Words by Elvis Thirlwell
“Just about okay/ living the old way” – This ambiguous opening sentiment from Ducks Ltd.’s debut full length Modern Fiction, delivered in euphoric 6-string fervour, prefaces neatly what’s to follow: a beguiling half hour of existential unease rankled by nasty hangovers, lonely nights, and worldly concerns of “a generation in decline”.
Formed in Toronto, and pivoting around core duo Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis, Ducks Ltd. are seasoned exponents of such bittersweet, 80s-leaning jangle-pop. Their tunes rifle at breakneck speeds, guitars strum furiously, to within an inch of their oblivion – the whole construction is conjoined by a tantalising mixture of melodic gorgeousness and meticulous songsmithery.
Aficionado’s of the genre might well catalogue the litany of influences to which the Ducks are indebted – C86, Postcard, Sarah Records, Flying Nun… But in truth, the pair have spent enough time grafting their identity, in admiration of this jangly lineage, to brush such comparisons aside like water off, err, a duck’s back: “People tend to spot the stuff we’re into. It’s really fun when someone pulls out a slightly deeper cut…”
Thus spoke Tom McGreevy, one half of Ducks Ltd. whom I caught up with over the phone during his brief sojourn to New York. Together, we delved into the band’s history, those influences, how the pandemic shaped their musical journey, and how, yes, “it’s all drum machines”.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you and Evan [Lewis] get together?
“We were playing in different bands that were playing shows together. We started talking about [jangle-pop] music and realised that we had a lot of taste in common. Neither of us knew a lot of people who were into it. ”
What are the qualities in ‘jangle-pop’ that inspired you to create it yourself?
“There’s a lot going on with it that I find appealing. It’s an avenue for melodic pop songwriting. A lot of it has a way of presenting itself which has a unique feel and character, I guess largely because it was pretty unpopular! What I like a lot about the English and Scottish stuff, especially from the 80s, is how it’s reflective of what was a grim time period, socially, politically and economically. It reflects it without necessarily directly addressing it, For instance, one of my favourites is McCarthy, who address it extremely directly. They could not be more on the nose! There’s something interesting in the way that works for me: these songs are not explicitly political, but are reflective of a political environment.”
I noticed listening to the album that the lyrical atmosphere you create in this record is quite an important component. There’s imagery of alienation, people wandering around lost or stuck in bedrooms.
“These songs are about living in an alienated, broader cultural moment, which is, in some sense, life under capital. There’s been enough immediate things as a direct result of that which have made the world feel like a somewhat hostile place for most of my adult life.”
What is your lyric-writing process?
“When I’m first writing them, the initial part of the process is this “first thought is the best thought” thing, where I let a feeling just happen. And then I take it and edit it back and figure out what it was I was trying to say, refine it, and make sure it’s saying what I mean.”
Somebody reviewed one of our shows recently and said ‘we sounded like we could beat up Real Estate.’ ”– Tom McGreevy
How does this compare with the way you put the music together?
“The process for how we put the music together is a lot more methodical. Normally, I’d write the bones of something by myself on an unplugged electric guitar, record that on my phone, and then take it to Evan’s house. Then me and Evan will sit down with it, figure it out piece by piece; figure out if it needs a different part, if it needs to change, start figuring out how the arrangement works…”
“You really drill into that part of the process. You sit down, go over an 8-bar phrase, loop it over and over again and ask “how does it work? What should happen here? How do the bass and lead guitar interact? What needs to occur to make that part move into that part?” We’re passing a guitar and bass back and forth, negotiating with how a melody is going to work. That part is super super enjoyable. We get really into the craft of it, which is extremely fun for us.”
Has this process changed from when you made your first record (the Get Bleak EP).
“We’ve definitely refined it! When we started, the band would come into the process more, but we found that this wasn’t functional for us. Trying to do the detail orientated stuff is really hard to do with a real drummer: it’s not fair to ask them to keep playing that part over and over again while you fiddle with it!”
“The more it’s just become a thing that me and Evan do, the better we’ve gotten at learning what works and what doesn’t, tightening that process. Removing the live band element and grafting that on later was a big deal for us! We spend a lot of time cheating to make it sound like live, but it extremely isn’t. In the context of how it’s written and recorded, it’s just me and Evan. There’s no live drums on the record. It’s all drum machines!”
I read that you recorded the string sections for the album on an Australian Mountain Range! (The Macedon ranges in Victoria) Was that down to the Pandemic?
“Yeah! That was a Covid thing. There was no place where we could get four string players in a room, and track them under the protocols that existed at the time. It ended up working out great! I don’t say this flippantly, but we have probably made a better record because of [the Pandemic]. If it hadn’t happened, we would have put out that EP, gotten some attention, and there would have been pressure on us to move on quickly. We would have just recorded the songs we already had, and some of them weren’t very good.”
“We had this time where neither of us had anything really pressing to do. So from April last year, to the middle of February this year, we were getting together twice a week, demoing, writing, recording, for at least three hours each time. We took it really seriously, wrote 22 songs in five months, because we had the time to devote to the process. In terms of being a band, there were probably a lot of cool experiences we didn’t have, but we did have an opportunity to make something we were proud of, which we might not have had otherwise.”
You’re touring the UK early next year! What can we expect from your live show?
“We play with a rhythm section live. We’re slightly less twee in a live context than we may initially appear! We play a little faster and a little punkier, because it’s more fun, and makes more sense. Somebody reviewed one of our shows recently and said ‘we sounded like we could beat up Real Estate.’ ”
Modern Fiction, the band’s debut album arrives October 1st via Carpark Records.