like, other people’s homesickness is something that really interests me because I’m like, “Oh, that’s fascinating, I don’t know how to do that.” [laughs] I enjoy participating in it to some extent, which is why I end up – Evan will mention some childhood thing and then I’ll just spend like an entire night researching Australian rules football and being like, “Wow, that’s amazing!”
I think we’ve both come to realize in different ways recently that Toronto is home. Obviously, with me becoming a citizen just last week that became even more pointed, I guess. But there’s so much that goes into it, and I think nostalgia is somewhat poisoned and not to be trusted. [laughs] It’s hard to look back at a place that used to be a place where you lived and your feelings about it and trust them sometimes. Which I think is also something that the songs kind of touch on, at least occasionally. But I don’t know, it’s neat to sort of drill into what that means, and also to realize that, at least in our cases, it is here. It is this place that we have made into our homes, and that we are of it, maybe more than we sometimes realize.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.