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interview / Olivia Inkster
photos / Tamara Gajic
production / Erica Russell
With July 4th and the concept of Independence on everyone’s brain, the Plain White T’s have a new-found appreciation for personal freedom that involves more than a day off from work and hotdog buns. The band has just released their first independent album, American Nights, since 2001. The T’s formed in high school in a suburb of Chicago, playing in basements and small punk venues and bars. Much has changed since then including multiple world tours, two small (yeah, right!) Grammy nominations, a plethora of platinum statuses, and a very, very explosive number one-hit.
Although The T’s journey didn’t involve actual gunfire, the struggle to gain autonomy was far from easy and not without injury. They’ve left their major record label and have created, released, and promoted American Nights on their own—for themselves, their dignity, their creative pride, and most importantly, their fans. They’re back (not that they ever really left, though) and celebrating the best kind of independence—self-rule—with an upbeat, funky album that is nothing short of soulful, and appropriately so. I chatted with lead singer Tom Higgenson as he described what life is like today, what’s next, and why we won’t stop hearing from the T’s anytime soon, including that occasionally-played tune, “Hey There, Delilah.”
Let’s just jump right in, OK? 
So, what are wearing? Is that too personal?
[Laughing] Nope! Now, I’m wearing a “Rap Tour 1981” t-shirt. It’s from All Saints. It’s meant to look like an 80s metal t-shirt… with black jeans. I always wear black jeans. I can move in them on stage. Oh, and mustard yellow converse.
Oh, mustard yellow is your color of choice?!
Well, for now. I own a lot of Chuck Taylors. Our drummer got me a zebra print. I’m saving those.
I bet those make an impression. And, where are you right now? 
I’m in the car. I’m currently driving to St. Louis. Three hours to go. All the guys will meet there. We have a show tonight there, and then, I’ll turn around and drive back home right after.
Are you a Netflix junkie?
You know what, I’m not. I don’t have it. I’m a movie buff. I tried doing it right when it came out, and the Netflix streaming sucked. I was like, “screw this.” So, I’ve never gone back.
What’s the last film you’ve seen then?
OK, then I just went to see Tomorrowland. It was pretty good. It felt like a good nostalgic movie from when we were kids. You know, like, those eighties movies. Like a magical movie. Back then, it was like The Goonies. They were just a group of kids, a group of friends trying to save their house, their neighborhood. That bums me out. These days, it’s always some huge task…like, saving the world, saving the universe from destruction. It was so much more relatable when these movies were about saving my neighborhood, saving my school, or my family. But yeah, it’s a bummer. I miss those. They felt real.
What are some of those favorites? 
Well, I mentioned The Goonies. It’s a classic. I love It’s a Wonderful Life. I love all of the Wes Anderson movies…Moonrise Kingdom, Royal Tenenbaums, all of those.
Any other side projects or hobbies? 
I want to try to write a movie. I’d love to do a musical. I love musicals, actually. Have you seen Once?
Yes, I love Once! The music is just hauntingly good. 
I know! It’s such a simple but incredible and beautiful story. Also, Book of Mormon, you have to see it!  Legitimately, it’s three times better than anything else. When i saw it the first time in Chicago, I had to take everyone. I’ve seen it three times, and it still gets better.
You’re from Illinois. Is that where you’re currently living? 
I have a house in a suburb of Chicago. But, you know, I’m always traveling, on the road. I’m always in L.A. I have a home, but I’m sort of homeless.
You guys were just in Asia, right? 
We were in Asia, Guam and then, Hawaii. We were playing on navy bases there for the troops. It was amazing.
That’s super cool. Have you guys done that before, or was this your first time? 
We did last summer we went over to the Persian Gulf and played a couple of crazy shows on the middle of a ship. It was a pretty amazing experience. It was one of those huge navy ships, where you helicopter onto the boat, the kind of thing where no one truly knew where it was. We slept on the boat overnight. Then, we helicoptered off the boat. It was crazy….seriously.
Your 7th and newest album is called American Nights. Where was this recorded?
We recorded half of the album a few years ago, surprisingly. We had a full album recorded, and we put out about 4 songs as an EP. There were a  bunch of changes in the staff at our then-label, and everything kept getting pushed back. We ended up finally getting our album back (after splitting with the label), and we put it out ourselves with about half of the songs that had already been released. We ended up recording 5-6 new songs and added those to the other half of our album that we hadn’t put out. It was definitely a merging of the two.
It’s your first independent album since 2001…Wow. How does that feel? Scary or exciting…or both? 
Both. Scary and exciting. Freeing but also daunting. We have to do everything. We’ve hired a radio department, we hired a publicist to get us interviews, so before…everything, the label had their own everything. More is on us. That is the scary part. We used to try to say, “Hey, I don’t like this cut of the video or this mix.” But, so many different people would chime in with opinions, which we didn’t always agree with. But, what could we do? They had all the power and had put all of this money into us.
This new T’s album seems to focus on freedom…in all senses. Independent album, doing things your own way, and creative freedom.
It was not something that was intentional, but it snuck in there without us even having to think about it. So, that’s cool that you made that connection. We were finally free from people telling us what to do. But, definitely reflect whats we were feeling lately. So, yeah, it was symbolic of that.

Your lead single is called “Pause.” I saw the video, and it’s great.Breaking Bad reference, yeah? How did you get that RV? So cool.
That was random. The video director sent us a tour bus, and we weren’t feeling that. Then he said, “Ok, I’ll get you an RV. I imagine that if you rent an RV from A Hollywood studio, there’s probably not that many shitty, ghetto ones.
So, are you a Breaking Bad fan?
I’ve only seen, like, the first episode. It’s such a commitment to go back and watch all of those seasons now, you know? It’s a lot…very overwhelming.
And, you being anti-Netflix must make it that much more difficult?
[Laughs] Exactly!
Your new album seems a little more upbeat, a little more soulful, a little funkier, groovier. 
Yes, we’ve finally found our soul on this album (laughing). We’re just writing tunes. That song, especially, that was written as we were getting out of our contract and finding that freedom. It was definitely a good moment of, “Wow, we’re free to do whatever we want.” We were writing songs that we actually liked and felt.

I read that “Hey There Delilah” is the 18th most downloaded song of all time. I mean, that’s huge.
To be fair, I’m sure there’s still people who hear it and not know what it’s about. But, when I’m asked what it’s about still to this day, I’m like, “Come on, it’s all over the Internet everywhere. Google it.” But, it’s cool being able to walk into a room, and no matter who is there or what kind of songwriters are present….to walk into a room, where everyone knows that song…who probably respect and maybe wish they had written it. That’s when it hits me. So, I can only be grateful.
Feel like telling me a cool story about meeting one of your idols or favorite musicians?
Oh, I have a very cool story! One of my favorite bands is The Strokes. “Delilah” was huge and one of the biggest song on the charts, we were all feeling great and on top of the world. I was having dinner. Nick Valensi, the guitarist of The Strokes, was at the restaurant. As I was leaving, I stopped and said, “Hey man, I’m a big fan…You’re awesome.” I told him that I was actually in a band called the Plain White T’s, and we had a big single out. At the time, “Hey there Delilah” was the number one song in the country and was huge, everywhere. I thought that maybe it would have rung some sort of bell, or maybe he would have heard of it somewhere. Instead, he said, “Oh, awesome. I’ll look you guys up.” The Strokes are so cool. Like, he didn’t even know who we were and said he would look us up. That’s how cool they are…they don’t even need to keep up with the top 40. They’re just doing their own thing. That doesn’t even matter. I totally respected them even more.
How annoying is the “Delilah” stigma? I’m sure you must be getting sick of people asking about it. 
Um, it’s funny. I was just on the phone with this manager, and he said he just heard our song that day. I assumed it was one of our new releases. But, he said, “Yeah, I heard your song. I love ‘Hey there Delilah.'” That song is everywhere and everything and still getting played. So, that’s cool. Obviously, I still love the song and am proud of it. The fact that people connected to it and could relate to it means that it will continue to last and be played. They’re still connecting to it. Somewhere, someone is listening to it for the first time. That’s awesome. That song allowed us to proceed forward and have other people hear our music for the first time. It brought in a whole new audience for us.
Let’s talk touring. Do you have that all planned out for summer? 
We’ll be out with Rob Thomas all summer. That’s going to be rad. We’re going to be playing more intimate venues–theaters and small, outdoor amphitheaters. We’re excited, although we’ve actually never met Rob. I’ve heard that he’s a great guy. So, we’re excited. I’m a fan of his.
If you could tour with anyone, who would it be? I think I have a pretty good guess. 
The Strokes, so that they actually be forced to hear our songs.
True. No choice! So, What did you do last night? Anything crazy?
Not at all. Last night, I flew in from LA yesterday. I got back to my house late, at, like, nine or ten. Oh, and in exciting news, there’s a new Whole Foods across from my house. I stopped in there, got a quinoa salad and went to bed.
What’s your drink of choice?
I’m a vodka guy. Vodka, to me, is a feel-good drink. I drink vodka sodas, usually, when I’m out. Wine is chill, but you want to take a nap. Whiskey makes you feel angry, and you want to fight someone. So, vodka–it’s more of a fun thing to me.
So, you choose fun?
I do. I’m all for fun.
What’s going on in the immediate future for The Plain White T’s? 
We’re starting our tour, and we go through August. Then, we might go to Europe and do a quick run. That’s not confirmed, but we’re working on getting back over there. After that, we’ll probably come home, drop another single. Now that we’re independent, I want to put out music way more often than before. We’ll start writing again, probably, this winter and continue making music.
Sounds good. We’ll be looking forward to more and more music. 
Yes, indeed. You will be hearing it.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I had fun. This wasn’t so bad, eh?
No, I had fun too! Thanks for entertaining me on my solo drive to St. Louis.
Hanging up, I had one immediate reaction. “Plain? Anything but.” Let the flag fly, boys.

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