Wednesday, October 29, 2008
A chat with Tom of Plain White T's
The group finishes its run as an opener on the Rock Band Live! tour in mid-November, then headlines through early December.
By George A. Paul
When singer Tom Higgenson and guitarist Dave Tirio formed the Chicago pop/punk band Plain White T’s in 1997, the prospect of scoring a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 probably seemed like a long shot. But that’s exactly what happened to them last year.
Acoustic ballad “Hey There Delilah” initially appeared on the quintet’s 2005 indie effort All That We Needed and became a fan favorite. Hollywood Records put out Every Second Counts in 2006 and eventually reissued the CD with the song, which topped the charts here and around the world.
Now Plain White T’s – rounded out by bassist Mike Retondo, guitarist Tim Lopez and drummer De’Mar Hamilton – has returned with Big Bad World, a solid new collection of effervescent pop/rock gems inspired by such 1960s tunesmiths as The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (plus a little ‘70s power pop thrown in for good measure). Hear/Say caught up with Higgenson via phone in Los Angeles, following a weekend where the T’s attended the MTV Video Music Awards and played a benefit gig for LIFEbeat.
Q: Are you psyched to be on the road with Panic at the Disco and Dashboard Confessional on the Rock Band Live tour?
A: Panic at the Disco is one of my favorite bands, period. Anytime we get a chance to hang out with those guys, see them play or play with them is really exciting for me…we’re in the opening slot, but we’ll make the most of it and hopefully at the end, we’ll be the band that kids go home thinking about.
Q: Has everyone in the band played the Rock Band videogame before?
A: Yeah. We actually had one at the Malibu studio. We lived in a house and recorded there. The game was in the living room. I think Tim and I were kept up some late nights because people were playing Rock Band, singing loud and being obnoxious. It’s fun.
Q: Last year, the T’s appeared on the Nickelodeon kids show “iCarly” and you’ve done a few episodes of the ABC Family channel series “GREEK,” about college life. How has that experience been?
A: In the one [that just aired], we perform the song “Natural Disaster,” our new single. Me and De’Mar actually have lines. Our show gets crashed by one of the fraternity students and we have to get off stage and say, “We’re done man. This sucks.”
Q: Tell me about your involvement on a new episode of “Sesame Street.”
A: It’s just my voice on there. I sang a parody of “Hey There Delilah,” for the letter ‘T’. It was like, ‘hey there, I’m Tom, I’m a T from Tennessee.’ It’s all about the letter ‘T.’ They’ll probably have a character doing it. I’m excited to see that.
Q: In September, the band sang the National Anthem at a Chicago Cubs game. Are you a big baseball fan?
A: Unfortunately, I don’t get to keep up with it as much any more. Growing up, it was all about the Cubs. I liked them more than the Sox, personally…I was definitely into sports a lot when I was younger.
Q: You’ve said the band wanted Big Bad World to have a more widespread appeal so that a mother might enjoy listening to it as much as her teenage daughter. Was that one of the primary goals?
A: Definitely. It was like, ‘let’s make an album that can stand on its own and not be about ages, being trendy or what’s going on right now. Let’s do one that anyone can listen to and love.’ We tried to give every song as classic a treatment as we possibly could and that they deserved. A lot of my songs are very honest lyrically. They have kind of an Oldies arrangement with lots of great melodies and harmonies. Many of the new songs lent themselves to that ‘50s and ‘60s feel. Instead of putting some punk into the songs and amping it up, it was like ‘let’s just let it be what it is.’
Q: The band really expanded the sonic palette on various tracks – from harmonica and organ to a string section and having session wizard Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Kanye West) play chamberlin on “1,2,3,4.”
A: Again, it was like, ‘let’s just make music that anyone can love and appreciate and not worry about targeting our demographic.’
Q: Over the years, harmonies have always played an important role in your music. This time, it seems like the T’s took everything up a few notches, especially on the lush “Sunlight.” Am I correct?
A: Yeah, we definitely wanted to exploit that. We know that’s one of the things we do well and sets us apart from other bands, so we wanted to utilize that strength of ours and get it out there.
Q: Everyone used vintage recording gear, such as a 1966 Ludwig drum set, in the studio. Why?
A: To make a classic album and go along with the ‘50s and ‘60s music theme. It was like, ‘let’s try to use a lot of old instruments.’ Listening to those old records, you wonder why they sound so good and why they still stand up 50 years later. To be honest…we did use modern stuff. We couldn’t go all the way with it. But we tried to keep everything vintage as much as we could. Just to add to that old feel and flavor.
Q: Wasn’t most of it recorded live too?
A: We did all the basic tracks live…as a band, we recorded everything altogether in a room. To give it that real organic sound, we thought we should do it that way so there was that bleed and excitement. It worked like a charm. We didn’t use a click track on 90 percent of the album.
Q: So there was more spontaneity.
A: Totally. We didn’t want it to be perfect, lined up to a grid and all the vocals Auto-tuned. We didn’t want anything to sound like it was from a machine or computer -just five guys playing instruments and singing songs together.
Q: You brought Johnny K back to produce again. Was there a good rapport between him and the band on the previous album?
A: Yeah. It was our idea to take this approach. It could have been a scary thing. It wasn’t the safest bet. A lot can go wrong. Luckily, when we mentioned what we wanted, he jumped right on board.
Q: After listening to the folksy “I Really Want You,” I envision Plain White T’s holding court at a Hootenanny. Was that the vibe you were after?
A: That’s funny. With the harmonica and everything, I was thinking Dylan. I wrote that song really fast in London, like in an hour. I just saw a pretty girl and had that in my head. At first, we were going to play it all rocked out as a band. Since it had a countryish feel, Johnny said, ‘let’s pull out all those drums, use brushes and play a kick and a snare.’ We turned the distortion down on the guitars, then made it clean and acoustic.
Q: Dylan has a song called “I Want You.”
A: I didn’t know until I watched the movie “I’m Not There.” It had this saloon style piano in the chorus. I thought we should incorporate that into our song. On one of the last days in the Chicago studio, I said to Mike, who’s a multi-instrumentalist, ‘it would be cool to have a Ragtime piano part to the song.’ It was July 4. Tim and I went outside to watch fireworks. We came back in and he had laid down all this crazy piano stuff. It was the perfect final touch.
Q: Do you try to inject a sense of optimism into darker songs like the sweeping and dramatic closer, “Someday”?
A: Yeah. That song is all about hope, like ‘we might not be where we want to be right now, but someday we will be.’ My favorite line in that song is “someday we won’t be so tired.” Everybody says, ‘I’m so tired.’ It’s kind of an excuse not to do some things.
Q: After watching “Meet Me in California,” the ABC Family Channel web site reality series about making the album, there’s a sense that too many distractions kept everyone from getting work done. True?
A: It was. For the first few weeks, we’d practice the songs for an hour or two a day and the whole rest of the day would be like, ‘let’s call some girls over.’ Anything we could do that wasn’t recording. We had been on tour basically four years straight. Johnny had just done 3 Doors Down, straight into Staind, straight into our album. He’d been working without a break for the past nine months. When we all got there, it was beautiful and awesome. We wanted it be leisurely and enjoy it. About three weeks in, we realized we only had [five weeks] left to go. It was time to get down to business.
Q: I thought your ‘Top Five Videos of All Time’ video posted on the band’s MySpace page was hilarious. How long did that take?
A: We did that one day in Luxembourg. We got this email that MySpace wanted a Top Five Videos thing. They wanted me to stand there and do a simple delivery. I thought that was boring, so I had the idea of trying to have fun with it and do little parodies of all the videos. It worked out really well.
Q: How did Plain White T’s end up creating a new milkshake for the Denny’s Restaurant chain?
A: They were doing a new late night menu. Being open 24 hours, a lot of people that come in are bands on tour or people that just went to a concert. They had the idea of Rock Star menu with bands designing some of the items. They came to us to see if we had ideas for a food item. There’s a place in Chicago that does a good chocolate cake shake. So we went into this culinary school while we were out in L.A. recording. They had all these cakes and ice creams and toppings laid out. We sat in that room for a couple hours experimenting with combinations. The Plain White Shake was too perfect with cheesecake, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. That’s pretty amazing. Definitely something you’ve never tasted before. Just delicious.
Q: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about “Delilah.” It was the textbook definition of a sleeper hit. Were you amazed by its slow build and staying power on radio?
A: Yeah, that was like the little engine that could. This song we released five years ago and put up on MySpace kept growing. It was weird. We were surprised at how big and crazy it all got. The fact that it was No. 1 in 10 countries? C’mon! It is a little simple song with acoustic guitar – a little love letter to a girl.
Q: Did simplicity factor into the classic approach of the new album?
A: We said, ‘let’s give that same treatment to all these songs. Let’s try not to overproduce them. Take a song like “Serious Mistake.” It has a lot of instruments, but is heavy, talking about church. We have this musical breakdown with violins and melodica that has this classical feel in the middle. It was almost like saying a prayer with a little lullaby in the middle. We tried to think about what we were saying in the songs and present them in that way, mostly because of the success of ‘Delilah.’ It showed us maybe that [success] was because it was just an acoustic guitar and the vocals and storyline all made sense as a piece.