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Cover Story: Plain White T’s: The Timing is Right

| June 30, 2024

Plain White T’s, 2024

 

It’s 2024, and somehow, “Hey There Delilah” is making headlines. Again. The iconic Plain White T’s song went viral when Drake and parody rapper Snowd4y shared their version entitled “Wah Gawn Deliah.” So, what did Plain White T’s singer/songwriter Tom Higgenson think? He’s flattered but still questions if it’s real. Yet, he’s in awe that the song is still being talked about 18 years since its release. That’s quite the lifespan for a song written for a girl he was crushing on.

Suddenly, Plain White T’s were no longer Chicago’s best-kept secret; they were rock stars. For a while, Plain White T’s had a chokehold on the emo/alternative scene of the mid-2000s dominating with hit singles like “1,2,3,4” “Hate (I Really Don’t Like You), and “Rhythm of Love.” Though things have changed for the band since that time, they’re stronger than ever. They returned with their ninth album, Plain White T’s, last year. They’re still touring, and yes, still playing their signature at every show and loving every minute of it. As for the 45-year-old Higgenson, despite the success he’s achieved with the band, he’s still the same kid from the suburbs who wants to live out his rock n roll dreams.

Hours before he’s due to hit the stage in Washington, Higgenson sits down with IE to discuss the evolution of the band, his relationship with “Hey There Delilah,” and why he’s still making music over two decades into his career.

Illinois Entertainer: It’s hard to believe Plain White T’s have been around for over 20 years. If you asked me, I would’ve said, “Hey There, Deliah” came out only 10 years ago.

Tom Higgenson: Well, the funny thing is, the band started in ‘97. So, that’s even stupider. We’re going on 27 years? Is that the math right? What the hell? That’s insane. I’m having a nightmare over here. [laughs]

IE: Well, since the band formed 27 years ago, so much has changed with the music industry and with the band itself, but you’re still here making music. You guys put out a new album last year. What motivates you guys to keep going as a band?

TH: Honestly, the same thing that motivated us 27 years ago. We love music. I love music so much, and I want to make it all the time. It’s where my brain is always at, you know? With Plain White T’s – we’ve been able to last all this time and keep finding, I mean, did you see that Drake thing?

IE: I did! It’s funny that it popped up as I was prepping for the interview.

TH: “Hey There Delilah” has had a life of its own ever since we wrote that thing. I don’t know. It’s my love of music, and it’s always exciting. There’s always something on my mind. There’s always something to write about. There’s always something I need to get off my chest. And music is the way I’ve been able to do that.

IE: Yeah. Well, since you brought it up, what was your reaction to the Drake remix?

TH: I still have no clue what the hell that was [laughs]. I don’t know if it was real or if it’s AI. Everybody’s saying it’s real, but it just seemed so weird and kind of not that good. Drake is good. He’s got some good songs. I feel like he would have done better on the song if he actually did it. It just seemed too weird and too goofy to be real. It’s funny because the song went viral one more time. It’s just a crazy thing with that song.

IE: It’s hard not to think about that song when you think about the band. It’s amazing how the song exploded. But when a band gets a song that “defines” them, it can be tricky. It can be annoying, or you end up resenting the song. What was your relationship with the song after it exploded and how has your relationship with the song changed?

TH: When I wrote it, my intention for writing the song was oh, I like this girl. I want to write this cute song for her. I wasn’t thinking about writing a number-one hit song or something. It was this cute little thing I wanted to write for this girl that I liked. So, it definitely held a close place in my heart because of that and because I really did like it. I thought it was a great song. Once I started playing it for other people – the band and friends and fans –  it was an overwhelming response of That’s your best song. And I’m like oh, really? Okay, that’s cool!

But we listened to everybody, and we let the song go and take on a life of its own. I feel like my relationship with the song started out, like I said, personal, intimate, and cute. But honestly, I don’t think it’s changed that much.

I’m so lucky we’ve had the success we’ve had with the song. It basically afforded me my whole life as far as success goes. That alone is an incredible thing. That’s probably one of the best relationships I’ve ever had in my life, you know, me and that song. But as far as the actual song and performing it I still love it. I never once had that resentment like some artists would have with their hit song. We still play the song at every show we do. And every time we play it you know it’s going to be the crowd favorite. You know everybody’s going to get out their phones. You know everybody’s going to sing along. You know everybody’s going to be smiling and feeling it. And that’s why Istarted playing music in the first place. I’m super lucky to have a song that connected so much.

IE: Last year you guys released the latest album, the self-titled record. And you went into it with the idea of capturing the thing that makes the Plain White T’s, Plain White T’s. When making the record, what was it like to reflect on what the band has done and try to hone in on the thing that makes the Plain White T’s unique?

TH: It was really fun, honestly. If you go back through the discography, every album feels a little bit different. We’re always trying to kind of expand our boundaries or do something different. Whatever we’re feeling at the time or whatever is inspiring us we push ourselves in that direction. But never have we really looked at it like when the average person hears the name Plain White T’s. Of course, they think of “Delilah,” they think of “Rhythm of Love,” “1, 2, 3, 4,” maybe “Our Time Now,” “Hate,” right? What is it about those songs? Why don’t we try to hone in on the vibe that those songs had? It’s not like I rolled up my sleeves and did a bunch of studying or something. It was just keeping the writing very pure, very honest. And the production, I’d say even more.

We left the production raw and rough around the edges and kind of stripped down. We didn’t overproduce anything. Now, you can make something sound as perfect as you can. You can put in a cue in AI, and it will make you a perfect song. But we really wanted to leave the human qualities in there, like the guitar that’s a tiny bit out of tune at that one chord or it didn’t quite cut off at the right time, but it’s kind of cool. Just stupid things like that we left intentionally because it made it feel more real. If you go back to those songs people think of when they think of the band, I feel a common thread is authenticity, it is sincerity, it is heart. So, we tried to make sure we didn’t squeeze any of that out with the production. We left all the vulnerability, the rawness, and the honesty in there.

IE: And that’s why those songs have resonated with people for so long. It’s about authenticity and heart. Sure, you can make a song sound perfect, but are you going to remember it in a year? Hell, even in like a month? But a song that’s genuine and written from the heart stays with you forever.

TH: Yeah, we’ve gotten lucky enough to tap into a few of those, which is crazy. It’s not like we went into it [thinking] we need to make a hit album. It was like, we need to make a Plain White T’s album. That’s the album cover we have, just a plain white t-shirt. Just leave everything as stripped down as possible. No fake pretenses, no facades. This is what it is kind of thing.

IE: Was the way you approached or recorded the new record any different from how you guys have recorded and written your albums in the past?

TH: A little bit as far as the recording. At this point, we are all spaced out; we have been for a while. I bounce around between Chicago, Nashville, and LA. Our drummer [De’Mar Randell Hamilton] is in LA. Our guitar player, Tim [Lopez] is in Austin, Texas. And Mike [Retondo], our bass player is in Aurora, Illinois. So, we’re all a little bit scattered. Tim contributed one song, but most of [the album] was me messing around with either my production buddy, Dan or some friends in LA I worked with. Once we touched on something really cool, we’d bring in the rest of the band, and everybody put in their two cents and added their touches. In a sense, that’s kind of how we always do it.

But it was a little bit more pieced together on this album, which made it more exciting. It wasn’t a lot of hours logged in the studio doing pre-production and overthinking everything. It was a lot of first instincts like this feels cool. We’re not recutting it. Let’s just roll with it and not think about it too much. To get that vibe of honesty, we didn’t want to overthink all the life out of it. So, it was a little bit different in that sense. We’d all get together once the song was ready. Then we’d just mess around in the studio for like a day. And that was the song. It made it a lot more fun because everything you were doing never got stale. It always felt fun and fresh by not overthinking it.

IE: It can be so hard to turn off that part of your brain that just wants to keep going back in and keep tweaking it. There’s got to be a point where you’re like, no, it’s done. I’m not touching it anymore. Otherwise, you lose something in the process.

TH: Oh, yeah, totally. You can keep polishing it forever if you want to, or changing a lyric or something. And a few of the lyrics changed.  If I had something that was bugging me for a couple of days, I would go that line could be better. That line doesn’t really say what I want it to. There’s definitely things like that. But we went on first instincts. I love listening to the record. It’s funny. There are some records of ours that I put on, and I’m like, yeah, whatever. And there’s some I still love listening to. This one is in the latter category. I feel the fun and the life in the songs. So yeah, I’m still loving this one.

IE: You want that for music, especially that fun mood. You want that to resonate. Looking back at where Plain White T’s started and where you guys are now, how would you say the band has evolved over time?

TH: Well, it’s funny because it’s a roller coaster. We were on such a steady climb up for about 10 years. We started in ‘97. “Delilah” was on the radio in 2007. So, it was like a 10-year uphill battle. When we started, our first shows were at Lombard Community Center and at friends’ college parties and everything around Chicago and the burbs. Then we started playing at the Metro and Fireside Bowl. Chicago is the best city in the world, and it’s amazing to have been able to come up here and be a part of this scene that was happening in the late ’90s and early ‘2000s. There was so much cool music and cool art happening at that time.

Once we started touring, we were just gone nonstop. It was like, okay, see you later, friends and family. See you in four months when we get back, which was cool. We just put our heads down and did it. We didn’t know any other way. Then when “Delilah” blew up, the craziness got crazier doing TRL and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. We did the French equivalent of American Idol. We’ve done so much, just insane things. It’s amazing. Then we followed it up with “1,2,3,4” and “Rhythm of Love.” The crazy thing is that was all within like three years. It’s like what the hell?

Since then, we’ve had little blips here and there. Nothing quite as big as those songs, but we kept putting out records and touring. We just announced we’re opening for The Used this fall, which is one of my favorite bands. So that’s going to be super fun. We’re also playing in Arlington Heights on the Fourth of July and at [Schaumburg Septemberfest] on September 1. So, it’s kind of funny in a way. We’re still the Chicago guys. We’re still playing these local shows. They’re just a little bit bigger now. Kind of crazy that it all comes full circle.

IE: In addition to Plain White T’s, you’ve got Million Milerand you recently released your new song “Holy Shit,” which is super catchy. What led to this solo project?

TH: Okay, well, I’m so glad you brought that up. Since the Plain White T’s album is done, I’m full-on in Million Miler mode. It’s my synth-pop, hyper-pop solo project – this is my first ever solo project. It started when the Plain White T’s recorded Parallel Universe in 2017. I love the synth wave and hyper-pop stuff we tried to incorporate into that album. It was awesome, but like we were talking about earlier, we couldn’t go all in because that’s not what Plain White T’s is. People know the band as this certain thing, so to keep it pure, it didn’t feel right going too far into this stuff, even though that’s what I was loving at the time. I love that kind of music. I love those sounds. So, I wanted to say fuck it and do a full project going all in and embracing that modern future nostalgia. Synth feels retro, but also sci fi and current. It’s always going to sound like the future and the past at the same time. I’m a super nostalgic person, so that gets my blood rushing.

The new song, “Holy Shit,” is the first song Million Miler song I’ve released in a couple of years. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve released. It’s right up there with the new Plain White T’s album for me, if not one notch higher just because it’s so fun. And it’s fun because Million Miler is just me and my production buddy, Dan. It’s just my brain going crazy. I can do whatever I want. There’s nobody telling me it should be like this, or the label saying this, or the management saying this. Whatever I want, I do it. In that aspect, it’s some of the most fun stuff I’ve ever done for sure. I feel like “Holy Shit,” especially, is just fun and happy and loving. You can feel the heart in it even though it’s just goofy and fun.

IE: I’m also a sucker for synth-pop. That’s my bread and butter. Did any of the music from the 80s influence Million Miler? Was that the kind of music you grew up with?

TH: Absolutely. Some of my earliest memories in my life are of my mom playing Pat Benatar and Michael Jackson records in the house, so I definitely grew up with that. The 80s have a soft spot in my heart. The Goonies is my favorite movie ever. Stranger Things is my favorite thing ever. The 80s were definitely a culprit to that Million Miler synth sound. But then current artists tapped me into hyper pop. It opened up the floodgates to bring that 80s vibes in a totally new, fun way.

IE: You have a new song out there. Are you gearing up for another Million Miler album?

TH: I mean, absolutely. I’ve got about seven songs written. I just have to finish recording. The new Million Miler album will be coming before the end of the year.

IE: You’ve also got another band TLB, which has more of like a punk rock vibe. And you guys released a Christmas song a couple of years ago.

TH: Yeah, I’m actually the drummer of TLB; I started out as a drummer. TLB has two of my best friends and we put out two albums and a handful of Christmas songs. All the songs are just fun, Ramones-style breakup anthems with a lot with a lot of swearing and a lot of drinking involved. It’s like a punk paradise band. It was a band that started out of necessity, turning a terrible situation into the most fun, rowdy therapy session. My best friend was in his own band with his girlfriend. They were blowing up in Chicago and about to get a record deal. Then she left him for the manager of the band.

He was heartbroken and devastated. He wrote a bunch of fuck you breakup songs about her. And because I have a studio set up in my house, he came to me like Hey dude, do you want to record some of these with me? I think it would be really good to get this off my chest. And I was like, Hell yeah. So, we started doing it, and it was like, dude, we have to be a band. These songs are so amazing. Then I started writing more with him just to get him through this shitty-ass situation. And that became TLB. We’ve played South by Southwest, we’ve opened for a bunch of our friend’s bands in San Francisco and frickin DC and Chicago and Houston. But it’s more of a pop-up band. When there’s time we’ll get together and spend two weeks making a record and then play some shows. You never know when TLB is going to pop up.

IE: Fingers crossed that more TLB is coming soon. Getting back to Plain White T’s last year you sold a portion of the band’s song catalog to Concord. This is something that artists are doing more and more these days. What led to that decision to sell part of the catalog?

TH: When you go into a publishing contract with somebody, they get their cut for a certain amount of time; that’s just part of the business. A couple of years ago, I got my rights back. Since I had full control of the catalog, I thought this is the moment where a lot of people are getting nice checks for these catalogs. So, I went into thinking let’s just see what this would be worth. There were some really nice offers, so it seems now is a good time. And it’s Concord, which we’re in a relationship with anyway. Fearless, the record label the Plain White T’s started on and are still on, are a part of Concord. So, it just felt very safe. The timing was right, so it all made sense.

IE:  As we’ve discussed throughout the interview, there’s so much you’ve accomplished with Plain White T’s, and your other projects. What’s something that you would still like to achieve?

TH: Happiness. Pure joy and feeling like I’m getting the most out of life, which I am. But just finding a little bit more of a balance and taking time out to do some other things. That’s my new goal. You’ve got to remember to live in the moment and make time for things that aren’t music-related, which sounds crazy because that’s the best stuff in the world. I’m just trying to find that balance of working, playing, and loving. As you get older time becomes more and more priceless. There’s nothing I love more than being creative and writing songs; it’s just part of who I am. I also want to have another hit song, and I want Million Miler to be headlining Coachella in three years. Maybe I’ll throw those goals out there. I want a life balance, but I also need to be headlining Coachella as Million Miller.

-Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

Appearing on 7/4 at Frontier Days, Arlington Heights; and 9/1 at Schaumburg Septemberfest.

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