Interview: Tom Higgenson from The Plain White T’s

We had the honor of sitting down with Tom Higgenson of The Plain White Tees to talk with him about the band’s latest album, their web series on ABC Family entitled Meet Me In California, and more. Here’s what he had to say:

How does it feel being part of basically the new media revolution with combining the music and the Internet and TV and everything? You guys are kind of on the forefront of it with this project.

T. Higgenson: We’ll we’ve kind of gotten lucky with that now and in the past. Like when MySpace first came out we jumped on it right away, and we were actually one of the first bands that Tom himself ever put on the front page because they saw us play at Warped Tour or something and he put us up there. Before it was all corporate and people would pay for the front page; it’s a big advertisement.

So I don’t know, somehow we’ve just gotten lucky with Internet presence and just kind of being at the right place at the right time. With the ABC Family series we definitely feel the same way. This is a huge deal for us, and it’s perfect timing. We’re recording a new record, we’re about to go on tour and support it, and just to have that documented alone is amazing let alone putting it online for this Web series. It’s just a really cool idea and, like I said, we’re just lucky to be a part of it.

How did the relationship with ABC Family come about to start with? I know you guys did the stuff on Greek.

T. Higgenson: Yes. I think ABC they’re partners with Disney. They wanted an actual band to be on the show Greek to be a part of the show and they met with a lot of bands, and we happened to be one of those bands because of the connection through Disney. I guess we were just the band that they picked and it turned out great for both of us, because that was before “Delilah” blew up or anything.

So they were taking a risk with us and we were taking a risk because we had only seen the pilot. If the show would have bombed it would have sucked for us. But we both thought it was a cool idea, we both liked each other, and we went for it and it worked out. So I think through that connection is how this webisode came about.

Did filming this series change the recording process for you guys at all or did it present any challenges?

T. Higgenson: You know not at all. It was actually really nice. It’s all being filmed by someone that we’re pretty close friends with, and he did some documenting when we did our last record. He kind of hung around the studio once in a while and shot some video. But this time, obviously, he was there every day and just really in our face with it. But we’re very comfortable with him, so it worked out nicely. It wasn’t like there was some camera crew with people we didn’t know living with us or anything like that. It was just a friend of ours with a lot of skill and a good camera kind of doing it. So we were very comfortable.

Like I said in my last question, it was cool that it was documented. And even if it wasn’t for ABC Family or a series I would have loved to have him there anyway just so that we could have those moments and those memories and kind of put it together for ourselves. So the fact that this is actually being seen by other people and done in this webisode thing I think is really special – it was really cool.

What’s your take on this whole new wave of Web series? Do you see this becoming a medium that maybe more musicians will explore?

T. Higgenson: Yes. I know a band, there are some of our friends’ bands, like there’s a band the Academy Is; I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they do kind of their own thing. Like every few weeks they’ll put up a little video thing of them on the road hanging around and goofing off or something on their own Website or their own MySpace or something. I know that things like that are happening already.

Miley Cyrus does her little Mandy and Miley or whatever it’s called, the Miley and Mandy show or whatever it’s called. She just goofs around on her fricking iBook, like her Webcam, and puts it up online every couple of weeks or something–just her and her friend goofing off and dancing.

Things like that I definitely think help from a fan perspective to get to know that person a little bit better or get a little bit of insight into their favorite artist.

I think Rivers from Weezer did some thing, I didn’t see this but the rest of the guys in my band were all raving about it, he was doing some thing where he was writing a song with the fans. On YouTube he would say, “Okay everybody, I want to write a song so send your ideas to me and then we’ll go from there.” And then people would send him stuff and he would incorporate some of their ideas and they’d have a verse, and then okay we need a chorus.

So definitely more and more, to answer your question in a very long, long way, that will be more and more present and I’m sure more and more of something that bands use to get out there and to connect with their fans. Because that’s what fans want–ever since YouTube came out now, wow, we can see all these videos.

We played a new song, brand new in Chicago, and the next day it was on YouTube, because people see it at the show and they put it up there. So it’s like fans are so used to getting so much content and anything they want that I definitely think bands have to step up and kind of live up to that and give them that content and give them what they want, otherwise they can go get it somewhere else.

So you guys think you’ll be doing more of this kind of thing in the future?

T. Higgenson: No this is it. No, I’m just kidding. Yes, of course, we have to. Hopefully the ABC Family thing will go well or we’ll get something else. It’s one thing to post something on YouTube or something, but the fact that ABC Family stepped in and is actually making it a part of their thing I think that’s just going to help draw so many more people to it and give that many more people a chance to see it and just let them know that it actually exists and that it’s out there. It’s great for us.

But yes, even if it wasn’t for ABC Family I’m sure we’d do something ourselves. Maybe not something as cool, but we’d attempt to do something for sure.

I appreciate what you guys are doing as far as the webisodes and you talk about accessibility to fans, but as an artist, and talk from that place, as a creative artist, whether it’s paintings or music or whatever it is that’s your medium, is there a point that you have too much accessibility and input from fans that dilutes your process, that dilutes your mindset, that dilutes where your thoughts are taking you as far as what you want to put down on paper or express?

T. Higgenson: No, I don’t think so as far as that goes. I thought you were going somewhere else with that. Like with the fans’ reaction to the stuff the only thing that really changes would be like okay they really like that song, like let’s say “Hey There Delilah”. Like what was it about that song that everybody latched on to? You know what I mean? That kind of thing can kind of helped me to understand them better or to understand why a song worked or try to understand it.

As far as really changing the way you think about things I don’t think so. We got to this point by doing what we loved and doing what we believed in and doing what we do, and that’s why we’ve had success. So you can’t really try to change that too much just from a little bit of criticism, or on the other side of something that people really loved.

You just have to keep doing what you do, and if you believe in it like we do we know we’re just getting better and better and we’re trying harder and harder and putting more and more effort into everything we do. So hopefully the fans will just keep enjoying it and keep going along with the ride.

It seems that some artists are very, very concerned about what fans think and their audience thinks. There’s like a dividing line; there are artists that absolutely don’t care, they just put it out and let the chips fall where they may.

T. Higgenson: Right. I definitely think we care. We want people to like our songs; we want to make our fans happy because that’s why we’re doing it. Of course we love the music and we’re putting it out there because it’s something that we have to do or that we love doing, but we also are well aware that if we don’t have fans, if nobody likes it, then we’re not going to be able to do it much longer. You know what I mean? We want to make the fans happy, but like I said before we can’t really change what we do. Not that we can’t grow, but we’re not going to just totally change anything or try to alienate any fans because of someone’s reaction to something.

How long you were shooting the series?

T. Higgenson: No, the series is actually still being shot. It’s called Meet Me in California; that’s actually one of the songs on the record that we’ve recorded and it also made sense because we’re recording it in Malibu. But I think it’s going to go, and I don’t know if this is for sure yet because I’m sure it’s all still getting edited and everything, but it’s going to start out here we are, we’re in California, we’re about to start recording the record, and then we start recording it. And then it’s going to go on to, okay here are our first couple shows where we’re first playing these new songs that we just recorded. What do people think, how do we feel about it, that kind of a thing, and then on to this little tour that we’re going to do leading up to the record coming out. Then it’s going to kind of culminate, I think, when the album actually does come out.

So all this entire time is being documented and it’s going to be part of the series.

Did you have any moments, or any of you in the band, where you kind of held back on doing something because the cameras were around?

T. Higgenson: Oh yes, I was about to kick some ass but– No, I’m just kidding. No. Like I said before, we were really comfortable with the cameras. There were definitely times where we’d be talking about something or even maybe talking shit or something about somebody in the band or, “Man, I can’t believe he did that. What an asshole,” or whatever and then we’d turn around and there’s Mike with the camera. And we’re like, “Oh no, you’re recording right now?”

So I guess in a way we weren’t that phased by the camera because we still went about our normal business. He may have gotten some blackmail moments, I guess, but hopefully those don’t come out in the show.

What do you think for your best-case scenario would come out from doing the series? Kind of getting your fans to know you better?

T. Higgenson: I’m hoping for like stardom, maybe some movie offers. That would be great. I’m just kind of half kidding.

I mean, yes, the fans I definitely think they want things like this. In this day and age, like I said, they can go on YouTube and see Miley Cyrus goofing off with a friend. There are things like that out there, so I think more and more that’s going to become expected of bands. That’s just going to be one more thing, just like when you’re in a band you make a music video for your single, it’s one of those things that is going to start probably becoming more and more normal and more and more just part of what bands do. So it’s cool that we can be kind of on the forefront of that and hopefully inspires other bands to do the same kind of thing.

You guys have obviously worked with Mike before numerous times. Was it difficult for you guys to get inspiration while you were on the show? Or was most of the stuff that you were working on for this record stuff you guys wrote while on tour, because you guys have been touring the record for a while that you released before? Or were you doing writing in front of the cameras?

T. Higgenson: There was a little bit of writing in front of the cameras, but I definitely think most of it was written prior to going in there. When I write a song I’ll write a full song with the acoustic guitar and a vocal, like the melody and the lyrics and everything. So it’s very raw when it comes into the bands’ hands. Maybe not the writing aspects of the songs, but he definitely was able to capture a lot of the songs kind of coming to life.

As they’re getting a range with everyone and stuff.

T. Higgenson: Yes, being put together and yes, the little things that we would add on. All of that definitely happened in Malibu.

Have you gotten to see any of these webisodes or are you going to watch them for the first time with the fans as they do as well?

T. Higgenson: Well you know we saw the first episode like a couple weeks ago, because he had been working on editing it and doing a few different edits. We kind of had our say, “Ooh, I don’t like this scene,” or “I don’t like my hair there,” or something like that.

I guess, he was just telling me yesterday, that it’s all sent in to ABC Family and everything and it’s a cut that none of us actually had seen in the band. He had made some last minute changes, somebody from ABC Family made some suggestions or something, so he changed it up a little bit from what we even saw. So it will definitely be us seeing it for the first time with the fans when it airs, because we don’t know.

Are you guys in the whole band going to be huddled around a computer watching it all together right when it airs?

T. Higgenson: You know I’m not sure. I don’t know. With our schedules you never know where we’re going to be. That would be fun. That would be a good one to include in the later episodes if he tapes us all watching.

Watching yourselves.

T. Higgenson: Yes. That would be a good call. I’ll bring that up.

What do you think fans might see, what sort of facets of either your character or the bands character generally, that they might see on Meet Me in California that they wouldn’t be able to pick up otherwise?

T. Higgenson: I don’t know. I think they’ll be able to see more of us. It’s like in a video or in our songs or live you don’t really get to see the band hanging out or just being themselves. On stage we’re playing songs, we’re performing, we’re at a ten, like high energy and excited and everything. Of course in videos it’s a similar kind of a thing.

But to actually get the other side of the band, what we’re actually like when we’re not on stage, just hanging out on the couch talking about songs or at a party dancing around acting stupid. Just things like that that bands don’t really put out there that fans I’m sure want to see. And I’m sure they’d love to see what a conversation between me and somebody else in the band actually is like or the stupid things that we do talk about. Or putting together the songs–how does that actually come about, how did this song that I love become this song, what went into it? And I think all of those things the fan will get an insight to all that with the series.

Right. Is that frightening to you at all? Some people feel like there’s a real separation between the show persona and the private persona.

T. Higgenson: I think we’re pretty good guys. Of course there are a couple fights and everything once in a while, but for the most part it’s not like we’re jerks or fans are going to see it and by like, “Oh my God I hate those guys now.” We’re pretty laid back guys. If fans want to see that I think, like I’ve said a couple times through this conversation, more and more it is going to be normal for bands to do stuff like this and fans will expect stuff like this I think.

Absolutely. Yes.

T. Higgenson: We don’t mind letting them in a little bit.

I was going to ask about the Malibu location. Being a Chicago guy do you feel like that crept into your song writing or your recording approach at all just being in Malibu?

T. Higgenson: I definitely do. There is a song, obviously “Meet Me in California”, actually I wrote that song in Nashville. Ever since I was a little kid I always wanted to live in California. I’ve had this weird obsession with California even before I’d ever been there. So that song was definitely about you know what I screwed up and getting out of a relationship or just saying good-by to people, and I’m going to California. Meet me in California; if you need me just call kind of a thing or that’s where I’ll be. I don’t know.

We’ve obviously been out there a lot and California is practically our second home right now. But to actually live there in Malibu for two months and make the record it definitely carried over. There’s a very laid back feel on this record, I think more than our last record.

We even recorded it mostly live, and if something was a little bit loose instead of going in and fixing it and making it perfect it would like, “No, no, that’s cool.” Like leave that fun, leave that excitement, that looseness, because I think a lot of bands lately the way bands record everything is so tight to a grid and so calculated and perfect sounding that we really wanted to try to make more of a classic sounding rock record.

I definitely think the vibe of being in Malibu, just waking up late and looking out over the ocean, the palm trees, I definitely think being there helped us get that vibe that we wanted in the record. It put us in the right mood to be able to stay a little bit loose and not worry about being too perfect or getting everything exactly right.

What the experience was like being on Greek just sort of generally. Did you guys hang out with the cast and crew?

T. Higgenson: Every time we’ve shot it has definitely been, I don’t know if you’d say in and out, but we get there, we come to the call at six in the morning, we do hair, we do make up, wardrobe, whatever. And then it’s like we’ll do our scene, we’ll rehearse, we’ll go through it, we’ll go sit around, talk to the cast a little bit, we’ll come back, keep shooting, and then say, “Okay you guys are good,” and then we wrap and then we’re pretty much done.

So unfortunately we haven’t had a lot of time on the set to really hang out as much as we would want to, but we’ve definitely made friends with a lot of the actors. Jacob actually, who plays Rusty, he was from Chicago and he had actually seen the band play some of our first shows ever at like these tiny little places in Chicago.

Oh that’s very cool.

T. Higgenson: He’s familiar with the band. So the first day we were ever on the set he was like, “Hey,” and he threw out a name of a band that was five, six years ago in Chicago that we played with. And we’re like, “What! How do you know that band?” He’s like, “Dude, I saw you guys play at all these shows.”

So off the bat; it felt like we had a friend over there. Scott, who plays Cappie, is a great guy. He’s super cool to us every time. Every time we go everyone is so nice. We got to meet Dilshad and kind of fell in love with her – there are a couple of very cute girls in the show, so it’s a blast every time we go in. I wish we would do it more and I wish we would, like I said, be able to hang out a little bit more.

So did you notice any increase in just publicity or albums sales or anything like that after the Greek appearance?

T. Higgenson: I think yes. When “Delilah” came out on Greek that was really perfect timing because we had performed it on the show and then just as it was really blowing up on the radio that episode aired. So it was kind of like in everybody’s face; it was all over the place. It was really perfect timing with that.

And of course they use the song a lot now for their commercials. It was kind of the ongoing theme of the show that, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,” you know that song. Because of that we definitely saw some spikes on iTunes after the show would air, as commercials were airing we definitely saw spikes of that song for sure from that.

So yes, I definitely think that that’s becoming bigger and bigger assets of bands just using, whether it’s commercials, whether it’s being on TV shows. So yes, I’m guessing that even more in the next couple of years that you’ll see that kind of heavy placement in things like that.

Does this Big Bad World have a different sound than your previous albums or is it the same sort of sound like you’ve generally had?

T. Higgenson: It’s definitely the same; it’s definitely a Plain White T’s record. It’s not going to throw anybody for a loop. Any fans of the Plain White T’s are definitely going to hear it and it’s going to be the band that they love. But I think the difference is it does sound a little different.

Like I said before, we recorded a lot of the record live, not to a click track or anything, so it’s not going to sound like every other record out. We wanted to kind of set ourselves apart from a lot of other bands that are recording right now and putting out records and everything. In 2008 we wanted to make a record that sounds modern and it sounds like it’s of these times, but could have also been a record that came out 30 years ago. We wanted to have that warmth and that just real sound of real instruments and real people playing those instruments.

A lot of records now they sound so perfect that it’s like okay, I don’t know if a band played this or if robots played it; it’s so perfect and everything sounds so crisp. We definitely wanted it to feel like a record that five guys actually performed in a room and played together.

And I think we really succeeded in that by doing it live and by not fixing every little thing that we heard that could have been a little bit more perfect; we left it a little bit loose. There’s no auto tune on the vocals; we just sang it and sang it until it sounded great.

So it definitely is going to stand out from our other records and sound different from I think a lot of other records that are coming out right now. But it will definitely be Plain White T’s and it’s going to sound like the kind of songs that our fans want to hear.

So Big Bad World is a song on the new album, and how did you choose it to become the album title as well?

T. Higgenson: Well that was one of the later songs written for the record. Throughout all the writing and as we were getting close to recording I was thinking about okay, shoot, what’s the name of this album and what’s going to be the first track. I was thinking about that constantly, and then when I wrote the song “Big Bad World” it has this really catchy beat and it’s an upbeat song. The first line of the song is, “It’s a Big Bad World.” And then after I wrote the song I was like, “Wait a minute; that’s a good first song.” That would be a nice way to start the album. That’s the first line, “It’s a Big Bad World we’re doing what we can.” It just seemed like wow, okay, this is a nice way to begin this album.

And then the next thought was, “Big Bad World; wait a minute that sounds like a good name for the album.” Because a lot of the songs actually have a little bit more of a universal theme, and even the names of the songs. There’s a song called “Natural Disaster”, which is going to be the first single. There’s a song called “Sunlight”, there’s obviously a song called “Meet Me in California”, a song called Big Bad World. All of these songs, even the names themselves, are like these worldly things, things that happen in the world. So it just kind of made sense okay Big Bad World that should be the name of this group of songs.

Are there going to be any songs on the album that are like “Hey There Delilah”, for example, an acoustic song since that’s not normally what you do?

T. Higgenson: Well actually on every one of our albums there is an acoustic song. On our first record, Stop, there’s a song called “Lonely September”, which is very acoustic based. On All That We Needed that was when we originally put out “Hey There Delilah”, and then on Every Second Counts there was “Write You a Song” that was pretty much all acoustic.

So there’s going to be one?

T. Higgenson: Yes, there is definitely going to be. There’s a song called “One, Two, Three, Four” that is I think going to stay mostly acoustic, a very pretty love song that I think people will love in the same way that it’s going to sit in the same kind of ground that “Delilah” was at. I think a lot of people will love the song and hopefully sing it to their girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever.

Why did you pick “Natural Disaster” as the first single off the album?

T. Higgenson: Because it’s the bomb! No, I’m just kidding. I don’t know. We all liked it a lot. With “Delilah” being such a big song we didn’t want to come out with another acoustic or a ballad right away to kind of limit ourselves or to dig ourselves into a hole. We really wanted to come back out and show people like hey remember us–yes, we rock too, because obviously a lot of our songs are more in the rock world than the acoustic kind of a sound.

And “Natural Disaster” is very immediate, right off the bat it’s lots of energy, it’s fun. We’re releasing the single in the summer, and it definitely sounds like a summer song. I just think it’s all of the bands favorite songs on the album, so everything just kind of made sense to go with that one.

I know some of you guys are big fans of Lost. Are people like angling for different cameos on other shows?

T. Higgenson: Yes definitely. I’ve actually never seen the show, believe it or not, but everyone else in the band is crazy about it. We actually got to meet a few of the actors on Lost, because I think our booking agency also represents a few of the actors on the show. So we got to do a couple dinners and stuff with some of the cast members. For me I’m like, “Okay cool; you look familiar.” But for everybody else in the band they’re going crazy because these are the people they watch every week.

And they’ve definitely mentioned, “Come on, get us on there as a cameo or in one of the flashback scenes or something.” Nothing yet, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

I read that you had a horrific car accident where you had a back injury. I wanted to ask you if that was something that you still dealt with pain issues, and if you had a regime or were doing something on a daily basis?

T. Higgenson: Well luckily I don’t. I don’t have any serious side effects or anything like that. It was two vertebrae were broken or sprained or fractured, whatever you want to call it. For a while I was kind of stuck in bed for a few months and had to wear this big, full torso back brace any time that I would get up and walk around to the bathroom or to eat or anything like that.

But the one thing that does still stick around from the accident, and I wish it stuck around more actually, but in that time I was really, really grateful to be alive. A near death experience like that really shakes you up and makes you realize, wow, every day is a gift. You know what I mean? Like I could be dead tomorrow. Luckily I survived.

So for a while there it was like every day I’d kind of wake up with a smile on my face and a very grateful attitude that I could have this day. That kind of fades away; over time you start to take it for granted a little bit. Every once in a while that kind of comes back and I try to remember how important it really is just being alive every day.

So that’s the one thing I would love for that to stick around even more. Every once in a while that will pop into my head and I’ll try to get a more grateful and positive attitude.

Have you had any crazy fan experiences either that kind of found you while you were recording the show or just during any live shows?

T. Higgenson: Any crazy fan experiences? At that show, actually, we did like this meet and greet afterwards for people that had bought the record or something; we went and signed the record for them. Even that show we had to get a police escort over through Grant Park to this little autograph signing area. And there were kids running along side of us, screaming, and taking our pictures on their camera phone.

That kind of a thing you don’t really expect or you don’t really ever know how to deal with that or how to kind of accept that without thinking, “Why is this kid screaming? I’m just me.” We don’t picture ourselves in that light, so it’s funny when other people make a big deal out of it. But I’m not complaining, because that just shows that they really love what we do and that’s the goal. It’s pretty cool.

If you guys hadn’t become the famous rock band that you are what do you think your job would be today?

T. Higgenson: We’d be trying to become this famous rock band that we are for sure. If this last album didn’t have the success that it did we would still be in the same position. I don’t know, we probably wouldn’t have been able to record in Malibu, but it would have to be called Meet Me in the Suburbs of California or something where we’d be recording our next album and still just trying to be the best that we can and just make the best music that we can. That’s what it’s all about; the fame is just kind of like a little bonus.

Where the name Plain White T’s come from?

T. Higgenson: That’s a great question. Well we started the band and even up until now, and actually especially now with this latest record, like we’ve always had this ’50s and ’60s kind of classic song writing. That’s how we write, that’s the music that we love, and we’ve always tried to incorporate that in our music.

So back in the day when we first formed and we were starting to come up with names Plain White T’s was just kind of one of the names that we came up with. And we thought it was cool because it threw back to those old times with James Dean, Marlon Brando wearing a plain white t-shirt with the cigarette pack rolled up in the sleeve and blue jeans and looking super cool, and then through the years Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Born in the U.S.A.

Just like the plain white T has always kind of been this classic symbol of just something cool – something simple and something just that will never go out of style, it will always be cool. We thought that was a cool way to represent our music.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

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