Interview: Ducks! (AUS/GER) talk found sounds, field recording and Things That Were Lost

Formed in 2014, Ducks! are the brainchild of singer-songwriter Lani Bagley, and the ARIA award-winning producer Craig Schuftan. The duo released their debut album Ding Ding Ding in 2016, which went on to be longlisted for the Australian Music Prize. Their second album, Nak Nak (the German equivalent of quack quack), was released in 2017.

Ahead of the release of their third album, Things That Were Lost, last week I caught up with the duo to find out more about the new album, what went into its creation, and what’s next from the Berlin based Aussies.

Things That Were Lost is quite an eclectic release, with you touching on a number of different genres and styles. Was there an overarching mood/theme you were aiming for with the record?

Lani Bagley: I don’t think we went into it with an aim; because the whole thing began with collaborative music-making workshops at Blitz (in Malta), we were kind of led by the people in the room, the ideas and sounds they brought with them or came up with on the spot.

Craig Schuftan: But, then you could say that ‘being led’ was an aim itself, maybe. We went to a new place with a new idea of how we wanted to work, and a few key areas that we specifically wanted to explore – field recordings, group work, repetition. I think we’re often looking for ways to surprise ourselves, and these were the strategies we used to do it this time around. So may-be the eclecticism and variety you’re hearing comes from that.

Was there any particular or specific inspiration behind the album as a whole?

CS: I guess we had a few heroes while making this album; people whose ideas inspired us; and I’d say Gertrude Stein was a really important one. We drew a lot of inspiration from her writing while recording Things That Were Lost; her use of repetition and variation, her approach to time and narrative. And the whole ‘second side’ of the album, the suite of songs from “Garden of Ears” to “Il-Merril” is based on material that came from an experiment we did inspired by her writing, where we used short fragments of found sound collected from Blitz, looped them, and then asked visitors to the gallery to tell us what they thought they heard; to improvise rhythms or lyrics based on audio illusions. That’s where the phrase ‘a sexy blonde talks about a white horse in a bathtub’ comes from, and lots more besides.

You recorded the album across two different artist residencies, how important was the location to the recording? Could certain album tracks only have come from those places?

LB: The tracks started in workshops definitely could only have come from those configurations of people in that place at that time, and as a whole the tracks recorded in Malta are steeped in the sounds of the place. The field recordings are the sounds of Valletta street celebrations and Maltese wildlife. Our recordings that originated at Schmiede are definite reflections of what was going on while we were there: “Delivery” is a tropical sounding tune we made to warm us up when we were recording in a freezing salt mine, and “3 2 1 Fight” features a recording of the announcers and crowd noise of a battle of crappy robots that happened there one night.

The Ducks! Sonic palette could never be accused of being run-of-the-mill. What are some of the most unusual sounds you’ve incorporated into Things That Were Lost?

CS: A sculptor named Matyou Galea invited us to his studio one day, he uses a lot of post-industrial junk to make his art, including some really impressive metal springs. We spent a fun afternoon at his place just hitting these things with hammers and sticking a microphone inside them to record the tones.

This was also around the time that Twin Peaks: The Return had just come out, and the way David Lynch uses sound in that show definitely got us thinking about doing something halfway between music and sound design; you know, is this a song, or a very loud fan played through a resonator with reverb on it? We were kind of primed to listen for some-thing like that, and the springs appeared at just the right moment.

So, lots of field recordings of unusual sounds from around the place; but also, a lot of more ‘musical’ sounds made unusual by doing weird stuff to them. We got heavily into processing acoustic sounds through these tiny Korg Monotron synthesisers on this album – they’re so unpredictable and noisy, so anything you send through them will have its usual signifiers scrambled, and that inevitably sends us off in some new direction.

The sampling of other artists’ songs is common place within the contemporary music industry. You tend to eschew that for field recordings, which is perhaps more common in the art world. How important are ‘found sounds’ and field recording to your process, and what do you feel it adds to your work?

LB: Field recording is something that comes very naturally to both of us, we both hear rhythms and melodies in everyday sounds, and have a tendency to whip out our phones and record water pumps, or the sound of an escalator. We’ve included so many of these impromptu recordings into previous tracks that when we started planning this album we decided to buy some proper equipment and make that a more conscious part of the process.

Field recordings are often a starting point for us – a super short loop of sound will form a rhythm and give us an idea of what the BPM should be and a suggestion for the feel of the beat. Other times we use field recordings to give a track atmosphere – “Shady Drawers” is a good example of that. We combined recordings of me whistling and going “HUH” inside the dome of Teufelsberg (a cold war-era listening station in Berlin) and a saxophonist busking in an U-Bahn station to give that track its mysterious and spacious feeling.

You’ve also incorporated a lot more acoustic and stringed instrumentation on this album, what influenced that decision?

CS: Different things in each case, really. One thing that happened was that I decided I wanted to learn how to play bass, bought one from a guy in Berlin for 60 euros, and then never got around to it because Lani just picked it up and started writing a bunch of brilliant basslines, like the one in “Give Me One More”.

For “Top Horse”, the track already had a kind of weirdo party feel to it, which led us to think; ‘what would Basement Jaxx do?’ They’d record some crappy acoustic guitar and chop it up so it sounds like robot flamenco disco! So, we did that. Whereas for other tracks like “Shady Drawers” and “Kept at Bay”, it was more a question of what was to hand, or what we found when we were out and about. All those songs feature Lani playing this really beaten-up old violin that our friend Leo gave us. It’s only got two strings, but what it lacks in functionality it makes up for in inspiration!

Same goes for the children’s drum set we used on “Green Meadow…” and “Minds Have Changed”. I wouldn’t say it has any special qualities, but we think it’s interesting to kind of ‘insist’ on these sometimes quite arbitrary objects by repeatedly using their sounds, until they become significant. That’s connected to the idea of the album and the title, Things That Were Lost. We used a lot of ‘lost things’ to make this album, which are also ‘found objects’. Harriet’s artwork on the cover is the visual equivalent; lost and found all at once.

With the album now complete are their plans in place to take it on the road?

LB: Yep, though only in Europe at the moment. We’ve got some dates around Germany in June that we’ll be announcing soon, then some festivals in Denmark and Sweden in August/September.

What does the rest of 2019 hold for you?

CS: We’ve been making lots of exciting music with our friends Ori Moto and Yvois here in Berlin, so we’re setting aside some time later in the year to mix that and release it in some form. And we’ve been writing songs for our next album, even as we were mixing Things That Were Lost. It feels weird to be starting a new project while you’ve not quite wrapped up the current one, a bit disobedient, somehow. But the mixing phase of making a Ducks! album is a lot of work, and a particular kind of work, very detailed and careful, and kind of maddening eventually. I think we needed to just bust out and make a bunch of weird party noise sometimes in the middle of that, just to stay sane! It’s interesting, I think about how a lot of the artists I like sometimes do these extreme ‘left turns’ from album to album, where the third one sounds nothing like the second one, and I guess it makes sense – if you’re absorbed in the work of trying to finish a moody, introspective album, you might want to write bangers in whatever spare time you have, as a holiday from the work.


Things That Were Lost is available now. You can find Ducks! on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Header Image by Harriet Richardson

Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.