Plain White Ts Interview
By: Cara Carriveau
Plain White T’s Biography: As the Plain White T’s learned over the last two years, there’s something unreal about success. One minute you’re sweating your ass off on stage in some dive. The next, your song is 1 and your CD has sold more than a million albums worldwide. One minute you’re listening to “Rubber Soul” on your iPod; the next you’re a Song of the Year nominee at the Grammys and Ringo Starr is saying hi to you. Unreal. Yet staying real is precisely what the Plain White T’s are all about. So on their new Hollywood/Fearless CD, Big Bad World, they passed on the digital bells or whistles. Instead, producer Johnny K pressed the ‘record’ button and the band simply played its heart out.
And there’s plenty of heart on Big Bad World. Says singer/songwriter Tom Higgenson, “We tried to be really ambitious and not worry about people’s expectations for this record. Our vision was to do it in a classic way.” To that end, the band only used gear or instruments made before 1970: vintage guitars, old Vox amps and Leslie speakers, a Ludwig drum set circa 1966. They even recorded without a click track (equivalent to walking a high-wire without a net). Because they recorded it live, you might hear imperfections. But in the case of “Big Bad World,” those imperfections worked perfectly.
“Our songs in the past had a ‘50’s and ‘60’s influence with classic songwriting structures and harmonies,” says Tom. “This time we decided, rather than punk that out and make it sound modern, we would record as though it could have been done by the Beatles or early Tom Petty. We got to a place where we sounded good live 300 nights a year, so we wanted to capture that.”
Of course aiming high means nothing without good songs. Fortunately, coming off a smash hit like “Hey There Delilah,” Higgenson felt inspired. “There was no second guessing,” he recalls. “If I thought something was good, I went with it. The album is 10 songs, very concise and to the point.”
The opening title track, co-written by Tom and Chris Thompkins (“Before He Cheats”), conveys a battle-scarred confessional offset by a deceptively upbeat melody. “Over the past year, I made lots of mistakes,” Tom says, “and I wanted to write about that rather than point fingers at people. I wanted to place the blame on myself.” Next, the first single “Natural Disaster,” with its ballistic beat and tale of a seductive groupie, upends the band’s undeserved reputation as loveably lovelorn.
“Serious Mistake” wraps a solid rock foundation with a wild orchestration. “I was in a dark place,” Tom says of the song’s origins. “I made a stupid mistake with a girl that I immediately regretted. For a while I harbored some guilt. So I wrote the song in an effort to work through it.” Bassist Mike Retondo lends a major assist on the track, playing everything from bass clarinet and melodica to trombone, even improvising some of his parts on the spot.
The ballad “Rainy Day” serves as melancholy counterpoint to gems like “That Girl” and “1,2,3,4” (featuring the otherworldy sounds of Jon Brion on the Chamberlin), both of which embody Tom’s idealized sense of pop simplicity.
Then there’s “Sunlight,” which just might be the new album’s crown jewel. Written by guitarist Tim Lopez, the song blends a reverent melody with “Abbey Road”-level harmonies to proffer a message of forgiveness (Grammy nominee William Hamilton, the father of PWT’s drummer De’Mar Hamilton, plays organ). “Last year should have been the best year of my life,” says Tim.
“The band was exploding. It seemed we couldn’t do anything wrong. But my marriage was ending right in the middle of the success. I wrote this song to my wife. For me, it was written as a message of hope that we could work it out, that we could save what we had. We don’t usually do dark songs, but the song had enough hope for Tom to latch onto.”
“I Really Want You” infuses a tale of unrequited lust with a “Blonde on Blonde” vibe, right down to the saloon-style piano. “Everybody has that reaction when they see a pretty girl,” Tom notes of the song. “Your heart starts racing, your life flashes before your eyes. She’s the one! This was written one morning when I caught sight of a girl that for a moment seemed like the one.”
As for“Meet Me in California,” the song is based on another torturous misstep in the Tom Higgenson love saga. “It’s an allusion to another serious mistake,” he says. “You can only hurt someone so many times before it’s not even about whether they forgive you.
It’s about why do I keep being such an idiot. I always had it in my head, even as a kid, that I was going to live in California someday. The song is about finally getting out to California and hoping something better is waiting for me there.”
The album ends on a high note with “Someday,” an intricate composition that swaps typical verse-chorus structure for something harder to label. “I always write hopeful songs,” Tom says. “The record starts with ‘Big Bad World,’ talking about my screw-ups, and then it ends with a message that someday it’ll all work out.”
The Chicago based band, together for a decade, is still on a road of self-discovery. Formed during Tom’s teen years when he saw his life laid out before him at Chicago’s famed Metro club, the band built a steady following over the years and miles. They were invited to the Warped Tour (three times), opened for bands like Jimmy Eat World, and released two indie CDs their 2002 debut, Stop and 2005’s All That We Needed.
The band signed with Hollywood Records, releasing Every Second Counts in 2006 and putting “Hey There Delilah” out as a single. The track hit 1 on Billboard and iTunes (becoming one of very few songs ever to log more than 3 million downloads), propelled the CD into a worldwide hit, and earned the band two Grammy nods, Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
“I remember the first time we got a glimpse of what was happening,” Tom recalls. “We were in Milwaukee for a summer festival, we walked onstage and there were at least 20,000 people there to see us. We did those kinds of shows all summer. There were screaming girls pounding on the car windows. It was incredible” The band went on to conquer Europe, where “Hey There Delilah’ also became a 1 hit in several countries.
“It’s easier now in a way,” says Tom, reflecting on the group’s success. “When you start a band and take it seriously, you basically give up a normal life. You barely see family and friends. The success makes the trade off worth it.”
Still, the Plain White T’s remain happily unsatisfied. “We’ve grown up, and learned more and more with every record about the band that we are and the band we want to be,” adds Tom. “When we record now, we’re listening more for character than perfection.”
With Big Bad World, the Plain White T’s put that goal to the test. It’s hard to argue they didn’t pass. Tom Higgenson and his bandmates are betting, at least in their corner of pop culture, it’s not such a big bad world after all.
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