The Story Behind Every Song On Ducks Ltd.’s New Album Harm’s Way

Dylan Taylor

The Story Behind Every Song On Ducks Ltd.’s New Album Harm’s Way

Dylan Taylor

Back in 2021, the Toronto duo Ducks Ltd. quickly won a lot of people over with the infectious jangle-rock of their debut Modern Fiction. What had begun as something of friends screwing around — Tom McGreevy (vocals/guitar) and Evan Lewis (guitar) trading ideas inspired by bands they both loved — had turned into a real prospect. McGreevy and Lewis subsequently spent a whole lot of time on the road, criss-crossing North America and Europe as songs for a second album began to materialize.

That sophomore outing, Harm’s Way, is out in the world today. Picking up where Modern Fiction left off, Harm’s Way subtly expands and refines Ducks’ template for cascading guitars and rain-soaked melodies. While Modern Fiction (and its predecessor, the Get Bleak EP) were both gems in their own right, Harm’s Way is the sound of a band coming into its own — even more assured in the way they wield an arsenal of earworm melodies and moodily surging rhythms.

Ahead of Harm’s Way’s arrival, we caught up with McGreevy via Zoom. He walked us through each track of the album, and the throughlines of existential angst, ennui, and empathy that animate Ducks Ltd.’s latest collection. Read our conversation below.

1. “Hollowed Out”

The opening salvo of Ducks’ second album goes “All we ever do is need/ Eat, fuck, and sleep/ And then repeat/ Forever.”

TOM McGREEVY: It was one of those things I initially wrote as a purely earnest expression and then I realized it was kind of funny. It works both ways for me. I think there was some impulse when I was first writing this song to find the silver lining in it, and then I decided that’s not what this is. [Laughs] It came from a place of feeling hopeless on the state of things in general. The fact that we are all living in the confines of rich people’s limited imaginations and our agency is limited by the people who own everything and seek to destroy it through their own negligence and fecklessness. It was addressing the rote quality of living through a depressive episode.

You’ve talked about the idea that the first Ducks album was written during the pandemic and was more “internal.” Going into Harm’s Way, was it a conscious effort to think about the world at large a bit more? Part of why I singled out that quote is it does seem like a mission statement for the album — there’s so many similar sentiments.

McGREEVY: When I’m writing these things, it tends to be unconscious, and I figure them out later. The fact that the first was more insular and this one’s more outward-looking is mostly because they’re each a reflection of the experiences they’re cataloguing. It’s more the input than the output you can control with this stuff. We went from Modern Fiction being mostly written when we were living through a large-scale catastrophe in a very individual way, to this record being made when we were spending a lot time out in the world. It was written during and after we’d been on tour for a whole year, basically.

“Hollowed Out” was partially inspired by a sinkhole in Toronto as a symptom of “decline.”

McGREEVY: The sinkhole was real, it happened. It was a thing you had to navigate around. There’s something in it that resonates for me in a few different contexts. This is specifically infrastructural collapse, which is a thing that’s happening everywhere and mostly for particularly stupid reasons. I also think it has an ecological undertone. The thing in Toronto specifically: A lot of the streets are built over old rivers, and they’re still running underneath them. This is a thing happening through a natural process, a reclamation of an urban space via forces of nature.

2. “Cathedral City”

When you signed a record deal, you’d only played a few shows. Now you’ve been on the road a ton, and touring with acts like Nation Of Language and Illuminati Hotties. This is one of those songs that feels particularly reflective of the fact that Ducks were “out in the world.” Where was it written?

McGREEVY: We were on tour in the UK — with Illuminati Hotties, actually. Obviously a lot of our influences are bands from there. We had been in Blackpool, which is the town my family’s from in the northwest of England, and we’d gone to the seaside on a grey, typical kind of Blackpool day. That song was pieced together on that tour, and the language of it was based on these things you’re immersed in in the UK. A “Cathedral city” is a historic designation of a type of town — a place that’s big enough to have a cathedral. I started it on the way to Oxford and finished it in Southampton, which is a port town.

Already there are more images of anxiety and despondence — you sing things like “What’s the tightness in your chest then?” and “What’s the moment of release?” But the line “Will I see you/ In a cathedral city?” struck me as this yearning question. I was wondering about the balance of romanticism with a kind of rote ennui in your music.

McGREEVY: I think music that evokes a certain nostalgia is appealing to me. Not even looking back upon the ’80s guitar-pop music I’m into, but that stuff was doing that then. It’s an inherent quality of the thing itself.

I’ve always felt that way about new wave music. It was melancholic and nostalgic 40 years ago, and now it becomes like, this palimpsest of nostalgia for what it brings out of us now.

McGREEVY: Exactly. It layers on top of itself. Nostalgia, and the trap of it, is I think in itself a melancholy thing. It’s an unrealizable yearning. That’s a part of us for sure. I think people might hear Ducks as bright because it’s in a major key, but I guess I don’t think of it that way. I think it’s bright and major key because it’s pop music. Pop music as a vehicle for these emotions — that’s a tension that’s built in, to me.

3. “The Main Thing”

This song was about someone you “once shared views with.”

McGREEVY: It’s not political. It’s about aging out of a perspective of the world and how it works, and seeing people you know stick to their guns with it. I tried to be careful with it; I hope that I was. It’s not meant to be triumphant or judgmental. It’s just acknowledging that the division occurred, that these two different paths exist. And it’s not a gap that can bridged or an emotion that can be reversed.

4. “Train Full Of Gasoline”

The opening lines cracked me up: “Here’s me thinking this might have been/ An all time low/ But you’re right to point out that I’ve always been a dumbass.” Is this from a specific exchange?

McGREEVY: [Laughs] I was listening to a lot of Paul Kelly. He’s sort of Australia’s Bob Dylan/Leonard Cohen, but he sounds more like Elvis Costello. The late ’70s and early ’80s were his initial heyday. His stuff is hit and miss, but when he writes a good song it’s super, super good. A lot of them are about the inner emotional lives of regular blokes and the phrasing is always very spoken. That’s how I ended up writing that line, unconsciously, I think.

The song is partially inspired by a train crash in Canada that happened in 2013.

McGREEVY: I am not an expert on the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. But from my reading of it, it was not caused by any one obvious error or one piece of negligence, but from a series of small failures that were not addressed or thought about and eventually compounded each other. If any one of these things had not occurred it wouldn’t have resulted in this incredible catastrophe, but these things did go unaddressed and did compound. In some ways, I think that’s a good foundational metaphor for most human folly. And especially when things go unattended in one’s personal psychology, they have a way of manifesting in other places where they’re unexpected.

Evan plays a sort of country-inspired guitar line in this, and you two had quipped you thought you might be making a country album in the embryonic stages of Harm’s Way. For a period of time, what you and Evan were bonding over was a very specific vein of ’80s music that was maybe less mined recently. There’s obviously plenty of shared DNA between the first and second albums, but now it seemed it was more about what the band was, and how the band could subtly push its sound.

McGREEVY: I think we initially were just trying to make a thing that reflected at least the spirit of these records we liked — which mostly got made in the ’80s, in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. We were always trying to not just imitate it, but we were focused on trying to do a specific thing. Over the course of learning to do that, basically, we found our way to our own thing. There’s a thing that’s a little unusual about our process. We write the song, we figure out the parts in a studio context, and then we never play them again. We have to relearn how to play them to do them live. Once we played them and lived in them, I think we learned a lot about how they worked and maybe internalized some process.

When we went to make this record, there was no looking to other records we liked wondering “How did they do this? How do we make a thing that sounds like that?” It was more like, “We know how to do this, so let’s do that.” It reflects some stuff we were into still. The country thing… Evan and I are just both into that. We were both listening to and thinking about that a lot, so there were some ideas that crept in. Evan loves that Buck Owens stuff, that kind of guitar-playing. It’s a big reason we use Telecasters for everything. Those guys did, that’s the way that stuff sounds. There’s some other stuff too. A lot of the harmonies were conceived as Nashville harmonies. The way a lot of those background vocals were structured was from listening to George Jones.

5. “Deleted Scenes”

McGREEVY: It’s about feeling the lack. Someone disappearing from your life, and that being a good thing, but also reflecting on cutting someone off and that absence. I hadn’t thought about “deleted scenes” in a while, the fact that that used to be in common parlance as a DVD extra. I liked it as a metaphor. It has a slightly layered meaning.

I was going to say, it’s kind of going back to that notion of layered nostalgia. Losing a person, and filtering that through what is now a relatively outmoded concept. It feels very generational, right? Like people who specifically grew up in a window between VHS and streaming. And even the way that song has that outro music, it almost reminded me of a DVD menu, or like a “deleted scene” from the song itself.

McGREEVY: [Laughs] I want to claim that was the idea, but it was actually just that it worked musically. We were trying to write something else that didn’t work and then we just tried something totally different. Maybe it was subconscious. I feel like there’s a tradition in songwriting where people use film metaphors. They talk about the way something is framed or whatever. I liked the idea of trying to do something with that kind of imagery. But I didn’t really think about how it’s dated to people who grew up in a particular time.

6. “On Our Way To The Rave”

McGREEVY: There’s this mode of country songwriting, “lifestyle” songs. Having a blue jean Saturday night, or whatever. Those are my favorite kinds of pop country songs. I liked the idea of trying to do something that existed in that style but was more reflective of the experience of me and my peers because, you know, I don’t know anyone who has a back 40.

Is this a youthful Toronto recollection?

McGREEVY: Eh… nah, all my friends started to going to raves in their thirties, man. [Laughs] They were into bands and then they got into electronic music.

7. “A Girl, Running”

McGREEVY: “A Girl, Running” is a rare song that I have almost no memory of writing. I know it happened quickly, except for the first verse which I struggled with endlessly after everything else was finished. I immediately regret drawing any attention to it! 

The thing that will probably stick with me from making it is how the vocal parts sound at the end and how much fun we had doing it. We got Jason [Balla] from Dehd and Julia [Steiner] from Ratboys and Margeret [McCarthy] from Moontype and Rui [DeMagalhaes] from Lawn all hanging out for an evening in Dave Vettraino’s little studio in this weird warehouse in Bridgeport in Chicago. Everyone was throwing on layers and ideas, and it was one of the first times we’d gotten to truly collaborate in the same room with people. It was a great night! Also Evan didn’t have many vocal parts on this record so he went to Vito & Nick’s to get us tavern-style pizzas that I think were the best pizzas of their type I’ve ever had.

I think it’s in the same mode of a lot of the rest of the record, being concerned about people in your life and trying to relate to things they’re going through. Trying to bridge that gap.

8. “Harm’s Way”

McGREEVY: There isn’t a thematic reason that “Harm’s Way” is towards the end, but it felt like a summary or a thesis statement in some ways. More than some of the other songs, this song specifically about a thing I’ve seen in others than I’ve seen in myself. My anxiety spurs me to action. But I think there’s an other side of that where it paralyzes. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. There’s a way some people respond to that where they become unable to exist in the world and in so doing put themselves in a different kind of harm’s way. To my reading, for fear of being hurt they are hurting themselves.

9. “Heavy Bag”

“Harm’s Way” does make sense to me as a thesis finale moment, and then “Heavy Bag” is a sort of epilogue with how the album quiets down and ends on this deflated scene. It was inspired by a day you took the train in England to see a football match?

McGREEVY: Right, I took the train to see the Bristol Rovers on the day we played in Bristol. That’s where some of it came from. There were parts of it I was playing with for a long time and I slowly managed to lock the pieces together. I realized I was in a scenario that was very uncommon to my cultural experience, which is being on a train at 10AM and people of all walks of life, all ages and socioeconomic positions, were drinking heavily before noon. [Laughs] There are a lot of ways to let off steam in different places, and it was funny to be in one that was in a foreign context and be lik,e “Oh, but I do get this.”

You can twist anything and say “What are people escaping from” or whatever, but to me what you’re describing is a relatively jovial scene. Like everyone’s amped up on their way to the game. But then in the song to me it sounds more like someone drinking themselves to sleep alone on the train late at night.

McGREEVY: It was written well after the fact of what inspired that imagery. There’s that way when you’re in a dark mood you can recast everything around you to be seen in the most negative light. I think that’s part of the action at play there. That was people having a nice time and it was a joyous occasion and I was having a nice time too and it was fine, but in writing a song about that kind of darkness, that scene was recast, and that makes sense to me. When you are in that kind of place, you can reimagine any of these positive things into negative things and lay it on other people. That’s what that song is about, and what it’s doing.

That “everyone is going through some shit” timbre runs through the whole record. Do you think it concludes with a particular sentiment or thought?

McGREEVY: I think there’s a natural instinct, at least for me, to finish a sentence. To say this is what it’s doing, this is what it’s about. I realized a lot of the songs I like the best don’t actually do that. One of the things that makes songwriting as a medium compelling — vs., say, writing an essay — is that you don’t have to finish the thought. You can convey the feeling without doing that. And in fact the feeling is often conveyed better if you allow it to breathe in that way. I think that was one of the directions my songwriting was moving in on this record. I’m trying to resist the concluding thought. Here is the feeling.

Harm’s Way is out now on Carpark.

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