“Tonight I’ll get up on the stage and all my problems seem to go away/Tonight I’ll get up in those lights and I will sing my best for you tonight,” proclaims Plain White T’s frontman Tom Higgenson on “Sing My Best,” from the forthcoming album All That We Needed (Jan. 25 on Fearless Records).
It’s not uncommon for musicians to experience a cathartic release onstage. But for singer Higgenson, the rush of performance is particularly acute. “Being up there, connecting with the fans – there’s nothing like it,” he insists.
This intense feeling may explain why the Plain White T’s are on the road nine months out of the year, plying their hook-laden alt pop to a devout, ever-expanding fan base.
During their frequent cross-country jaunts, the T’s have shared stages with such bands as Jimmy Eat World, Sugarcult, Saves the Day and Simple Plan – and played at the Skate and Surf Fest and on the Vans Warped Tour.
The band began in a suburban Chicago basement in 1997. Higgenson and co-founder/high-school pal Dave Tirio fooled around playing cover songs before the former began experimenting with songwriting. Previously a drummer, Higgenson switched to guitar and stepped into the lead-vocalist spot; Tirio, meanwhile, anchored the songs on rhythm guitar.
In the eight years since, other band members have come and gone. Still, the singer couldn’t be happier with the band’s current players. In addition to Higgenson and Tirio, the T’s now feature Tim Lopez on guitar and vocals, Mike Retondo on bass and vocals and De’Mar Hamilton on drums. “This line-up clicks on so many levels,” Higgenson marvels. “It finally feels right. It finally feels like we’re a band.”
Higgenson’s newfound confidence is evident on All That We Needed, the band’s sophomore release. From the percussive fury that kicks off the record’s title track to the deft acoustic strumming on “Hey There Delilah,” the album’s fleet 40 minutes are packed with energy, melody and purpose.
For this album, the T’s had the luxury of recording in a proper studio (North Hollywood’s Hard Drive) with a producer, Ariel Rechtshaid (The Hippos, We Are Scientists). This was quite a departure from the “hectic and random process” Higgenson remembers as the recording of the debut T’s effort, Stop, in a friend’s basement. “We love that record but we had no idea what we were doing,” he confesses. “It was awesome just being in a real studio with a real producer this time. The whole process was incredible.”
The expanded sonic possibilities didn’t change the band’s crunchy coating/creamy center approach to pop-rock, however. Nor did a big studio dampen the emotional urgency of their songs.
Thematically, Needed deals with breakups (“Anything,” “Take Me Away”), longing (“Last Call,” “Hey There Delilah”) and the loneliness of life on the road (“Sing My Best”). But for Higgenson, what underlies the entire disc is a sense of freedom born of unity.
“The song ‘All That We Needed’ is about this guy/girl situation,” the frontman admits. “But it also seemed like a perfect album title because of all the changes we've gone through since Stop, especially in terms of our line-up. It’s as though this was all that we needed: these new guys and a whole change in attitude. As much as it sucked when a guy would quit, we rose to the challenge and just got better."
Higgenson describes “Breakdown,” a tale of growing up without love and its consequences, as a wakeup call. “I’ve seen a suicide – he couldn’t figure it out/He blamed himself because they couldn’t get along/I’ve seen his parents’ eyes trying to figure it out/Where did our baby go and what went wrong,” he sings. It seems perfectly appropriate that the T’s were asked to join the 2005’s Take Action Tour, which promotes awareness for various causes including suicide prevention and treatment for mental illness.
Sentiments such as these have clearly struck a chord with the band’s audience, which has swelled in the past few years as the T’s have gone from modest Chicago-area gigs to national tours. Higgenson partly attributes such growth to fans’ ability to relate to the songs.
“It’s incredible to be able to take that love and obsession and do something awesome with it – to be able to write songs that people like, want to hear, sing along to and relate to. In our guest book, people say things like ‘Oh my god, I love this song; it helped me so much. It’s so my life.’ Things like that just make you say, ‘wow.’”
This band-fan bond was made manifest when, on the most recent Plain White T’s tour, the group’s trailer was burglarized and all their gear stolen. After posting about the incident on their website, the band was greeted by an overwhelming show of support. Kids from across the country sent letters, gifts and cash to help the T’s get back on their feet.
“One girl sent in a $20 bill and said it was her allowance for the month of December,” Higgenson recalls. “You know, some people might say 20 bucks isn’t going to do much. But the fact that people took the time to even think about it, let alone send money, really means a lot.”
“We are really passionate about what we do,” the singer adds. “Hopefully people will be able to get something out of it, whether it makes them feel a little bit better about life or just puts a smile on their face. Or maybe it just gives them a little tune to hum along to and have in their hearts.”
And if any question remains about the band’s name, there’s really no hidden or abstract meaning. Picked from a list of names the band liked, the Plain White T’s moniker was officially bestowed when Higgenson made a telling observation about some of his favorite albums at that time. “Originally, I liked the visual association that went along with the name,” he remembers. “But then I noticed that in every single one of my CD booklets there was a picture of somebody wearing a plain white T, and it just seemed right.”
However, the name and the music do go hand in hand – both have a classic, comfortable appeal. “Anyone can look great in a plain white T, and that’s how we feel about our music,” Higgenson volunteers. “Anybody can hear it and enjoy it.”