An Interview with Tom Higgenson of the Plain White T’s
09 Apr. 2011

An Interview with Tom Higgenson of the Plain White T’s


The Plain White T’s started off playing in the Chicago underground music scene over ten years ago. When friends Tom Higgenson, Dave Tirio and former bassist Ken Fletcher left their former band and decided to form the Plain White T’s. After a year the band added guitar/vocalist Steve Mast. This line up consisted for about four years leading to an album release.

That album would be known as Stop. The band began touring throughout the underground music scene for the next three years. Playing shows for them at this time was very different. They were literally living in a world where they were basically living on the road and paying themselves fairly little.

“At that time we were literally living in a van, we’d pay ourselves $10, so we could eat three meals a day. If we had the luxury of getting a hotel room, we would get one for all of us to share. We were basically left with enough money to make gas for the next show,” said Tom Higgenson.

It was a world where Higgenson and the boys were immersed in the crowds. Where hanging out after a show came easy. Interacting with the kids to win them over and buy their album was a necessity to ensure themselves gas and food, on the road.

“Back then it was different because we were really trying to win people over. I probably harassed you to buy our album. It was more really hands on, trying to get fans and win people over,” said Higgenson.

He continued, “Unfortunately now you don’t really have that. The perception of the band is that we are successful or famous, it’s hard for us. Sometimes we still try to get out in the crowd, after the show, but it’s definitely not the same. You go out and it’s everyone coming to you wanting a picture, it’s just less interactive now.”

Although Higgenson feels a loss of connection or personal relationship with the crowd, he is thankful that people still find a way to connect with the band.

“But luckily, which was the goal from the beginning, our music is doing that. Our music is connecting with people,” said Higgenson.

Living that lifestyle for a few years grew hard on a couple of the guys. Soon Fletcher and Mast no longer felt like life on the road was for them.

Fortunately for Higgenson, three of his friend’s bands were coming to an end. California native Tim Lopez left Bright Life and entered the band on guitar. Fellow Chicagoans Mike Retondo of Tone Deaf George, and De’Mar Hamilton of Knockout, joined the band on bass and drums. This shifted drummer Tirio to rhythm guitar.

This lineup would go on to make the album, All that we Needed, in 2004. This launched the Plain White T’s to the next level. The album landed in the top 50 on the Indie Charts and actually possessed the song that would be re-released later, launching PWT’s into fame, “ Hey there Delilah.”

After this album was made and life on the road was starting to get a little better, the band soon came to the decision to leave Fearless Records and move to Hollywood Records.

Bringing on the release of their third and most famous album Every Second Counts, “Hey there Delilah” was re-released on this album, and soon found itself at the number one position on the Billboard Charts. The song also landed the band their first Grammy nod.

Having done this for over ten years and gaining a certain level of success, gave the band room to do what they want. So after being inspired by Cirque du Solei show “O,” Higgenson saw an opportunity for a new adventure when it came to this album.

“I was in Las Vegas and I saw this Cirque Du Solei show and it blew my mind and made me remember all these childhood memories. I wanted to make an album that gave people that same kind of feeling. Kind of bring you back; remembering the things you loved as a kid. That feeling of living for the moment,” said Higgenson.

Drawing inspiration from the performance Higgenson converted an area in his basement to a studio.
The studio was created to mirror the concept of the album; a haunted dream through your imagination.

“I had a lot of songs written for the album,” said Higgenson.

He continued, “As I was building the studio, I kind of had the idea of Wonders of the Younger, in my mind. So I made the studio, kind of look like a haunted mansion, with a gold chandelier with lots of red, gold and lush colors. I asked all the guys what were some of their favorite toys when they were kids. I tried to get some actions figures, Legos, and things like that all around the studio.”

During the recording of the album, the producer Ian Kirkpatrick and lead guitarist Tim Lopez lived in the house with Higgenson. The other members were only a few minutes away. It gave the band time to spend at home and time to really put all that they could, into the album. It gave them a flexible recording schedule and the time to make the album the best it could be.

“For this album I did write a lot of the music. Usually I come to the band with a bare-bones version of the song (vocals and rhythm guitar) and we all kind of sit together and develop the music behind it. Which we still did on this album in the studio, any idea anyone had for a song we were able to try it and put it in there. We would give a day or two and see how we felt about it. If it worked, it was great! If it was too much we would change it a bit,” said Higgenson.

For this album, Tim Lopez had a chance to write and sing two of the songs on the album; including billboard hit “Rhythm of Love,” and “Body Parts.”

The goal was to connect the adult-you to your, younger self. Higgenson who predominantly writes for the PWT’s had a very different perception on this album than others. Most albums stem from his real life experiences.  This album was more of an inspiring concept.

“You have to be inspired to write a song, whatever it is. To make a good song, a song that is going to connect to people, it has to come from a place of real inspiration,” Higgenson said.

He continued, “Most of the time it’s about things that are going on in my life. This album especially Wonders of the Younger, I was very inspired because the whole concept of the album was to convey this emotion of nostalgia, and living in dreams.”

For this album Higgenson was pulling inspiration from things he loved as a kid, such as pirates.

“I thought, I am going to find a way to write a song that has a pirate metaphor. I am going to relate it to me, to who I am now, and make it relate to everyone else that listens to it. Even if they don’t like pirates. It was a fun challenge to do,” said Higgenson.

Out of the inspiration of Cirque du Solei and the imaginative dream scenario; came the studio and now the tour. The tour is very inspired by the whole album. It promises to be a different feel almost more of a show atmosphere, as opposed to a concert. The same set list will take place each night really bringing the feel of the studio and album to the people.

There are of course some songs that are definitely more of the PWT’s that we are used to. One of Higgenson’s favorite songs and the next single on the album is “Boomerang.” The song conveys a guy/girl-scenario where they are in this constant back and forth; never fully able to move on.

“There’s those girls that no matter what they do, I will always kind of be hanging on. They can push me away as much as they want but I’ll always just kind of come back, as soon as I get that phone call or as soon as I get that look,” said Higgenson.

The idea of the album inspiring so much, definitely makes this one that you kind of want to be involved in, as a whole. Not only do you want to listen to the album, you want to attend the show; to get the feel of the album.

Despite how far Higgenson has come and how much he loves everything he put into this album. He still loves and feels that his most personal album was the first one he ever recorded, Stop.

“They are all fairly personal; the Stop album was I think the most like a diary. Those songs were written during a relationship that was kind of topsy/turvy. It was almost like every other day I had something to write about. The whole Stop album, I can still listen to it, and feel like I am back there with that girl. It makes me relive all those emotions, all over again,” said Higgenson.

Isn’t that what music is really supposed to do, connect us, to a feeling?

Next Friday, at The Egyptian Room at The Old National Centre, The Plain White T’s will be joining us for Smiley’s Adult Prom. They will still be playing their regular show and set-list, giving you the chance to catch their concert in a prom-like scenario.

As Tom put it, “Were going to be focused on delivering our show, we might add a little flair to prom it up a bit. Look forward to guys dressed in tuxes, and girls in gowns -hello. When was the last time you dressed up to go to a Rock Concert?”

 

 

*side note, the band did mention that they probably won’t be wearing tuxes*

 

 

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