Fighting Trees, the debut LP from Philadelphia four-piece The Swimmers, doesn't do anything fancy. Its 12 songs pop, glide and catch, using an unabashed Beatles et al. pedigree as a platform for irresistible hooks and bounding verses. In spite of the logical hang-ups such a justification entails, it feels fine to simply say Fighting Trees feels nice to hear, especially at the edge of Spring.
"Pocket Full of Gold," a mid-album highlight, epitomizes such subjective reasoning: Led by Steve Yutzy-Burkey's confiding, comforting voice and given a charge by a streamlined drum beat and perfect harmonies. It sweeps you up. It's OK to feel good about that, especially after you understand the song is a cry for a little social decency and awareness. Good enough to be a product jingle, "Pocket Full of Gold" should help you to remember to be nice, even when you can afford to be mean.
INDEPENDENT: When did you write "Pocket Full of Gold"?
STEVE YUTZY-BURKEY: It's actually been a little while, maybe two and a half years ago now.
This song has a combined piano and guitar basis. Which was it written on?
I think I wrote this one on acoustic guitar and piano, actually. The verses were on guitar, and the chorus was on piano.
Is that your usual method?
I'm not a piano player at all, but I wrote a lot of the songs for this album on piano just by banging out chords. That's why it's got this clanky piano sound on a lot of songs. It was an inspiration to have an instrument in the house that I didn't know everything about. It offered some new sounds.
Most folks that don't play piano don't just somehow end up with one in their house. How did you get yours?
It's probably one of the more interesting piano stories, actually. It came from my wife, who is from Nebraska. It was sitting in an abandoned farmhouse in Nebraska for a couple of years, and it was her grandmother's piano. Her grandmother raised some ducks out in South Dakota to trade for this piano like way back when. I'm not even sure how long ago. Probably 50 years ago. Eventually the piano made its way out here to the East Coast and finally to our house. It was just sitting there in a room, so I decided to start trying to write on it.
A lot of people have said there's no better way to write a different song than to write on an instrument you don't know. Did you find that to be true?
Well, I tuned pipe organs for a long time, so I'm familiar with the keyboard, but I'm just not a player of them. I would always try to play rock songs in these churches when I was tuning the organ. In the sanctuary, I would try to play "Like a Hurricane" or bang out a rock song on the pipe organ. I knew the chords, but I just didn't know what to do with them, y'know?
Did playing all that pipe organ affect the songs you were writing?
In some ways, but I think it's also just a symptom of me looking toward the old crafts and being really intrigued by those things that other people are maybe less intrigued with, or more so than modern technology or things. It's more looking at an older craft and the interesting things you can do with that music. So not very directly. The one song on the record that I didn't write—the one that the drummer, who also tuned pipe organs with me, wrote—he wrote directly about tuning pipe organs.
So you tuned pipe organs together?
We were friends before, but he started working at the same place I did. We would travel around to different churches, go on trips for a week. We'd write songs in a church and record them in a hotel room pretty early on, before this band even.
How does one go about finding that job?
I answered a very small, non-descriptive ad in a newspaper after college. But it really intrigued me. I was an English major, so it had nothing to do with anything I went to college for. It was all on-the-job training, and I was really intrigued by it.
Back to "Pocket Full of Gold": It seems to be about somebody who's so wealthy they've become ignorant of the world around them. How did you arrive at that?
To be honest—I wasn't even sure if I wanted to say this about the song—but I first wrote it about getting an iPod and walking around in the city. It was about how disconnected you could be from things around you, sort of being in your own little world. It's not like it's an iPod commercial or anything, so it's not very positive about that. But it's also about the things that enable you to ignore the realities around you for other people.
I'm sure you see a lot of that in Philadelphia.
You see both things. You see people very much in struggle with their surroundings, and you see people very oblivious to it. The neighborhoods, even block by block, change very quickly. There's a very gentrified area and a very run-down area right next to it. The contrast is very stark here.
Was this song inspired by a specific sight, or was it a gradual feeling that became a song?
I don't know remember that specific moment, I guess, but a couple of the lines hit me as I was walking around. It turned into that, especially with things crumbling around and the sirens. I distinctly remember walking down the street and the buildings being torn down. All the images from the song happened as I walked around.
The iPod connection is funny because this song is catchy and driving enough to be in a commercial, maybe even an iPod commercial. I think people would take it at face value.
Right, like "Born in the U.S.A.," how something ironic could be taken at face value, or very much the wrong way.
Do you ever worry about the unforeseen side effects of writing a pop song like that?
Yeah, quite a bit. I don't like to hit people over the head with things, and a lot of it seems open to people's interpretation so things can definitely get misunderstood. But there's only so much responsibility you can take for that as a songwriter. Having the opportunity to clarify if such a misunderstanding does happen is the only recourse, really.
At least you avoided the temptation to say, "Kill your iPod."
Right, exactly. Because I still have an iPod, and I still walk around the city with it. It's one of those old white, click-wheel ones with 20 gigs or whatever.
What's your favorite way to listen to music now? Is it your iPod?
It actually became my iPod because I just didn't have a good room in my house for listening to music. I'm a carpenter now, and I've been renovating houses as I live in them. So I tend to not have a real good space set up all the time for just listening to music and stuff. The time when I can hear it the best is when I'm in a studio room with the monitors and everything, but the time I spend the most with music tends to be with an iPod or in the car.
What sort of construction do you do?
I work for that show Trading Spaces. I was on that show for two seasons, and I'm in between seasons for them. So now I'm at home working on my house for myself.
It seems like being a touring musician in a young band and being a traveling carpenter on a television show could be a difficult balance.
It's hard, although it does give me downtime so I can do music. It is really rough because I was out in L.A. for the large part of three months, and I would try to check e-mail and try to keep up with things that were going on at home and keep things moving forward. It's pretty difficult trying to write in a hotel room. I took a guitar and had some degree of success, but it is difficult.
The Swimmers play Nightlight with Binary Marketing Show, A Is Jump and The Stationary Set Saturday, March 8, at 9:30 p.m.