The Plain White T’s, whose tender song “Hey There Delilah” was one of last year’s big hits, had already finished recording their new album when lead singer Tom Higgenson started feeling the pressure.
“A couple weeks ago there was a night when I couldn’t sleep,” says Higgenson as he sits at a basement bar at the home of guitarist Dave Tirio’s parents in suburban Chicago. “These songs are so good, but that night I was thinking, ‘They are good? We’re not just crazy?”’
One can forgive Higgenson, also the band’s chief songwriter, for his second guessing. It took the quintet — Higgenson, 29, Tirio, 28, guitarist Tim Lopez, 27, bassist Mike Retondo, 27 and drummer De’mar Hamilton, 24 — a decade and a pair of self-released CDs before they broke through with “Delilah.”
The single, which features Higgenson singing plaintively to a long-distance love, earned the band a No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts and two Grammy nominations, including song of the year.
Now the Plain White T’s find themselves in the daunting position of trying to copy that success as they release “Big Bad World,” their follow up to 2006’s gold-selling “Every Second Counts,” on Tuesday.
Early setbacks, big successThe Chicago-based band got off to a difficult start. In 1999, Higgenson was 30 miles from home, driving on Interstate 88 in Illinois, when he was thrown from his vehicle and landed on the highway median between lanes of traffic. Next thing he knew, Higgenson woke up in the hospital with back injuries.
From that ordeal and recovery came introspection and what would become the soul of the Plain White T’s music, Tirio says.
“This kid almost dies in a car crash, comes out of it, six months later starts writing songs that are more personal,” he says. “And all of a sudden things start moving.”
By 2006, the band had signed with Hollywood Records and released “Every Second Counts.” “Delilah” was a few years old by the time it cracked the Billboard Hot 100 chart in April 2007. It peaked at No. 1 in July, staying there for two weeks, but remained on the charts until earlier this year.
Since then, Higgenson has had more unrequited romances (there really was a Delilah) and has had to learn how to deal with the band’s quick stardom. It was in that vacuum that he sat down to write “Big Bad World.”
“It seemed like everything I always wanted came at the exact same time,” he says. “I didn’t know how to really enjoy any of it because it was so much happening so fast. That’s where a lot of the album came from, just trying to deal with that, trying to make sense of it. Doing stupid things, hurting people, hurting myself, making bad decisions, trying to figure out how to deal with all the changes.”
And even though he says the only things spinning in his head are “girls, music, movies and girls,” he seems to have matured.
“All the past records, it’s always been a lot of placing the blame on other people,” he says. “Why did this girl do me wrong? Why don’t you love me? Why, why, why? Now this record it’s like, ‘I did this and I screwed up.”’
In search of a geniune soundThe batch of songs Higgenson wrote on airplanes and in hotel rooms during the “Delilah” boom led the band to a house in Malibu, Calif., where they recorded “Big Bad World” live. In an effort to capture the mood of their live show, the Plain White Ts — who play 300-plus gigs a year — largely played instruments made before 1970 in search of a genuine sound.
Higgenson sang half the album in one night because, he says, “I was just on.”
“(If) people think we’re more fun live than we are on the record, then why not try to capture the live thing?” Tirio says. “If there’s mistakes, you can hear it in the end. There’s a lot of emotion in those takes.”
Besides music, Plain White T’s have also found fans playing on ABC Family series “Greek” and releasing their own mini-reality show online at abcfamily.com. They’ve also starred in a Kohl’s department store ad with Avril Lavigne.
All that success reminds Chicago radio show host Chris Payne of a band he met a decade ago that had potential, but needed practice. Payne has hosted a local music show on Chicago’s alternative radio station Q101 every Sunday night for the last 10 years.
This time around Payne says it’s going to be difficult for the Plain White T’s to overcome high expectations.
“They’re going to have a strong support from their core audience,” Payne says. “Where the tough part is going to come is where a lot of those peripheral fans they drew in from ‘Hey There Delilah’ are just not going to be with them.”
Higgenson would beg to differ.
“Any fan of ours is going to hear the record, they’re going to say ‘This is awesome,”’ Higgenson says. “People who maybe haven’t been a fan, or maybe heard ’Hey There Delilah’ and that’s all they’ve heard of us, they’ll hear it and say, ’This is great.”’
So, are the Plain White T’s worried they’ll only ever be known as the “Hey There Delilah” band?
“Come on,” Higgenson says, brushing aside the question. “That’s your answer: Come on. We’ve always known what we wanted to be, but I think on this record, we finally succeeded.”