Ducks Ltd. Take Flight with Jangle Pop Perfection: "It's Grand, but Kind of Sad"

The Toronto duo discuss being influenced by Ontario architecture and Nashville songwriting on sophomore album 'Harm's Way'

Photo: Colin Medley

BY Alex HudsonPublished Feb 6, 2024

A couple hours north of Toronto, within the city limits of Owen Sound, is a grand but dilapidated mansion called Morland Place. It's got a hedge maze, hundreds of stone sculptures created on-site, and rooms full of antique furniture: a dozen threadbare couches in a room here, a hallway lined with china cabinets there.

Tom McGreevy, singer-guitarist of Toronto jangle pop duo Ducks Ltd., discovered Morland Place while spending time outside of the city during the thick of the pandemic. It was only natural, then, that he used the mansion as a setting in the music video for "Hollowed Out," the band's recent single about urban decay.

"There's a harpsichord and shit, and it's all covered in an inch of dust," says McGreevy about Morland Place, sipping on a beer in Bloor Street West bar Toronto Style. "The barn is equally weird and deco and bizarre, and it's just full of old cars." The home's owner, McGreevy adds, is "a genuine eccentric, but a lovely guy."

Morland Place is the latest example of Ducks Ltd.'s unique visual aesthetic, with album covers that feature grand architecture from stately homes. The imagery is a fitting way to convey the carefully refined architecture of the band's music, as they tap into a lineage of classic indie pop with impeccably constructed songs that channel the careening rhythms of the Feelies, the bittersweet tenderness of Belle and Sebastian, and the latticework arpeggios of the Smiths and early R.E.M. They're clearly well-studied in the catalogues of underground labels like Flying Nun, Slumberland and K Records.

The band's opulent aesthetic "goes well with jangle pop, for some reason," says guitarist Evan Lewis, seated across from McGreevy. "It's just a nice thing to look at while you listen to the music. I don't want it to influence your listening too much, you know? Like a picture of us, and then you'd be thinking about us when you're listening to it."

McGreevy adds with a chuckle, "It's grand, but kind of sad."

Ducks Ltd. have been making grand, kind of sad music since 2019, after McGreevy (who is British and was raised mostly in Virginia) and Lewis (who is Australian) met at a loft party and discussed immigration; they have since both become Canadian citizens. They released their 2019 EP Get Bleak under the name Ducks Unlimited, and changed their moniker a couple years later when they signed to Royal Mountain Records in Canada and Carpark Records in the US as a way to avoid any confusion with the wetland-conservation nonprofit of the same name.

"The joke was always that our hope as a band was to get sued out of existence by the actual Ducks Unlimited, but it was less explosive than that," McGreevy recalls. "A trademark lawyer was basically like, 'You could probably get away with this, but if Ducks Unlimited wanted to, they could make your life really difficult, and they have a lot more money than you.'" 

Ducks Ltd. changed their name but retained their sound, with each release digging deeper into the crannies of crate-digging indie pop. Even as they've toured extensively and swelled from a two-piece recording project into a full live band, they've never strayed far from their sound. They incorporate some trebly country twang and acoustic balladry on sophomore album Harm's Way (out February 9), but mostly continue to refine the jangling style they're known for. They have an incredible knack for making it sound effortless, having maintained a consistent level of quality across their entire catalogue to date. 

Despite how natural they make it seem, writing great songs doesn't come easily, of course, and Ducks Ltd. arrive at their breezy sound through an intense process of quality control and lots of scrapped material. "We spend a lot of time, and a lot of thought goes into every part," acknowledges Lewis. "It shouldn't be about showing off — it should just be servicing the song."

McGreevy takes a similarly workmanlike approach to writing lyrics. "It's that Willie Nelson thing of: your song should have eight to 10 lines, and then two of them you repeat a bunch of times," he says. "We were both listening to a lot of country music around when we made this record. A lot of the songwriting I was thinking about when we were making this record was Nashville stuff. Those songs are written like newspapers are, where it's supposed to hit an eighth-grade reading level."

While the Ducks previously recorded in a Toronto basement, this time, the Ducks took flight to Chicago, where they worked with producer Dave Vettraino along with members of Windy City bands like Ratboys, Dehd, Moontype and Finom.

Harm's Way levels up on 2021's Modern Fiction without fundamentally changing what made that prior LP great: "The Main Thing" barrels forward with jagged bursts of guitar and rapid-fire drum fills, while the wistful "Deleted Scenes" zooms in on the melancholy lurking at the edge of the frame of the band's songs, as McGreevy sweetly sighs, "I see you in deleted scenes / Not in real life, not in dreams." As always, the tempos are high, the guitars are bright and jangly, and the reverb-drenched harmonies and string flourishes bring an elegance to their scrappy songs.

But even though the Harm's Way doesn't reinvent the Ducks sound, it reflects the perspective of a band that has undergone big changes in recent years.

Lewis notes, "We've gained a competence from playing so much together live, and seeing it as a band now, rather than a home recording project."

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