An Interview With: Plain White T's

Posted: Thursday 13 February 2020

15 years ago, Plain White T’s released the song that catapulted them to the forefront of the emo generation. Now, the band are back with new album, Parallel Universe, and a long-awaited UK tour.

Ahead of their return, we caught up with vocalist, Tom Higgenson, to have a look back on their early days and to find out what it’s like being a part of Plain White T’s in a new decade.

It’s not long now until you’re back in the UK, how are you feeling about it? Excited? Nervous?

It’s always fun! It’s always a little bit of all of that stuff, going overseas with all the travelling, that’s the part that, it doesn’t make you nervous, but just being in a different country – and in this case, we’re going to a few – it always makes you nervous, excited, it feels like an adventure. When we go on tour in America, it’s cool but it still feels normal, like home, but going over [to the UK] definitely feels more like an adventure and it’s going to be a great one. We haven’t been there in a while and we’ve had some of our best tours ever in Europe and the UK, so just to get back out there and play some small venues to get back connected with the fans, that’s going to be great.

You were here briefly for Slam Dunk Festival last year, did that rekindle your love for playing here? Did you get chance to reunite with some old friends?

A little bit, yeah. Believe me, we’ve wanted to come back so much but it was not the easiest thing logistically, especially back when we were on our major label, they had plans for us and we had to go along with touring and promoting in America and everything, so to get back for Slam Dunk, it was like, “Okay, we need to do this more often” and instantly we planned a tour for this year. That was definitely the shot in the arm we needed to make this more of an annual thing.

This year is the 15th anniversary of All That We Needed, which is a pretty big occasion. How do you feel about that record looking back on it? Is it all good memories, or do you wish you’d done anything differently at the time?

It’s funny because, I’m not a very regretful person, I always look back fondly on things, even things that sucked, like relationships that were horrible. I love looking back at all that we did, I think it was a great record, I was super happy with the way it all turned out, the process was amazing. We were young and learning as we were going.

We had made our first album on our own basically in our buddie’s basement and so All That We Needed was our first album ever that we worked with a real producer, in a real studio. We slept in the studio, on the floor, for a lot of the making of that album, which was kinda fun and, interestingly, when I played the guitar track for ‘Hey There Delilah’ - we had tickets for a movie that night with our producer, I think we either went to see Kill Bill or A Clockwork Orange at this awesome Hollywood theatre – and we were checking off our list and we were like, “We still have to do this ‘Hey There Delilah’ guitar” and we had 10 minutes before we had to leave for the movie. I literally just sat down, played two takes of it and then we just hurried off, didn’t even check them to see if they were good and little did we know…It was just funny at that moment that the movie was more important than getting the perfect take of a guitar for the song that would go on to be a big hit for us.

If you could give your then-self any advice, what would it be?

Wow. Um. I feel like hindsight is 2020 right? The older you get, the wiser you become. Now, lately, I give a sh*t less but in a good way. Back then I cared too much about other people’s opinions, like if our manager didn’t like a song I wrote, I’d be like, “Well, I guess it’s just not that great” and it’s good to find people you trust, you need to allow people with more experience than you to guide you through it, but I just feel like now I’m in a position where I’m just like, “Hey I’m just going to do stuff and if I like it, that’s what I’m more concerned with, then trying to fit inside some box”.

The new album, Parallel Universe, I think is an album that we wanted to make. It’s a little bit different than some of our other stuff, but in a lot of ways I think it’s similar to All That We Needed, in the fact that, in my opinion, the song writing is more fun and raw and then with the production we just had fun with it and made stuff that we thought sounded cool. Not that we didn’t do it back then, but I think we were more concerned with who we were going to be able to go on tour with on this album, or are the fans going to love these songs? We were just paying more attention to making sure people would like something, rather than just have fun and kill it. That’s what I’d tell my younger self, to not be quite as precious about things.

That’s good advice! All That We Needed came about during the huge MySpace generation, do you think being a part of that scene played a big part in the development of your career?

I think so, yeah! It was cool because our drummer grew up with Fall Out Boy and they were blowing up right around that same time and actually, All That We Needed came before Fall Out Boy’s big record, From Under The Cork Tree, and ‘Dance, Dance’ has the same beginning as ‘All That We Needed’ and everybody thought that we ripped Fall Out Boy off, because their song was bigger and we were like, “No! Ours was out first!” It was pretty funny. We were always bros with those guys and we went on tour them a couple times, we toured with Panic! At The Disco a few times, that whole scene was definitely a big part of our career. Just connecting to an audience because this movement was happening, to be a part of it and touring with bands like that, I think definitely helped a song like ‘Hey There Delilah’ really reach the masses.

The coolest thing was, the first time we ever toured in the UK, was with the band Hellogoodbye. We were opening up for them and Fearless Records at that time were such a small label that they didn’t have distribution in the UK, so this was our first time there and we were like, “We gotta go over there and win people over”, but when we played ‘Hey There Delilah’ every night the whole crowd would sing along and we were like, “What the hell? How do they know this song?” and it was because of MySpace. The song grew in its own way, it spread very organically. People heard it, loved it, shared it, put it on their profiles. It was the song that really connected with people on its own, without the need for some big label to come and throw a bunch of money at it. It just had this magic to it, it was so cool.

Thank god for MySpace eh! What have been the biggest changes in the music world for you in the past 15 years?

Well, I’ve started my own record label now, so I’m working with a bunch of artists, developing them, producing them and putting out their music and it’s really different. It’s like a wild wild west of trial and error. It’s like, how do we get on a good playlist? Even though you’ve got 30,000 followers on Instagram, why did only 1% of them click through to the new video we put out? It’s all algorithm strategy and marketing strategies and stuff, whereas before I think it was much more, you go out and play shows, you connect with people face-to-face, you go back to the merch table and talk to them yourselves, you sell the album, you take pictures, and now everything is changing and evolving so rapidly.

I’m obviously only a tiny label, but even the major labels are playing the same game of catch-up and figuring out how to navigate the territories and how to deal with all the technology. It’s easier because you are connected to everyone, through social media you can reach out to people and find an audience, but to make that audience give a sh*t I think is a lot harder. It’s an interesting time for music, but the good news is, we can make music and put it out to the world and that’s what it’s all about in the end.

You returned to Fearless Records for your new album, Parallel Universe, what is it about the label that made you go back? Are they like family?

The owner of Fearless Records, he’s the guy who signed us 20 years ago… or whenever it was, so he was kinda the first person to ever in the industry, apart from our manager, to believe in us and to take a chance on us. At that time, Fearless was also a really tiny label, so we really helped them build up their name and they helped us build up our name. We then went onto a major label and they continued to keep on killing it and grow, so when it was time to find another label it was a no-brainer. Let’s go back to where we started, let’s go back to where the magic all happened, the first people that believed in us, it was just a good synergy.

This record saw you really push your creativity, adding more electronics and playing around with themes – was that always the plan from the beginning? Or did it evolve over time?

Yeah it was definitely planned from the beginning. We had started making some demos for the album and a couple of the demos were just acoustic, most of the time when I write a song it’s just me and a guitar and I’ll make a quick voice memo or something and send it round to the guys. If the song works at that level then cool, we’ll just work on it and build it up and for this album we had a couple of stripped down acoustic demos that everybody liked, but then when me and Tim (guitar/vocals) started writing together and our friend Brandon Day, who’s a producer buddy of ours, we started messing around with some cool sounds. As soon as we wrote our first song, which was ‘Light Up The Room’, we demoed it out almost exactly how it sounds on the record. We just had fun with it, took some chances, doing things that Plain White T’s wouldn’t normally do, but things that we thought were cool and would help the song sound bigger and better. As soon as we had that demo, it was pretty much like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing, this is the direction we’re taking”.

Has it allowed you to be more creative with your live shows as well?

Absolutely! The live shows are so much fun now. In our minds we probably think it’s way more different, but I feel like to anybody listening, they’re not hearing it the same way we are and analysing everything. I just think the ideas to make some music that people can connect to, that feels good and is fun, the live shows will reflect that. Playing these songs and just being able to have fun with them and dance around, it’s always a good time.

Finally then, how would you describe Plain White T’s in 2020? What’s the best thing about being in the band right now?

I think the fact that we’ve been doing it for so long, we’re literally like brothers. We won’t talk to each other for weeks or months, but then the second we’re back together for a show it’s instantly like no time has passed. We’re all so close and we just have a great bond, a great trust between the five of us. That’s the kind of thing that you don’t really have in life with any other job you do, that’s probably my favourite thing, just being able to hang with those guys and the stuff that we’ve done through the years.

Then, of course, you get the other side where we’re making kick ass music and going to play fun shows. It’s kind of a win win win!

So, you’re in a good place right now?

Absolutely. Always! Even when we were sleeping in the van, we were still in a great place then. It’s all in your mind, if you’re happy then everything around you is going to be okay.

Want to reminisce with Plain White T's when they return to the UK? Grab your tickets now:

O2 Academy Sheffield: Saturday 21 March Buy Tickets

O2 Academy Oxford: Wednesday 25 March Buy Tickets

Want to keep up to date with all our interviews, features and more? Why not sign up to our newsletter?

Sign Up