The music of the Plain White T’s has often seemed to connote a specific rock/pop sound that could be considered a music brand. But they’ve superceded that stereotype with their recent album Parallel Universe, which is rife with experimentation, including prominent electronic dance music sounds and synths.
Their willingness to take risks has transcended the music realm to performing in a music video incorporating virtual reality. In this interview, Tom Higgenson, the group’s lead singer and main songwriter, discusses the band’s avid pursuit of new directions and projects.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that you took a very different direction with your recent album Parallel Universe. How is the album a departure from your typical sound?
Tom Higgenson: The new album actually wasn’t originally planned to be different. But we wanted to create something that was fresh for us, and hopefully our audience would feel the same way. We were keen to experiment with different sounds, including electronic dance music. Part of this was sparked by our collaboration with Matt Squire, who produced records for Panic! at the Disco.
He helped blend pop, punk, and electronic dance music for that band. We didn’t want to fall into some preconceived notion of what the Plain White T’s should sound like.
Rock Cellar: It’s been announced that you’re working with partners on a TV show or movie revolving around your song “Hey There Delilah.” How did that develop, and can you provide more details on the project’s stage of development?
Tom Higgenson: Well, I had contributed a song to the SpongeBob SquarePants musical and helped promote the song. Later, I sent over to one of the producers of that show some song ideas I had for a TV show or movie, and he loved the songs. After some time passed, I brainstormed some ideas for the project with the producer and another writer in an effort to update the theme of “Hey There Delilah” and come up with a new story relating to the song. In the process, we’re exploring the idea of turning the song into a fairy tale, which we feel would be perfect for a TV series or a movie. (Tom Higgenson has partnered with Primary Wave, the Plain White T’s management, and McCabe Entertainment on the project.) We’re pitching the idea now to networks and production companies, and the project is still at an early stage of development.
Rock Cellar: How have the dynamics of the band changed with the release of the new album?
Tom Higgenson: I don’t think the band dynamics changed much with the new album, though I think the band was even tighter and put all their heart into the album. Everyone contributed great creative input, and felt very strongly about the album.
Rock Cellar: You returned to Fearless Records after many years away from them to make the new album. Why did you return to them at this point?
Tom Higgenson: When we started with the label, they didn’t have a great deal of commercial success generally, except for a record for At the Drive-In and then our first album. They only had 6-8 employees at the time. They gave us our first opportunity recording and always believed in us. At the same time, we helped bring them some success with our first record, and Fearless grew over time, just like our career took off over a similar period. There was always mutual respect between us. So it’s nice to be back together again with them as both of us have moved to a bigger and different stage.
Rock Cellar: The new album includes some darker songs. What was behind that mood?
Tom Higgenson: When we were on Hollywood Records, we maybe felt more constrained to write in a certain mold. Now, we’ve stepped out of those boundaries, and written whatever we want. As a result, many of the new songs have a darker, rawer, and more vulnerable feeling.
Rock Cellar: The music video for “Land of the Living” on the new album was quite unusual, especially in its use of virtual reality and storyline. How did that project come about, and what was the experience of making the video like?
Tom Higgenson: It was a unique experience. We collaborated with Project Greenlight on it. We had worked before with Peter Jones from the company on another music video. Project Greenlight organized a contest reality show to select an aspiring filmmaker to develop the video for $40,000.
The selected video showed characters in a nursing home visualizing roles and lifestyles they’d like to assume with the aid of virtual reality goggles. A veteran in the video dreamed of being a drag queen performer, and was able to eventually fulfill that dream in reality outside the nursing home. One woman visualized herself as a flamenco dancer, and a biker imagined himself in a band called The Plain White T’s.
The message of the video is to live your dreams, and do what you aspire to.