The Plain White T’s take the reins of their Midwestern roots

Home Is Where The Music Is

By Tricia Despres

“Days like these don’t come up any higher
We’ve got main street lit up like a fire
Nothing compares to breathin’ the air
When I’m back in my hometown
Someday my kids will run like I did
On these streets and old playgrounds.”
–Lyrics to “American Nights”

On the title track of the group’s brand-new album American Nights, Plain White T’s frontman Tom Higgenson hits a nostalgic note, writing about the good old days growing up in Chicagoland. The days members of one of Chicago’s most influential bands spent running around the old playgrounds and cruising through the nights that were lit up by the main-street lights. The time during which the multiplatinum-selling band breathed deeply of the air, established its roots, and formed a Midwest sort of mentality that it still puts in play to this day.

A time called freedom.

It’s this freedom that Higgenson and bandmates Mike Retundo, Tim Lopez, Dave Tirio, and De’Mar Hamilton find themselves thriving in these days, thanks to a resurgence of sorts with the release of their latest album.


We had complete freedom, said Higgenson in a recent press release. We didnt worry about figuring out what our label wanted, or what would help us get onto the radio. We werent worried about doing too many acoustic songs or too many rock songs. We just wanted to do the ones that told our story. We wanted to be honest, because thats always been whats connected us the most to our fans.

“I was always in charge of my destiny,” adds Retundo in an interview with Ravinia Magazine. “Even when things are outside of your control, the actions you take in response will shape your life.”

Sounds like a true Chicagoan.


Their Chicago Roots

There is something about growing up and living in the Midwest. There is something about the mentality of the people that live here, the passion in which they live their lives, and the consistent way in which they continue to plow on as the world around them changes and evolves.

There is something about the Plain White T’s that make them awfully like us.

“Chicago is the greatest place in the world to grow up,” explains Plain White T’s bassist Retundo, who often admits to a craving for some hometown grub from Portillo’s. “Then again, I haven’t grown up anywhere else, so I might be a little biased. There are so many great things about Chicago, like the amazing parks, museums, zoos—even the snow in the winter is great when you’re a kid and don’t have to worry about anything except playing in it.”

Just about to reach the 20-year mark of a career highlighted by such breakout hits as “Hey There Delilah” and “Rhythm of Love,” the Plain White T’s have always thrived on a certain bit of independence mixed with a tough-man mentality that the band clung to as they scrapped along in the late 1990s, beginning as a pop/punk/ rock band playing in the clubs and basements across the Chicago suburbs. In 1997 the band shot to worldwide stardom with the acoustic ballad “Hey There Delilah,” which would make them not only Grammy-nominated superstars, but also the creators of the 18th-most downloaded song of all time.

Since then, they have amassed not only a slew of albums and hit singles, but also a loyal legion of fans that remain true to the band they love. “The sweetest year is always the next one,” says Retundo. “Being able to make music year after year with infinite possibilities ahead of you is always inspiring and it keeps us going.” And so does coming home and playing a venue right here in their backyard. “I’m really looking forward to [playing Ravinia],” says Retundo, who will join his Plain White T’s bandmates at the festival on July 18 as openers for Rob Thomas. “It’s a great venue, and I have family that lives over there, so it will be a fun day. Every show I’ve seen there has been great.”

Yet this time around, the band says they are eager to show off their new material. “This year we are throwing some new songs into our live show, which is always fun for us to do,” says Retundo. “So far, the crowd reactions have been great.”


Their New Venture

Created in the basement studio of Higgenson’s Chicago home, American Nights serves as quite a milestone for the band. First off, it’s the band’s first independent album since 2001. “We put out our latest album independently, which is how we started out,” explains Retundo, who admits to having dreams of being onstage playing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden 20 years from now. “The only real difference is technology makes things a lot easier. And better. Those old four-track tape demos sounded like absolute crap.”

The new album also serves as one of the band’s most collaborative projects to date, recruiting the songwriting services of three of the band’s members on the new album’s track list. “We finally [got] to make the album that we wanted to make,” says Higgenson, who takes writing credits on six of the 11 songs on the new album. “That’s the most exciting thing for any artist: to have free reign to make an artistic statement. We’re rejuvenated and re-inspired. We’re taking the reins.”

And the taking of those reins is sure to further cement the commitment of the five to not only each other, but to the band as a whole. “We’re a family,” Retundo says. “We’re five brothers. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Sounds like a true Chicagoan.


Tricia Despres is a Chicago-area freelance entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Country Weekly, and Advertising Age. Follow her on Twitter at @CHIwriter.