Just as the style was different before he began, however, McIlrath knows the fame could be fleeting and tastes could change on a dime. “The punk world kids are growing up into now is so much different than the punk world we grew up into. If you wanted to go find a pair of baggy jeans, you had to go to the plus-size section of the Dickies store. Now they’re custom made and it’s the style from five-year-old kids to teenagers were wearing them. At the same time, I always hated those kids that thought I was growing up into the wrong world and saying I don’t know shit, I don’t know anything. ‘You know what? I saw Minor Threat play Chicago, so fuck you.’ ‘I saw Green Day play before they were big, so fuck you.’ There were always those kids. ‘You don’t know.’ I never wanted to be that person. They might be growing up into a different world of punk, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.”
It’s just not as vivid to him. A rabble of a community in his native Arlington Heights is punk as he’ll always remember. “I started going to shows in ’93 or ’94. That was when shows were at Elmhurst VFW, Third Floor in Elgin, Dummyroom was still around, Arlington Heights Knights Of Columbus: That’s actually where I saw my first show because it was right down the street from my house.”
It doesn’t seem so far from Houston, is what he’s saying. “I remember seeing a picture of Hashbrown in a suburban paper, and I was like, ‘Holy shit! This is getting out!’ Alert!'” Then the Fireside Bowl opened its doors and McIlrath’s hidden Utopia vanished. “In retrospect it was a great thing because now we had a place where shows could happen and cops wouldn’t come, bands would make it there and kids would show up, and more and more kids would show up and it was easier. But at the time I missed the journey to the show. I missed finding out about ‘Where’s Slapstick gonna play this weekend?'”
“I don’t think we’re that punk,” says Plain White T’s founder Tom Higgenson. “I’ve never been much of a punk rock kid. I was just more into cool music. When I was in eighth grade I was totally into Boyz II Men. As the whole alternative thing started to happen, that’s kind of when everything changed for me, like Pearl Jam, Green Day, Nirvana. The first day at Willowbrook [High School], I was wearing a silk shirt and gelling my hair up or something, and then two weeks into it I was all flannel.”
Two weeks before his band debuts on MTV’s afternoon spotlight, Higgenson is a picture of calm. Not that the T’s are been-there-done-that, but he’s beyond pumping himself up for a modicum of fame.
“I get it, but I don’t really understand it,” he says, “you know what I mean? If this would have happened to us five years ago, it would have been like, ‘Holy shit. What do we do now? This is crazy . . . oh my God.’ But now, not that we’ve done the work, but we’ve been doing it for so long it’s kind of like, ‘Awesome.'”
But there begs the question, what is “the work”? Around in one form or another since 1997, Plain White T’s were more or less neck and neck with Lucky Boys Confusion, who eventually broke through (albeit temporarily) with the “Fred Astaire” single. With an unofficial 10-year anniversary on the horizon, it seemed it was time Higgenson’s card came up.
“Obviously we’re all excited, but it’s kind of like, ‘O.K.’ We’ve seen all of our friends and all of our peers get to this point, so now it’s like all right, it’s finally our turn. It feels good. There’s times when it gets discouraging, when you go on tour with Yellowcard and they’re on [indie label Lobster] before they signed to Capitol and you’re not even at the Metro, you’re at the Creepy Crawl in St. Louis, and then six months later they’re on ‘TRL’ and selling a million records. It’s like, ‘Good for them, but shit! We were just on tour with them, when are we gonna get our shot?'”
Consider the shot on its way to the net. After a fury of basement parties, mingling with future members of Fall Out Boy, Academy Is . . ., June, and Panic! At The Disco, and a series of records on punk pop staple Fearless Records, Plain White T’s opted to try and go big time.
Signing with Disney-owned Hollywood Records/Total Assault was no blind maneuver, however. They might be bound to the empire that produced Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera, but it’s also a fantastic vehicle for exposure. “Being on [Fearless] we were able to do what we needed to do as far as tour and win fans over ourselves,” he says. “We knew there would be a record available out there for them if they were to hear of us or see us at a show or hear about us from a friend or something. But there was a feeling at Fearless that we knew we could never really outgrow. Like there was only so much success or records we could sell on that label, the capacity they had I guess.”
He continues, “Being on Hollywood, we know that they can sell millions of records with Hilary Duff or Breaking Benjamin and a number of their groups. For us, it was like, ‘O.K. We know this label can get us to that kind of capacity and that kind of success.’ We made [Every Second Counts] just like we made any of our other records, just with a little bit better budget and a better producer and then a better studio.”
There might be a slightly less-personal touch, though, when you pick up the latest Plain White T’s album. “Back in the day burning CDs wasn’t happening. We made demo tapes; we had tapes pressed of our stuff that we’d sell at shows. I remember we made this record called Come On Over, it was kind of our first release we had pressed on a CD, we made cassette samplers of three songs,” Higgenson remembers. “We would go to shows at the Metro and pass them out after, totally like DIY, street-team style, along with a flyer to our next show. We actually ended up selling a couple thousand of that CD, Come On Over, just around Chicago. [Then] we made Stop, put it out ourselves, sold a few thousand, and that’s when Fearless caught on, picked it up, and put it out nationally.”