Ducks Ltd. are entering a new stage of their creative process with the announcement of their new album, ‘Harm’s Way’. The Toronto-based duo, comprising of Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis, are known for songs that contend with a myriad of personal and societal pressures, all packaged in intrinsically charming, upbeat indie-rock tracks. The production of ‘Harm’s Way’ signalled several shifts for Ducks Ltd. – leaving Toronto to record in Chicago, prioritising greater collaboration, and attempting to avoid making songs that simply echo their favourite bands.
With Tom having just had a week recovering from Covid, mainly spent reading about the Bronze Age collapse, and Evan home from a trip buying used records in New York, Clash caught up with the duo over Zoom in anticipation of the announcement of their next record.
From heavy-metal-fuelled road trips to a Toronto sinkhole, the band’s range of inspiration is undeniable. Above all else though, ‘Harm’s Way’s production provided the opportunity to cement their unique sound, encouraging both experimentation in combination with their already well-tested song formulas. With the album out on February 9th and a show already lined up at London’s Moth Club for May, the excitement in the build-up to this new era for Ducks Ltd. is palpable.
There’s a really strong sense of newfound confidence in this album. Where does ‘Harm’s Way’ sit in your progression and growth as a band so far?
Tom: Yeah, I mean we’ve been doing it for a bit at this point and it’s like we’ve consistently gotten more confident in our vision… We’ve gotten maybe a little bit better at following our instincts. Or at least more total in that. Would that be fair Evan?
Evan: Yeah, I think so. I think it was initially a lot of figuring out how to do it and what we sounded like, and what worked and what didn’t. And then this time around we knew how to do it, so it was like less referencing things or spending nights trying to learn techniques or understand how someone else did something, more so knowing how to do it and not worry about that side of making Ducks songs…
Before we get into the record itself, could you explain how the band came together?
T: I feel like it fundamentally started when we were on tour in a couple of other bands and just realised we were into a bunch of similar stuff… We had a few false starts… We recorded a whole other EP that we never put out and we had a bunch of other stuff that we did that just took us a while to turn into the thing that made sense, but we always knew the things that we both liked that we were trying to make. It just took us a while to figure out how to do it.
You’ve mentioned wanting to focus on your own unique sound, but were there any albums or artists you were listening to that influenced this album specifically?
E: It wasn’t so much referencing things… We live in an era now where we all just have access to all music so we’re all just listening to a million things a week rather than like, you know, you bought this one record or CD and your obsessed over it and you’re trying to be influenced by it. Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know, cause we have in the past been like, “let’s make a song that’s kind of in the style of this band, or this band does a cool thing on this song, we should try and use that idea in our music”. But I don’t think we did that at all this time.
T: Yeah and I feel like when we did it, it was kind of weird stuff. Where it was just like a random thing that we’d come across where it’s like “oh that’s kind of cool what they’re doing with the guitar layers there”… It was more just sort of like that’s a thought and then see if we can build it out. But I think things that have always been our influential things are there. Like The Go-Betweens and all the Cherry Red stuff and Sarah Records stuff and like Postcards stuff that we really like. It definitely underpins it all.
I mean I feel like there was a period when we first started making it where we like “are we gonna try and make a country record?” And then we kinda did that on one song and then gave up. But we were both listening to a lot of that kind of stuff.
E: I think I was listening to a lot of Buck Owens and George Jones, so then we had a country thing. And then I remember we had that my bloody valentine’s, like early, before ‘Isn’t Anything’ stuff.
T: Oh yeah!
E: So you can see it in there a little bit. There’s The Clean album, ‘Vehicle’, that I was listening to a lot – there’s definitely ideas from that in there. But yeah, a lot of the same stuff. And yeah we were on tour, so we spent hours and hours together over the last year just playing lots of music to ourselves and hearing our band members play stuff. But a lot of the time we listened to AC/DC or Metallica, or something.
T: Yeah, I was literally thinking the other day about that one day we had when we were driving through the mountains in Utah and we just did twelve hours of extreme metal, like it was just non-stop Immortal and like Dark Throat and stuff. I don’t think that got into the record at all, but that was where we went to at a certain point of our listening.
Definitely sounds like a journey. I know that you also left Toronto and worked on the record in Chicago this time around. What was it like changing the environment of your recording process?
T: Yeah, that was really cool. I mean I feel like it was just a new thing for us in a bunch of ways. Because we’d never really done any recording that wasn’t just the two of us by ourselves kind of doing it. But yeah, I think going to Chicago was a thing that appealed because there’s just a lot of really good music that’s in our world coming out of there at the moment. And we sort of realised that a lot of it had been produced or engineered, or both, by Dave Vettraino, who we worked with on the record.
I think you said Evan, if there’s anyone we’ve ever met who’s going on to win a Grammy, it’s probably Dave… It was cool to be working with him and just how quickly he could do things, like how musical he is, how quickly he understands what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it… And yeah, it was fun to get to work with some people, some of whom we knew beforehand, and some of whom we kind of met as part of this process who are just like making cool music… It was cool to be in a room working with other people because we didn’t get to do a lot of that before this record really.
What was that collaboration experience like?
T: It was neat to just see what other people had to bring to it… Like there’s a lot more backing vocals on this album in general. And there were more on the demoes as well. But it was cool to just have people involved in that especially, like Jason [Balla], who helped to arrange a bunch of them. Where he just thinks about it in a different way than we do…. Yeah, the string stuff I thought was really cool too. Just like working with Macie [Stewart]… She would sort of just be able to figure out intuitively how a thing would work… We kind of just came into the process with the core of the thing pretty much figured out, so we already sort of knew what it was going to be mostly, and so it’s just sort of like that top layer – I think that we got to consider some other ways of doing it, which we might not have otherwise found on our own. It’s cool.
‘Hollowed Out’ kicks off the album and you’re releasing it at the end of this month. What was the process behind that track?
T: I’m trying to think. I mean I guess it was the normal thing that we do where like I kind of write the core of the thing and then we get together and figure it out…
E: It was one of the last ones. And it came together quickly which, you know, it always seems like the ones that stand out happen very quickly. That and ‘The Main Thing’ were almost like back-to-back. Right after we came back from that Archers of Loaf tour I think we did the demo for it. It almost happened in like one sitting, and it pretty much is what the demo was, there’s not much difference… That one almost took shape immediately.
T: It was kind of one where I wasn’t sure what it was gonna be. When I’d written it, it was a very quiet thing, and I wasn’t sure how it was gonna translate into like the context of how our arrangements work, and then it just did immediately… Thank you for reminding me, I had totally forgotten what happened with that one.
E: Like the sinkhole on Dundas Street in Toronto, which I remember was annoying to get to the recordings because I had to take two avenues of public transport to get there rather than one, just because a giant sinkhole happened on the street.
T: Yeah, no that’s true. That’s funny how much that actually made it to the recording process. Because yeah we’d been working on stuff for a while and there was this sinkhole that opened that was directly on Evan’s way to the studio, so we’d been talking about it a lot… I’m happy to have memorialised the sinkhole, it feels good.
A lot of the tracks on this album try and contend with this feeling of being overwhelmed, whether that’s from societal or personal pressures. Do you think there’s a reason why that’s such an important theme in your music?
T: I think it’s an experience that a lot of people are having and so it ends up being a thing that gets reflected. At least given my perception of the situation that we are living through, there’s a lot of external pressure that you’re living under all the time… The ways in which that weighs in a personal way on people and also in the way that you interact with the people around you is hard to escape. So I think it ends up being a thing that is sort of an inevitable part of these songs.
I just wanted to touch on the final song of the album. Instrumentally it’s a bit different to some of the other tracks.
T: Yeah, that was cool to do. I wrote that one, it was kind of the same process. I think we realised pretty quickly when we started working on it that it wouldn’t work as well if we tried to make it something other than what it was. That it needed to be kind of a quieter thing to work. And that was an interesting one to work on process-wise because our general system is pretty refined at this point. We know how to make the kind of songs that we make. Whereas that one we didn’t… It was like, “oh no, these need to be different things, these need to be built differently”… So it was an interesting thing to explore, to kind of get outside of our normal comfort zone and do some different process stuff.
E: I think it was important to us to challenge ourselves production-wise and throw ourselves out of our comfort zone with arrangements because I think it had become, not easy, but there were certain formulas that were applying to everything. So we were acting a bit cautious to make sure we weren’t just making the same record over again, or at least challenging ourselves because when we made the last record we were figuring out all those formulas.
The first song I ever heard Tom play before I knew him was the song ‘Annie Forever’, which was on our first EP and it was a slower, softer song, and I’ve always really liked that approach to his songwriting. And I want more people to hear it, so I felt it was pretty important that we at least had one song that was in that mode of things because he’s insanely good at doing that. So I’m really glad that we got one on there. And it was fun to arrange, because at one point we were into this one Paul Kelly album called ‘Post’, and a lot of it doesn’t have drums and we were like “maybe we can make a song like that where it’s kind of just acoustic guitar, and lead guitar and vocals”, and there was an iteration of it that was like that and then it slowly kept evolving…
It’s such an organic way to end the album. The release is a few months away, but what are your favourite moments on ‘Harm’s Way’?
T: Oh man, yeah I’m trying to think… I like ‘Hollowed Out’ a lot. I think that’s one of the better songs that I’ve written… I’m excited to learn ‘The Main Thing’, we’re doing that this week. We’ve never played it live so we have no idea how that’s gonna work. I feel like it’s not that complicated – I think it’ll be ok, but yeah I’m curious to see how that one goes…
E: I really like ‘Deleted Scenes’, I like how that one turned out, it has a nice atmosphere to it… And the funny thing with that one is that Dave pointed out that it kind of shows our age because it’s about deleted scenes. That term is associated with DVDs and having the bonus tracks being the deleted scenes… Maybe people don’t watch deleted scenes that much, or like it wasn’t a thing for our parents, which I think is really fun.
‘Harm’s Way’ will be released on February 9th. Catch Ducks Ltd. at London’s Moth Club on May 27th.
Words: Charlotte Grimwade
Photo Credit: Colin Medley