Ducks Ltd. on Country Music, the Occult, Chicago, and Other Inspirations Behind Their New Album ‘Harm’s Way’

    The process behind Ducks Ltd.’s debut album, 2021’s Modern Fiction, was both tightly collaborative and insular. Tom McGreevy would usually demo a song before bringing it to Evan Lewis, and the pair would trade ideas back and forth until they hit a mutually (and pretty much intuitively) understood end goal. The Toronto duo composed much of its follow-up, Harm’s Way, out today, during and after stretches of touing, supporting bands like Nation of Language, illuminati hotties, and Archers of Loaf. In essence, their appeal or approach hasn’t changed too much: their brand of jangle-pop remains infectiously melodic, sneakily poetic, and surprisingly existential for how breezy it sounds. But with their sophomore album, they’ve found subtle ways to expand and open their already assured sound.

    Instead of self-recording the LP, the band went to a new city and collaborated with an outside producer, Dave Vettraino, who has worked on records by musicians who contributed to Harm’s Way, including Macie Stewart and Dehd’s Jason Balla. Modern Fiction included a song with backing vocals from the Beths, but Harm’s Way has background vocals from everyone from Ratboys’ Julia Steiner, Dummy’s Nathan O’Dell, Moontype’s Margaret McCarthy, Lawn’s Rui De Magalhaes, and Patio’s Lindsey-Paige McCloy. Ratboys’ Marcus Nuccio plays drums on most of the tracks, too. Louder and more dynamic as the arrangements may get, the newfound confidence only grounds the band’s most distinct trait: daring to make frenetically sugary, meticulously crafted songs about all sorts of collapsing structures.

    We caught up with Ducks Ltd.’s Tom McGreecy to talk about some of the inspirations behind Harm’s Way, including country music, the occult, Chicago, touring, and more.


    Country music

    I don’t know if you looked through any of the previous inspirations features, but the last one we did last year was with Beirut’s Zach Condon, who talked about country music as his final inspiration. And this is the first one for 2024, which is funny.

    Oh, cool! I did look through a bunch of the recent ones, but I haven’t actually looked at that one. That was a total coincidence.

    What has your relationship with country music been like?

    In some ways, I kind of grew up on it. My dad, in a way that I feel is somewhat common to Englishmen of his age, loves cowboy hats and stuff like that, Americana and Americana tropes. He always has, so when I was a kid, I definitely grew up on a lot of that; CMT was often on in the house. But I feel like I feel like I’ve gotten into it more recently, or I’ve embraced my interest in it with more intention. Evan’s really into a lot of stuff, too – I think we’re into slightly different ends of the spectrum with country music. I like a lot of kinda silly, dumb pop country stuff, which I think he is less into. There was an element when we were starting to work on this record where were thinking, how do we differentiate it from the last one? And we were talking about it, but we were also like, if we try and do something deliberately, then it won’t work. It won’t make sense. But because we’ve both been listening to a lot of country stuff in general, some of those things came through in some of the guitar playing, and a lot of the harmonies I put on these tracks are coming from the way that those things are structured in country songs. At one point, we were like, “Is this gonna be a country-tinged record?” And then we realized, no, it isn’t, but there’s bits of it that stuck around.

    From a songwriting perspective, it’s something that I like a lot. The whole tradition of it, which I think really carries through a lot of very modern pop country stuff, is this idea of lyrical economy; that for the most part, you are working within a fairly rigid structure song structure. It’s just some of the best songwriting that’s happening, in a sort of technical way. I’ve talked about this guy a lot before, Hardy, a pop country artist and a songwriter who’s written a lot of hits for major artists in the last five years or so. Part of the thing that I appreciate about his stuff is just on a nuts and bolts level how cool it is, how interesting a lot of the writing is – where he’ll put a line break, the language he’ll use, the use of assonance and things like that. There’s a real respect for the rudiments of songwriting structure that he then plays with in ways that are really interesting. And I think that’s true of a huge amount of country songwriting traditionally. The George Jones song ‘The Race Is On’ is a great example of it, where they’ve taken a kind of absurd conceit, this horse racing metaphor, and absolutely stuck to it, like drilled into it. Those formal experiments are really exciting to me as a songwriter.

    The occult

    There are subtle references to the occult throughout the record, especially when it comes to evoking the sort of disalignment that happens when relationships fall apart. How did it become something you found yourself drawn to?

    It was pretty late in the writing process of the record, but it was when I was finishing some things and writing some of the last songs that went into the record. I had been out in LA, hanging out with a friend, and we had gone for a hike. He pointed out this house that was visible from where we were walking that belonged to Jack Parsons, whom I had never heard about. He kind of gave me a quick outline of who he was, and then I read about it. Jack Parsons was basically the guy who invented modern rocket fuel; in essence, the thing that he invented is still what is used to get things into space now. This was in the 1940s, mostly. But he was a fascinating guy – this self-taught scientist who not only invented modern rocket fuel but was also a wizard, an occultist. He was the head of Aleister Crowley’s lodge in LA, and moved from inventing modern rocket fuel directly into trying to summon the Aeon of Horus via something called the Babalon Working. He’s also essentially the reason Scientology exists, because he taught thelomatic magic to L. Ron Hubbard, who then used that as the foundation for a lot of what Dianetics is, and he managed to found Scientology by stealing a bunch of money from Jack Parsons and running off with his wife. So Jack Parsons has a surprisingly wide influence on the history of the twentieth century. He also looked really cool [laughs].

    I got really fascinated with him, and then through that got really fascinated with this whole idea of ritual magic as a way of thinking about the world. Not one that I subscribe to in any sense, but just one that I found interesting that it was as popular as it was for a while. I think that language just crept into some stuff. I make a specific allusion to it in ‘The Main Thing’. It was just a thing that I got really tied up in for a couple of months when we were writing this record.

    My Bloody Valentine’s Sunny Sundae Smile EP

    People obviously cite My Bloody Valentine all the time, but not so much this era before they were a shoegaze band. Is it something you keep coming back to?

    I had a phase as a teenager when I first heard that band where I got really excited about it, me and all my friends driving around listening to Loveless. To be honest, that era of the band, while it’s obviously good and cool, is not something that I return to all that often. If I’m picking one of the major shoegaze bands, it’s Slowdive for me. But this early stuff I didn’t know anything about. That’s also because Kevin Shields is kind of trying to bury it; none of this stuff is on Spotify, and you can’t really hear it anywhere except for YouTube. Evan showed it to me when we were starting to work on this record and I was absolutely delighted by it. They’re kind of twee jangle pop band, even unusually twee for the period in a lot of ways. They sound like a more blown-out The Shop Assistants, which is totally the kind of thing that appeals to me.

    I remember one of the few moments working on this record where we ever deliberately reached for something else was when we were doing ‘On Our Way to the Rave’, and we were having trouble making it lock together. Evan was like, “What if we just blow out the guitar like on this?” And it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool. That would work.” You can see how they became the thing that they became, this blown-out, washier thing, but that’s not really what this is like. It’s not just this EP, like the Ecstasy and Wine stuff, a little bit later but still before the records that everyone always cites from these guys, is a similar thing. These are pop songs, and the wash and the blown-out stuff is more garnish than focus. I had never heard this stuff before we started working on this record, and I thought it was neat.

    Like you said, it’s unusually twee, but looking at it another way, it’s also unusually noisy and distorted for how jangle poppy it is, which I can see being an inspiration in terms of the production here. There’s also an interesting contrast between some of the lyrics I was able to catch and the sunniness of the music.

    Yeah, I feel like there’s an element of Syd Barrett worship in it. The whole thing is cool; ‘Sylvie’s Head’, the last song on the EP, is really neat. The title track is great. We we were talking about trying to cover it at one point, and then I think we read the lyrics and we’re like, “Uh, I don’t know, man.” [laughs] They’re not terrible, it’s just kind of silly psych stuff. I think the next one is Strawberry Wine, and that one in a similar way sounds a little bit more 80s UK indie stuff by way of more trad psych ‘60s psych stuff. It’s interesting.

    Paul Kelly

    This is another one that my dad was into it. Paul Kelly’s not very popular, certainly relatively, in the US or the UK, where my dad’s from, but he, for some reason, had gotten into him and was always a big fan of him. I’d been a fan of some of his songs for a long time, and when me and Evan started working together – Evan is obviously from Australia, where Paul Kelly is big a deal, he’s like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen all rolled into one. That was a thing that talked about, our mutual admiration for Paul Kelly, and I ended up listening to a lot more. I think the way that his songwriting works kind of snuck into this record a little bit. The thing about it is none of his albums are really good all the way through, but when he hits, they’re just some of the best songs of that pub rock period. What he specializes in writing in this honest and compelling way about the emotional lives of regular blokes, and he does it in this very conversational way where the language always rings true to just being a guy talking, but it also has this poetic element.

    There was a couple I was really into when we were working on this record. ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’, that one really stuck with me. I just listened to it over and over again, trying to figure out how it worked. It’s stripped out, there’s not that many words in it; all of them do something. It’s got a very direct way of describing a tactile experience, where that isn’t the point but it’s an aside that makes the song feel more emotionally resonant. And then he has these ways of elevating it. “I’d give you all of Sydney Harbor, all that land and all that water is” is such a good line. That song is great, ‘Before Too Long’ is an incredible song. He has a lot of really good songs, and I think there were some pieces of the way he writes that I was definitely thinking about when I was writing some of the songs for this record.

    Dave Vettraino’s production catalog

    What attracted you to Dave Vettraino’s production before you got to work together?

    When we started working on this record, we knew we were interested in the idea of working with an outside producer in some context. We’d never really done that before. All of our stuff, the whole process was just between me and Evan, so we liked the idea of trying to bring somebody else in and see how it would work. We were listening to a bunch of stuff and thinking about a bunch of different people. A lot of my favorite indie rock records from the last few years are from Chicago bands, and we realized that an awful lot of them, David had worked on. We went through his whole catalog and realized not only had he done all these records that we were really into from bands like Dehd and Deeper and Bnny, but his main thing, almost, is working on jazz records. The thing that we found cool listening through his stuff, that Evan especially was really excited about, was that all of his stuff, regardless of the genre or the context he’s working in – he brings atmosphere to these records. And it’s not always the same one, but it’s a really noticeable thing. They have a distinct feel, and that was really appealing to us.

    Partly because we were working with him and partly because these were just Chicago-based people that we liked, we ended up working with some of those folks, too. We had Macie Stewart come and play strings on the record and do some of the arranging, who’s a good pal of Dave’s and has worked with him in the past. Jason Balla from Dehd was another one who’s tight with Dave, and we had him come in to help with the backing vocals because I’ve always really liked the way the backing vocals work on the Dehd records in particular, where they do stuff that is not where my instinct would take me, especially with the way they’ll often melody rather than just gloss or harmony. We got these people involved and we were listening to a lot of their stuff, and I think they made a mark on how the record works as a whole.

    Can you give any other examples of techniques or tones he’d bring into Harm’s Way?

    He’s a remarkable engineer. He’s got all this outboard gear that he understands incredibly well, so there’s a lot of elements to how the reverbs are, how the compression is – technical things that he’s doing, especially on things like the vocals and the drums, which is just, despite Evan being also very good at this stuff, far beyond our capabilities. It’s all the little iterative changes, but they add up. There’s some stuff that we wouldn’t have done that was cool – ‘Train Full of Gasoline’ has a Farfisa organ being played through a space echo dug way back in the mix. It floats in and out, but it just gives it this slightly spooky ambiance. There are a bunch of little things like that where he was like, “Play that piano for a minute, I’m just gonna put some reverb on it and we can chop some shit up and throw it in there and see what it does like.” There’d be something and it wouldn’t be quite right, and then he would just figure out a way to rapidly edit it where it’s like, “What if we just use this bit? That would be cool.” I feel like he inhabits and intuitively understands the aural landscape of a recording and can navigate it with a lot of ease.

    Chicago

    Before talking more about the scene, was there anything about the city itself and the time you spent there that stuck with you?

    I have been a fan of the city for a long time; one of my best friends growing up, when I moved to Toronto, he moved there, so I would go visit a lot. When I first started going there in what would have been the early 2010s, the scene there was this amazingly loose, DIY thing, where people were putting on these crazy shows in warehouses. It was really wild, and that was a very influential moment for me being like, “This is what music can be like.” I had a bunch of moments with it. One of the first places that I went to once lockdowns ended was Chicago for a long weekend, and the first time I saw a band after lockdowns was there. I saw Moontype, and Margaret [McCarthy] plays on our record, too.

    Was there anything that surprised you about it or that you got to really appreciate when you were there making the record?

    A thing that was cool that I knew but didn’t fully appreciate about it is that, as music scenes and communities go, it’s very supportive one; there isn’t the crabs in a bucket kind of mentality that often happens in these music scenes. It doesn’t seem to really exist – I’m sure it does, but it seems to be much more toned down. People all know each other, or if they don’t, they’re aware of each other, and they’re friendly and supportive to each other. People seem less inclined to perceive the success of others as a challenge or some kind of reason to get upset, they seem to be celebrating each other in a way that’s cool.

    Last time we talked, we touched on how collaborative your process is between you and Evan, but I’m curious how your collaborators outside the band inspired you to open that process further this time.  

    Outside of Dave, who contributed a lot but had kind of a different role in the process, it was exciting just how game everyone was. Everyone we reached out to – some we knew a little bit before, some of them we didn’t – but everyone we reached out to was like, “Absolutely, I’m right there. What do you wanna do?” There’s a bunch of cool layers to it. Macie is just an astounding musician, somebody who is so much better at this than me that it’s frightening to me, where I would just confusedly and apologetically hum an idea to her and she’d be like, “Oh, no, I understand that,” and we’ll just be able to play it like first time every time. With the backing vocal stuff, Jason and Margaret and Julia [Steiner] from Ratboys had a bunch of great ideas, were down to experiment and screw around and were not precious about anything. With Marcus [Nuccio], we scheduled two days to track drums with him, and he had it all done in like half of the first day. He’s just real good. It felt really easy to work with all those folks, which was nice because it was a new experience to do that kind of thing, especially with people we didn’t work with regularly.

    Touring

    How did your approach to songwriting shift as a result of touring? Was it mostly a matter of confidence or being affected by it in other ways?

    The last record, Modern Fiction, was written when pretty much everyone was living a pretty small life. We were just at home, couldn’t see too many people, couldn’t go to too many places, and that was the environment in which the songs were written. Whereas this record was written, some of it actually on tour, but in between and after tours, where we’ve been going out and seeing people and doing things. I think that inevitably made its mark on the direction I was casting my gaze. There’s a few very specific things that were just experiential that get reflected in the lyrics.

    But I think the bigger thing that Evan and I both talked about at various times is that I think normally, our process is a thing where we write the arrangements as we’re tracking the demos, which sometimes end up just being basically the final recordings or the roots of them, so we used to learn the song as we’re writing it and then basically never play it again. In the context of this record, we had the record before, where we we played these songs and had gone out and played 100 plus shows, and so had gotten a knowledge and understanding of how our songs worked that we didn’t have before. When we came to make this record, it was a thing where we understood, sort of intuitively, how a Ducks song works, so we didn’t have to think about it as much, or take it apart to see how it worked, or do the looking outward, listening to other things and being like, “Maybe we could try something like that.” That was way less a part of this, and it was way more being like, “What would we do? How do we do this?” I think that allowed us to expand on stuff a little bit, to have that kind of grounding.

    Lyrically, were you conscious of how experience on the road seeped into the songs, in the sense of it not being explicitly about tour but having a broader resonance?

    I feel like, for the most part, songs about being in a band are just bad. [laughs] They’re not terribly interesting. There are some notable exceptions, but the great tradition of road songs or whatever are generally pretty uninteresting, I think. With the exception of, like, Motörhead’s ‘(We Are) The Roadcrew’, that song I mostly good.

    Did you say Motörhead? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that song.

    The song ‘America’ is really funny, and it’s hard to tell if he means it to be funny. Like, the opening lyric of the second verse is: “America, cold as death, up to Canada, crystal meth.” The song is excellent. But yeah, I was definitely wary of the idea of doing anything like that, but the experiences that we had out there, it kind of seeps in and ends up being reflected in ways that are not always super intentional. I don’t tend to know what I’m writing about when I start writing about it, I just have to figure it out as I go. It’s more that the images would come from the experiences, in some ways, and then I’d figure out what the core of it was later on.


    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Ducks Ltd.’s Harm’s Way is out now via Carpark.

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