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Photo by Colin Medley
Ducks Ltd. has a unique way of addressing complex and dark subject matter in a glimmering and inviting way as their sophomore album, Harm’s Way, is a masterpiece of tightly-constructed jangle pop (check out David Browne’s review). After self-recording and self-producing their 2021 debut, Modern Fiction, in a Toronto basement during the pandemic, Tom McGreevy (vocals/guitar) and Evan Lewis (guitar) sought an upgrade and traveled to Chicago to work with a producer they respected and a supporting cast of musicians from acts like Ratboys (Julia Steiner, Marcus Nuccio), Finom (Macie Stewart), and Dummy (Nathan O’Dell).
McGreevy recently joined me on a Zoom call to discuss the decision to record in Chicago, the jangle pop community, the meaning behind some lyrics, and the lessons learned from touring with Archers of Loaf.
As this is your second post-pandemic release, it must be nice to not have to answer questions about recording in isolation or via video conferencing. For Harm’s Way, you went to Chicago to record, something that was new for you.
TOM: This was our “going places and doing things” record. When we made the first record, it was just me and Evan in a basement during lockdown the whole time. We didn’t make it in a way that was a particularly memorable experience so, for this album, we were motivated by the idea of going and working with other people.
Though you’re based in Toronto, it seems like you’ve got a lot of friends in Chicago including bands you’ve toured with. Is that why you chose to record there?
TOM: To an extent. There’s been a bunch of people that we’ve met over the course of Ducks Ltd.‘s history that are from there. As a music scene, there’s so many bands from there. It might be the indie rock capital of the world. There’s a lot of people doing stuff and a lot of it’s really cool. That was part of the motivation. Also, we wanted to work with Dave Vettraino because he’s worked with some bands that we like from Chicago, like Deeper, Dehd and Lala Lala. The more we dug into his discography, the more we realized that even the stuff we didn’t know that he had worked on was also really cool. We realized that a lot of the records we liked that were coming out of Chicago were coming out of the same studio and being made by the same guy.
Could you ever imagine moving to Chicago?
TOM: I could totally imagine living in Chicago though it’s hard to motivate myself to move from Toronto because they’re really similar towns. I enjoy going there and having a great time but I don’t think my life would really change that much if I moved there. And, if anything, it’s colder in Chicago. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about seriously.
Jangle pop has a niche following. Outside of some really big names like R.E.M., it’s not something that you’ll hear too often when flipping around the radio dial. Are you okay with appealing to a smaller, more dedicated following or do you hope that a middle-aged guy like me living in Columbus, Ohio will hear you on a local alt-rock radio station and become a fan?
TOM: If the average, middle-aged guy in Columbus, Ohio listened to our music, that would be awesome. I’m all about that. But I definitely feel the community element of jangle pop fans. Ultimately, we’re those kinds of people. Me and Evan were extremely into this stuff and deeply into its history and all the nerdy stuff about it before we even started a band. It’s how we became friends.
It’s been really cool since we started the band the way that that community has embraced us. Last year, when we played in London for the first time, one of the people who ran Sarah Records came out and she said that it felt like a reunion. All of these people who are into jangle pop fans came out. She recognized all of them and knew a bunch of people. Those folks come out for certain stuff. It is like super niche, but it does feel like it has a lineage and history and is a sort of canon.
There’s this young band from just outside of a small college town in Ohio called The Laughing Chimes who are carrying on the jangle pop sound. While I realize most people have access to the internet so discovering bands is much easier these days, I wonder how they discovered a band like R.E.M. or some of the ’80s New Zealand stuff.
TOM: I think early R.E.M. is filtered into a broader pattern of influence. When we started, people said we sounded like early R.E.M. all the time, and we had never listened to early R.E.M. Now I’ve listened to it because people have said that we sounded like it, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is really cool.” I feel like you can end up reverse engineering it as an influence without pretending to.
While the music is shiny and uplifting, the themes in the lyrics aren’t. Is it tough to sing about some tough subjects without writing dark music?
TOM: It’s a juxtaposition that is a big part of the genre as a whole so it kind of feels natural to do it that way. I think a more honest answer to the question is that it’s just the natural noise that we make. This is what happens when we don’t think about it that hard. It feels right to me, and if it feels that way when we’re writing it, then I’m happy with it and we move on.
I love some of the lyrics. On “The Main Thing,” when you sing about living like a middle reliever, innings eater on a losing team, I know exactly what you’re talking about. As a Cleveland baseball fan, I’ve lived through a lot of middle relievers who are just there to give some of the guys some rest knowing full well that, at best, they are average players, but they serve a purpose. Are you a baseball fan or was that an analogy you used to try to illustrate something?
TOM: I’m glad that stuck. I figured that was a lyric that was likely to alienate at least half our audience. I am a baseball fan. It was just something that occurred to me. I think I had the idea in August of a particularly grim Blue Jays season. They’ve been kind of frustrating the last few years but I think it was one of those years where they came in with high hopes and then it became clear nothing was going to happen. You’re watching a lot of guys who are going to end up on waivers pretty soon just trudging through the last couple months of the season. That lyric did come from legitimate baseball fandom.
In “Train Full of Gasoline” you sing about always being a dumb ass. Would you say your lyric writing tends to be more fact or fiction?
TOM: I think it’s kind of complicated. They tend to be emotionally fact but in substance fiction. I’m trying to express a feeling that is normally real but the details are generally invented or are things that feel like they are conveying the feeling rather than a detailed accounting of a thing that has occurred.
On the title track, you sing about the “well-worn volume of vintage erotica found jammed in the back panel of a secondhand Victrola.” Is that something that really happened or did you use those lyrics to set a scene for the listener?
TOM: That happened with a friend of mine. They got this beautiful old cabinet record player. I think they were trying to reattach the speakers or something and they found reams and reams of pornography that somebody had hidden back there, some previous owner however many years ago. You can put together an entire history from a simple fact in and of itself. It says a lot more about the psychological state of a person you’ve never met than the object itself would indicate. I thought it was an interesting thing and it ended up thinking about it later.
In “Heavy Bag,” you sing, “I keep on listening to ‘The Boys Are Back in Town.’ Are you a Thin Lizzy fan?
TOM: I enjoy Thin Lizzy. That record in particular, Jailbreak, I got really into it at one point in time. Phil Lynott wrote some really good songs. He always feels to me like a guy who was slightly a different kind of songwriter than the band he was in gave him the tools to be. The way that a lot of his writing strains against that is really interesting. Some of his solo stuff is cool too but a lot of it is not good. The song “Old Town” I’ve always thought was really great.
In the last couple of years, you’ve toured with artists like Nation of Language and Archers of Loaf. Those two bands are on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of both sound and experience. From a touring perspective, did you pick anything up from either of them?
TOM: We had a great time on both those tours. It was a really, really fun experience in different ways. The Archers of Loaf one was neat, because it was the last tour on the last cycle and we’d done a bunch of touring with other bands and some stuff by ourselves – some stuff where we were the headliner, a bunch of stuff where we were the opener. Those guys are so nice, just incredibly genuinely lovely people. It would have been very easy or totally reasonable for them to not be particularly friendly and it was the exact opposite. On the first night, they were like, “You guys should come hang out in the dressing room. It’s all cool, we’re all out here together.” There were a few experiences on that tour where it just felt like we were sitting at the feet of our indie rock elders receiving wisdom. They’d tell stories about hanging out with Keanu Reeves in LA in the 90s.
If there was a lesson learned on that tour, it was that the vibes were extremely good because those guys took it with the exact right amount of seriousness. They care about what they’re doing and have a respect for their craft and for the audience in such a way that they are going to do everything they can to put on a really great show. But, at the same time, there was no anxiety. These guys are like, “This is supposed to be a fun thing.” A lot of their crew are guys that have been with them since they started and the whole group had this idea that this isn’t a place to be worrying about stuff. This is supposed to be a cool experience, this is why we’re doing this so let’s make that the focus. That was a really cool thing to witness and see a band like that.
Sometimes when you’re out there doing this, it is stressful and it’s intense and there’s a lot of pressure. of various kinds and you’re also tired and worn out, You can lose sight of it a little bit. It was fun doing the tour with Archers because they knew exactly why they were there and that was a neat thing to pick up from them.
Look into your crystal ball. If we get on a call at the end of 2024, what are you going to tell me as you look back on this year?
TOM: Hopefully it’ll be a good year for us. We put out the last record then we toured a bunch. We went to make this one and it feels like yesterday that we were out there touring even though actually it’s been basically a year since we’ve been out there doing stuff because we’ve been making the record. I think we’re just really excited to get back out there. Hopefully in December I’m just telling you that we had a great time going out there and playing songs for the people and meeting the folks.
2024 Tour Dates
03/08 – Philadelphia, PA – Kung Fu Necktie
03/09 & 3/10 – New York, NY – New Colossus
03/28 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar *
03/29 – Chattanooga, TN – Barking Legs Theater *
03/30 – Asheville, NC – Eulogy *
04/01 – Charlotte, NC – Snug Harbor *
04/02 – Richmond, VA – Richmond Music Hall *
04/04 – Baltimore, MD – Ottobar *
04/05 – Hamden, CT – Space Ballroom *
04/06 – Portland, ME – Space Gallery *
04/07 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground Showcase Lounge *
04/08 – Rochester, NY – Bug Jar *
04/10 – Ann Arbor, MI – Blind Pig *
04/11 – Bloomington, IN – Bishop *
04/12 – Iowa City, IA – Gabe’s *
05/11 – Esch/Alzette, LU – Out Of The Crowd Festival
05/14 – Porto, PT – CCOP
05/15 – Lisbon, PT – Musicbox
05/19 – Birmingham, UK – Hare & Hounds
05/20 – Liverpool, UK – Stockroom
05/21 – Leeds, UK – Headrow House
05/22 – Glasgow, UK – Broadcast
05/23 – Edinburgh, UK – Sneaky Pete’s
05/24 – Manchester, UK – New Century Hall All Dayer
05/25 – Bristol, UK – Dot to Dot
05/26 – Nottingham, UK – Dot to Dot
05/27 – London, UK – Moth Club
05/29 – Tours, FR – Oxford Pub
05/30 – Rennes, FR – L’UBU
05/31 – Paris, FR – Block Party
06/01 – Clermont-Ferrand, FR – La Coopérative de Mai
06/05 – Antwerpen, BE – Trix
06/06 – Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso
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