Interview: Ducks Ltd.

Meet the Toronto two-piece bringing jangle-pop home with some of the most exciting new guitar music around

Jangle-pop might be all about that treble, but the roots of the genre couldn’t have a heavier base. Born in the LA sunshine of The Byrds’ best 60s hits, the sound matured in the darkest days of Thatcher’s Britain with the likes of The Smiths, Felt, Orange Juice, The Wedding Present and pretty much whatever else was on NME’s C86 cassette. 

“The 80s was not a particularly happy decade for a lot of people in Britain,” says British born Toronto bred Tom Mcgreevy, one half of the band bringing jangle-pop back to the place where the West Coast sunshine meets the North East shadows. “A lot of the songwriting back then reflects that sort of general sense of malaise. Those songs are a great vehicle for melancholy, but they’re also great at making you feel the complete opposite.” 

Mcgreevy is talking about his influences, but he might just as well be talking about Ducks Ltd. Starting the band with Evan Lewis (and then renaming it from “Ducks Unlimited” after they clashed with a North American waterfowl and wetland charity…), the pair released their second record, Modern Fiction, in 2021 – spending this year perfecting the band’s matchless high/low sound in a string of kinetic live shows across Europe. 

We caught up with Mcgreevy in Toronto ahead of his next UK dates to talk clown bands, Robert Smith and the best miserable music to dance to… 

Ducks Ltd. - "Sheets of Grey" (Official Visualizer)

I last saw you in Brighton, playing a fringe show for The Great Escape festival. You spoke then about having a real connection with the city – even writing some of your last album there.

Yeah, so I was born in the UK. My mom lives in Lytham St. Annes now, and most of my immediate family are all pretty much still in the northwest of England. So I spent a lot of time over there growing up. I’ve come back pretty frequently as an adult, maybe once every couple years for a little bit, and I love Brighton. 

Where did you and Evan meet? How did the band first get started? 

Me and Evan first got to know each other just kind of playing in other bands around Toronto. There’s some dispute over when we actually first started talking to each other about music and stuff, like we both have slightly different memories of it, but we met at one point when we were both on tour in different bands and we just started talking about 80s jangle-pop and realised that we were both really into it. And that kind of planted the seed to start working together. 

When did that first start building into something of your own? Do you remember your first show together? 

I think it was in Toronto at a venue that is no longer really a thing, called The Smiling Buddha. If I’m not mistaken, it was with Jerry Paper. We played a few cool shows when we first started out. We did that, and we did one with The Goon Sax. 

Toronto is really starting to feel like an important new scene. I think I saw you right after Tallies, who are also from the same city. Does it feel like a “scene” from the inside? 

It does I think, yeah. We had a different experience of the pandemic here compared to the US and the UK, and we got the vaccines a lot later, so everyone was very cautious about reopening. I remember it was only when we got back from a tour in May, early June, that it really felt like people were comfortable going out again. But it’s really been nice to see how much it’s all rebounded. And now when you go to shows a couple of nights a week you recognise like 80% of the people in the room by sight. Which is cool. And I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen again.

It’s a friendly scene too. The Tallies folks are pals. And they’re excellent. There’s a whole bunch of bands in our general realm of sound. PACKS are great. Motorists are really awesome. Only God Forgives are an excellent band. Bozo, who are a clown themed garage rock band, and are excellent… (the joke with Bozo is that they’re actually really good). So it’s  definitely a nice time to be on that circuit. 

Did you feel like you had to jumpstart Ducks Ltd again after the pandemic? Did those years of lost shows set you back at all? 

Yeah kind of, but also sort of the opposite. Get Bleak was a reissue of an EP that had come out right before the pandemic. We’d released it with a really great label in Spain but it was kind of halfway a self-release kind of thing. When we developed a bigger label interest they wanted to reissue it and because we’d had so much time off to be working and writing we had a lot of songs that didn’t really fit anywhere. Like, for the last record we wrote 25 songs. So that was why the expanded edition of the EP came out when it did. We kind of had this blissful period, where like, obviously, the pandemic was going on, and that was not great – but we did have an unlimited amount of time to devote to music. 

Ducks Ltd. - "18 Cigarettes" (Official Music Video)

You said you first bonded with Evan over your influences. Who were you listening to when you started the band? 

I mean it’s a big bunch of different stuff. I think the first band I loved, with something sort of resembling an adult sensibility, was Orange Juice. Weirdly I heard Keir Starmer talking about them other day… He was doing some interview where he was asked about his favourite gig and he said Orange Juice in 1986. I was like, what the f*ck, really?!

That’s definitely not the usual stock politician answer. 

No, totally. And I know that band is bigger in the UK than they are here, but still I was not expecting that! But yeah I got into them when I was like 17 or 18. And then it was also Belle And Sebastian for me. Also The Thrills – not a band I listen to very often anymore, but they’re underrated! When we were first working on this stuff we were both into different ends of the jangle-pop spectrum. Evan was a little bit more into like, The Go-Betweens,  fan, which you kind of got me into a little bit more into character flying and stuff. Whereas I was kind of more into the Postcard and Sarah Records bands. But yeah, we just kind of realised that we both liked that kind of slightly naive sounding guitar pop from the 80s. 

There’s a naivety there, for sure, but a lot of those British influences have such a dark edge to them – they’re downbeat songs with upbeat melodies. Is that a fair description of your sound too? 

Absolutely. The tradition of that kind of songwriting has always been like that like, and it’s those kind of songs that I’ve always gravitated towards. There are a lot of parallels between the 80s Britain that those songs came from and the world we’re living in now too I think. And that’s something I was thinking about a lot when we were writing the record. This kind of music is an interesting medium to reflect on. There’s a sense of the world being out of joint, and there’s a sort of tradition in that. 

How do you and Evan work together? How does the process run between the both of you? 

Generally speaking, I’ll write something on my own and then me and Evan will get together and fix it. I’ve gotten a little bit better at anticipating what we’re going to do, so it’s more like a bunch of really small changes over a period of time. We basically get each song to a point where neither of us can really remember what those changes were or who did what. It’s revising and revising and revising until it feels like it works.

Which song are you proudest of? 

It’s probably ‘18 Cigarettes’. A band’s favourite songs are never usually the ones that everyone else likes the most, but in this case the opposite is true. I think people have correctly identified it as the best one! Which I appreciate. It just all kind of worked on that song.  

Ducks Ltd. - "Head On (Feat. Illuminati Hotties)" [Official Visualizer]

You released two covers this year – ‘Head On’ and ‘In Between Days’. I love them both, especially the Jesus And Mary Chain track. Why did you pick that song to cover? 

I think actually what made me realise it would be a cool thing to cover was listening to the Pixies album, Trompe Le Monde. They do a cover of it on there, and it’s great. But what’s interesting is hearing that song without the Mary Chain production style. Like, their production style is often designed to obscure the songs, but the songs are routinely excellent. So I liked the idea of just taking it out of context, taking out all the fuzz and reverb, and just stripping it all back. The Cure cover we did is a little bit more true to the original, but with like some like Tom Petty sh*t in there, and we’ve got some others we’re working on too. 

What else are you looking at? 

I have this one idea that I don’t know if we can execute.. I realised that if you put the vocals up an octave on The Sisters of Mercy song ‘Mariane’, it’s basically a Sarah Records track. I really want to see if we can make that work. Even having the woman’s name repeated as the chorus is like a super Sarah Records move! 

Have you heard any reactions from the bands you’ve covered? 

Oh, no. I’d be very intrigued to know what they thought though. I don’t know if it’s true, but someone told me once that Robert Smith from The Cure only responds to emails on one day a week. And when he does, it’s all in caps. I just love the idea that you email Robert Smith on a Thursday and he gets back to you the following Wednesday, all in capital letters. So hopefully we get an email from Robert Smith soon saying, “HEY, YOU GUYS ARE ALRIGHT…”.

Ducks Ltd. are playing Manchester and Birmingham on 13-14 September. Tickets are available here.