Hitting the Lanes With Ducks Ltd.

We caught up with the jangle-pop band at the beginning of their recent US tour over a quick game of bowling to discuss their Paste Pick record, Harm’s Way.

Music Features Ducks Ltd.
Hitting the Lanes With Ducks Ltd.

It’s the first day of tour for Ducks Ltd., and Tom McGreevy has already broken out his bowling shoes. We’re at Mahall’s in Lakewood, Ohio—a bowling alley-slash-music venue on Cleveland’s West Side—a little more than an hour before the band is set to take the stage. On the Ducks Ltd. Instagram page that morning, McGreevy posed a challenge to anyone coming out to the gig: head-to-head bowling for merch after their set. But right now, he, Evan Lewis and I are cutting into a lane in-between kid-heavy parties. While Lewis and I don those God awful red and blue shoes that embarrassingly glow under blacklight, McGreevy has a custom pair ready to go—avoiding all measures of copiously worn sameness and potential risks of athlete’s foot. He steps up for his first turn and nearly rolls a strike on his first go, and Lewis does the same. Ducks Ltd. aren’t just the best jangle-pop band in the world; they’re all certifiably admirable at bowling. Who’d have known?

Ducks Ltd. got their start in Toronto in the late-2010s as Ducks Unlimited but, likely for legality’s sake, switched it up to not get confused with the wetland conservation non-profit of the same name. McGreevy and Lewis, the latter of whom now lives in Philadelphia, went on to sign with Carpark Records in 2021 and re-released their first EP, Get Bleak, and their debut album, Modern Fiction, within a few months of each other that same year. Cut to February of this year, and Ducks Ltd. dropped their sophomore album, Harm’s Way—an undeniably catchy and near-perfect rock record with a bulletproof tracklist and a strong candidate for the best single of the year (“Hollowed Out”).

Compared to Modern Fiction, Harm’s Way arrived like a level-up—or, at the very least, an attack on an already-perfected formula. But for Ducks Ltd., it was much more logistical than that. “The first time [we made an album], we were so constrained by the fact that it was the middle of a pandemic, so there were a lot of things that we couldn’t do that maybe we would have done,” McGreevy says. “I think, in context, it worked out, but being able to go to another city and work with other people, I think was the big difference maker.”

“When we made [Modern Fiction], we didn’t do it in a studio and we taught ourselves to record—because we had all the time in the world to and we had a space we could do it in,” Lewis adds. “And we were toying with going to a proper studio, but the idea of the experience being us masked with someone who’s maybe uncomfortable being around us, it didn’t feel like a space conducive of good creativity. This time around, we had toured a lot, so we knew how to play live—which we never really got a chance to do, because the pandemic stopped us from being able to play shows after Get Bleak came out. We had ideas of what the band sounded like live, and we learned how to do it a bit more organically and we got to go away and do it in an actual studio with other people.”

McGreevy and Lewis still tracked a good portion of Harm’s Way by themselves, but they spent a chunk of time in Chicago—at Public House Recordings and Palisade Studio. A huge part of the whole excursion was having Dave Vettraino involved as producer, engineer and mixer. “I think, on the first record, it’s like: Evan is really good at this stuff, we learned a lot about how to do it. But [Vettraino] is operating several leagues above us being self-taught, in terms of his knowledge and ability to do this stuff. I think that definitely had an impact on what we ended up with. But, at the same time, part of the genius and the beauty of Dave is that he does not get in the way at all. He never impeded us doing what we would have done anyway.”

In a few days, Ducks Ltd. will be leaving their short string of headlining sets to go open for Ratboys across the Midwest and the East Coast. It’s a fitting bill, given that Julia Steiner and Marcus Nuccio sing and play drums, respectively, on six songs each on Harm’s Way. On top of that, a long list of other contributors appear on this thing—cellist Briar Darling, vocalists Margaret McCarthy, Nathan O’Dell, Linsey-Page Mccloy and Rui De Magalhaes, Dehd’s Jason Balla, Dilettante bassist Julia Wittman. Bringing so many players into the fold is, arguably, the greatest mark of where Ducks Ltd. is, right now, as a band only a few years removed from their debut. “[Playing with other people] was very easy to do, in the sense that we felt comfortable and compentant in what we were doing that we could add people to it and know, at the end of the day, it would still remain the thing that it was supposed to be at its core,” McGreevy says.

“We had basically made this record exactly as we made the last one in Toronto, and then we took it to Chicago and tried to just see what we could add on top of it,” Lewis echoes. “We knew there was safety. It was like, ‘Let’s see what people throw onto this thing and we can always strip it back.’ And so many things were surprising and cool, and it added dimension to it—melodies and harmonies that we never would have thought of.” Though McGreevy and Lewis use the term “safety net” to describe the songs they’d built in Toronto, you can tell, as soon as “Hollowed Out” kicks up at the album’s intro, that Ducks Ltd. have acquired a priceless thing in the music industry: trust. “We got everyone in a room together to try and step out and throw ideas around, and it was a neat way of adding a top layer to something—because everyone understood what the album was, and it was us being like ‘What is the most compelling way to decorate this?’” McGreevy says.

Harm’s Way is still, in my book, a frontrunner for AOTY—despite its early February release. Propelled by singles “Hollowed Out,” “Train Full of Gasoline,” “The Main Thing” and “Heavy Bag,” there was a lot of reason to get hyped-up about the project early on. But, once the whole album dropped, songs like “Cathedral City,” “Deleted Scenes” and “On Our Way to the Rave” stuck out even more than the teasers had. From track one to track nine, McGreevy and Lewis don’t miss a single step. You can even trace that momentum further back, to 2023 when the duo released a string of covers (the Feelies’ “Invitation,” the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” and the Cure’s “In Between Days”) with guest parts from Ratboys, illuminati hotties and Jane Inc.

“It’s always fun to learn how a song that you like works,” McGreevy says. “For me, it’s often like, ‘Oh, that’s a lot more simple than I would have done it.’ But that’s good. The fact that they don’t feel the obligation to add shit is, often, a way that you can actually discover that you don’t need to be doing that to your own stuff.” “The Feelies cover was the first time we experimented with putting some real drums mixed with a drum machine [onto a track],” Lewis continues, “which ended up being on most of the tracks on Harm’s Way.” “The final vocal that ended up on the Cure cover, I recorded it in a car in some weird town in Colorado, because we couldn’t be loud in the Airbnb,” McGreevy adds. “We’d been tracking everything else directly to a laptop, so we just went out into the van and sang it sitting behind the driver’s seat—thinking we would do it again later, and we were like, ‘That’s probably the best one.’”

When you lock in to Harm’s Way, it becomes obvious that Ducks Ltd. are no longer trying to reference the work of their peers or their genre’s torchbearers of yesteryear. You can point to Murmur-era R.E.M. or Nick Lowe and Pylon and try to map out a genealogical throughline, but this new chapter for McGreevy and Lewis holds a foundation that is more contingent on them following the Ducks Ltd.-shaped outline they’ve created themselves. “It was like we learned the rules, or something,” Lewis says. “And then we went out and toured a lot, figuring out what things worked for us, and then we were able to record this time without thinking about it. When we made Modern Fiction, we listened to a lot of tracks together and picked out little interesting structures that other artists would use. But we didn’t really do that this time.”

McGreevy will bring the bones of a song—his vocal melody and some guitar strums—to Lewis and, together, they make every decision with the intent of serving the song. The idea of “the context of the song” is a massively important fixture of the process to both musicians, and it’s why even the coolest parts don’t always make it into the final cut. If anything can be said about Harm’s Way, it’s that no single element of it was forced just for the sake of finesse or intrigue. “If [a song] is not working, we just throw it away. Don’t try and force it. If it doesn’t feel right, just write another song,” Lewis says. “Everything is written around the melody, which is, maybe, how a lot of these old bands that we like wrote songs. That was the method they used, but then everything is filtered through both of our tastes. And we’re both pulling it in different ways all the time that, now, that is Ducks Ltd.”

The one song from Harm’s Way that couldn’t have been made until 2023 was “Heavy Bag,” the sonic outlier closing track that is an emotional ballad done in service to confessional, abstract misery. “The patterns that we’re in, wearing thin, and now you’re getting out to seek a different sea for drowning in,” McGreevy sings. “I guess I’m sad I won’t be the one dragging you down.” It’s the kind of song that, when it concludes, encapsulates Ducks Ltd. as a band now. Thrown at the end of a 30-minute, non-stop foot-on-the-gas masterclass in sugary-sweet pop-rock, “Heavy Bag” is the band’s most mature and standalone composition to date—and it also harkens that minimalist attitude that McGreevy and Lewis were noticing in the songwriting tricks of their heroes.

“I think we needed to establish how the thing worked to be able to try and step outside of it a little bit,” McGreevy says. “We were at a point, making this record, where we were confident enough to try to suppress our instincts. That was a cool experience, to learn how to do it. There are a few other moments like that on the record, too, where we go a little bit quieter. We don’t put everything up to 100 the whole time.” “[‘Heavy Bag’] took a while, because we had created such a formula that we could always go to and an order we would do things in,” Lewis adds. “With that one, we didn’t want to do it, but then nothing felt natural for a while and we had more things in it that we ended up taking out.”

McGreevy says that every song on Harm’s Way could have been performed just like “Heavy Bag,” but that that was the track that “resisted it the most” and that it would “be absurd if it was pushing harder.” “They all start off almost like folk songs,” Lewis says. “You could present any of them in that way. It’s Tom singing quietly, recording on his phone and there is a tenderness to it. Then, usually, we add drums and we speed it up and it becomes Ducks Ltd. But a lot of the songs do start in that form, which I’ve always loved. It was exciting this time to be like, ‘Okay, we should try and put one of these [ballads] on the record.’”

Despite that song’s resistance and Ducks Ltd.’s insistence that they were “learning a new language” while putting it together, it was clear to McGreevy and Lewis that they were on the right path while trying to make “Heavy Bag.” On the other hand, record standout “Deleted Scenes” was a bit of a headache to complete. “We just couldn’t fucking get it right,” McGreevy says. “We had to keep fucking with it and changing it around and, eventually, we got there. A lot of the reasons why that one, I think, is structurally different than some of the other songs is that we knew there was something there—but it required a whole bunch of fucking around with and readjusting and reorienting to get to a point where it made sense. Whereas, I think that’s almost a relative rarity. I think we normally move into the direction the song takes us and it works or it doesn’t work.” “Usually, if the song isn’t working, we scrap it,” Lewis says. “But we fought that one for some reason. I really liked it. Shifting the beat around made it work.”

Ducks Ltd. wrote around 20 songs and finished about 15 of them for Harm’s Way before electing to use just nine on the final cut of the album. But today, they’ve released one of those cutting-room-floor leftovers: “When You’re Outside.” Speaking candidly, I think McGreevy and Lewis should’ve put it on the album. It’s an incredible track that brandishes one of McGreevy’s best fits of songwriting yet—including the knockdown “Victim of your own ambition, now you act like you invented being let down” couplet. The guitars on the track are a bit brighter, McGreevy’s singing is higher and more anthemic. Imagine a world where this is track 10 on Harm’s Way, a career-best cut nestled in gently after the standstill immensity of “Heavy Bag” runs out. While some bands are vocal about bringing 12 or 13 songs to a studio with the intent of using them all, Ducks Ltd. are a bit more candid about their process: “We’re gonna miss sometimes,” McGreevy says. “When you’re in that process, you’re just struggling with it until you get to a point of ‘Okay, I think it’s okay now.’ Where songs feel really good now is when we play them live and it’s like, ‘Oh, shit, this works. This is a song! And the bits are cool, and they feel cool together.’ That’s when it becomes real, somehow.”

“We sometimes have a workman approach to how we do things,” Lewis adds. “It’s like, ‘Okay, we got [the demos] to a point where, later, we were able to re-evaluate it. We made it so it worked, then we put it away. And then, when it came to figuring out what songs we’re going to record real versions, that’s when you would listen to it. And I think, in that moment, you’re like ‘Oh, we did actually fix this.’ Sometimes, if you have been working on a song for too long, you hyper-focus on little parts that actually don’t matter and you can’t hear the grander picture. It’s nice to sit things away for a while. Sometimes you can come back to it and be surprised.”

During the sessions, Lewis was quite vocal about not wanting to make a song work for the sake of completion, fearing they’d just “fuck them up and make them weird.” Even when Ducks Ltd. started workshopping “Train Full of Gasoline” on the road a few years ago, McGreevy is transparent about how the song did go through a metamorphosis before it was time to hit record—unlike “Cathedral City,” which kept the same shape during those early live performances. “We ended up losing what the core of [‘Train Full of Gasoline’] was and then having to find it again, because we had been playing it a certain way and there were subtleties in the way it was structured that we’d forgotten about,” he says. “We had to go back to it and figure out what they were again.”

For the last handful of years, Ducks Ltd. have kept the formula the same: McGreevy and Lewis build the song demos together and then flesh them out even further onstage. But who they are as a studio band is not always translated live, and vice-versa. “How you record is so different from playing live,” Lewis says. “Live, you want it to be dynamic and feel good to an audience and play hard and do certain things that just feel good when you play. But when you record, there’s so much subtlety and you’ve kind of got to hold back.” Both McGreevy and Lewis used to DJ back in Toronto, and Lewis admits that he almost prefers—when writing—to consider how a DJ might play a Ducks Ltd. song rather than what it would sound like live. In that same energy, he and McGreevy both believe the live and recorded versions of their music exist separately and often never get tangled up during the sketching process. “For me, thinking about just getting the thing done and it’s saying what I want it to say is far too consuming for me to be thinking about other stuff,” McGreevy says.

And Ducks Ltd.’s history of moonlighting as DJs playing Sisters of Mercy, Bloodless Pharaohs and Wazmo Nariz proves to be crucial on Harm’s Way, too. “If you’re playing the bar, you’re sometimes saving your best tracks for later when they’ve got more people in it,” Lewis says. “Now, with streaming services, people might not get to the third quarter of your album, so you’ve got to put your good tracks at the start.” I could easily say that a blueprint like that is obvious on Harm’s Way, especially in how “Hollowed Out” through “Deleted Scenes” is one of the best five-song runs of the decade so far—but that would also be a disservice to the four tracks that come after, which are tremendous, too.

Though bands get to bowl for free at Mahall’s, our round gets cut short by a mirage of children ready to celebrate a birthday of some kind. It’s nearly showtime anyways, so such an immediate bummer was likely a disguised blessing—though watching your lane get darkened will never not be ominously embarrassing. Ducks Ltd. don’t play for very long, reveling in a new art form: a tight, 40-minute headlining set. Cuts of old and cuts of new are thrown around on the setlist, all culminating in a closing rendition of “Head On” by the Jesus and Mary Chain. For as top-drawer as Harm’s Way is, seeing its songs played out in-person adds an entire new stroke of color and dimension to the project—solidifying that Ducks Ltd. are, in fact, one of the best contemporary touring bands.

After McGreevy and Lewis break down their gear and sling some merch to some local radio station heads, I meet up with them and take their picture in-front of the bowling alley’s original sign, which is now sequestered in a “green room” that smells like an attic. The lanes downstairs close before any would-be challengers could try their hand at winning a vinyl from the band, but the three of us agree to say we all bowled 180s and, in a flash, evaporate into the night and go our separate ways.

Listen to “When You’re Outside” below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste’s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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