If you turned on the radio even once this summer, chances are you heard the Plain White T’s plaintive “Hey There Delilah.”
The simple, practically inescapable acoustic ballad recounts a long-distance love affair. And, just in case you were wondering: yes, Delilah is about a real girl; no, it wasn’t about a real relationship.
The unexpected hit has become one of the summer’s biggest songs. It unseated pop princess Rihanna’s “Umbrella” from the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and reigned for several weeks as the nation’s No. 1 song. And along the way, it made five friends from Chicago bona fide rock stars. Well, sort of.
“I think it’s funny. People think that when this happens to a band, you’re automatically rich and famous,” said guitarist Dave Tirio. “My mom was telling us, `All the girls I work with think you’re rich.’ The truth is you have to have a lot of success before you make a lot of money. We haven’t yet. Most of us still live at home when we go home. I sleep in the same bed I did my whole life. My car is still dead in the driveway. We’re still living very, very meager.”
It would be easy to call the Plain White T’s an overnight success, but that would be wrong. Unless, that is, if you consider 10 years of playing church basements, driving in a small van and sleeping on dirty floors “overnight.” The group was formed in high school by a bunch of friends who wanted to play music.
“You look back on all the work that lead up to it and you think, man, that was a crazy long road,” Tirio said. “A lot of the growth happened at that time, and I always think that if our band got really big, say, five years ago, we may have broken up at that time. It’s really fortunate that it’s a 10-year `overnight’ thing and we’re having fun now and everyone in the band belongs in the band.”
The song that took the Plain White T’s from indie favorites to mainstream hitmaker has almost as long a back story. Singer Higgenson met Delilah DiCrescenzo five years ago in New York, where she was a All-American track star and student at Columbia University. He was immediately taken by the brunette, but she had a boyfriend. He told her he had a song for her, which wasn’t true. At least yet. The two became friends instead and DiCrescenzo would playfully ask about her song from time to time. So Higgenson finally wrote one.
Tirio said when he first heard the song, he thought it was one of the best things Higgenson had ever written. But he didn’t think it was a hit.
“The first time we heard it, it really packed an emotional punch,” he said. “People even got choked up. It took us by surprise, it was a really cool song. But I never thought it would be a hit, just because it’s a little acoustic thing. You never expect that song to be the one you go to as a release. Expect it to be a big, hooky rock song.”
In fact, he said, record labels explicitly preach the importance of releasing a big, rocking single to bring in male listeners.
“For years, labels will tell you over and over again that for modern rock radio, you have to go for the guys with big guitars and aggressive sounds,” he said. “They say the girls will come naturally. That girls like cute guys in bands, even ugly guys in bands. But the song that gets us somewhere on the map is the most pansy, girly acoustic song. It shows you how much labels know.”
Since the song caught fire on radio this summer, the band has twice appeared on MTV’s “TRL” (the second time last week). The group has upgraded from driving around in a van to flying from show to show.
The newfound fame has had some interesting results, Tirio said. Like once when he was sleeping on a plane en route to the band’s next gig, a middle-age woman plopped down next to him and shoved a magazine at him.
“She said, `Is this you guys? Can you sign this for me?’” he said. “That’s happened on planes kind of a lot lately. Sometimes, people get a little overzealous. But for the most part, fans are awesome and respectful. They bring us gifts and cook us food - it’s almost motherly sometimes.”
But as much as they’ve appreciated the success of “Hey There Delilah,” band members think it’s time to move on.
And even Tirio will admit to being sick of hearing it on the radio.
“You’ll always get a kick out of hearing it on the radio, but it’s no longer like, `Wow!’” he said. “We’re definitely ready for the next one.”
That next one will be “Our Time Now,” the first track off the group’s album, “Every Second Counts.”
“This next one has a lot of hooks and is written as a goofy, big pop song,” he said. “The lyrics were written to be as cliche as possible. We’re taking all these emo bands who talk about nostalgia and say things like, `This is our last desperate chance to make it right,’ and throwing it all in there. It’s meant to be cliche.”
What’s not cliche? The band’s nonstop work ethic.
Tirio said the group has no downtime scheduled between now and its next album. On Oct. 18, the group starts the cross-country Young Wild Things Tour featuring Fall Out Boy, Gym Class Heroes and Cute is What We Aim For.
Then they will spread cheer at a slew of Christmas radio festivals, then it’s off to Europe and then Australia and then New Zealand and then Japan.
“Maybe in a year or two, we’ll have some time off,” Tirio said. “The thing that me and Tom seem to think is that maybe after the next record is done and toured through, maybe then we’ll have some time off.”