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Spotlight on the Plain White T's

The pop-rock band talks about fame and being inspired by Dustin Hoffman

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Every rising rock & roll band has its heroes, those spiritual forefathers who illuminate the path to a wondrous land of killer riffs, pliant groupies, and gold records. For the Plain White T’s, that magic man is…Dustin Hoffman. On a cavernous Burbank soundstage, the Chicago-bred rockers behind this year’s swooniest ballad ”Hey There Delilah” are preparing to shoot the video for their follow-up single, ”Our Time Now.” All five members stand by in various states of Dustin-inspired dress, waiting to film reimagined scenes from the 1967 classic The Graduate in which each member plays some aspect of Hoffman’s role in the movie. ”It’s the kind of film Dave [Tirio, the band’s guitarist] and I watched together in film class in high school,” says singer Tom Higgenson. ”It sticks with you, you know? We have a lot of younger fans and they’ve probably never seen it, but we’re trying to set it up in a way that they can relate to.”

Several weeks later, they’re put to the test when the video premieres on TRL to a fresh-faced studio audience who know Hoffman primarily, if at all, as Ben Stiller’s randy sexagenarian dad in Meet the Fockers. Still, they scream just as insatiably for the ”Our Time” clip as they do for a studio visit by Idol victor Jordin Sparks. (Chosen for promos on the ABC Family dramedy Greek, the song is also currently played during ESPN’s college football broadcasts, and in a Verizon commercial.) The group is duly humbled: ”TRL is a cultural institution for young music fans,” says Tirio. ”You grow up watching Britney Spears and ‘N Sync on there, so when bands like us get to go on the show, it’s just bizarre.”

It’s only one of many outsize recent moments for the T’s, who have been steadily plugging away in various incarnations since the late ’90s. The pair at its core, friends since their freshman year in high school, have only taken two brief respites from the band: Higgenson to recover from a near-fatal 1999 car accident, and Tirio to make a brief, misguided foray into college life (”This band is my backup plan,” he laughs).

Over the course of a demo and two raucous pop-punk albums released on a small indie label, the group developed a modest but devoted following, and a final lineup solidified — including bassist Mike Retondo, drummer De’Mar Hamilton, and guitarist Tim Lopez, who all came to the group from other bands the pair admired. Then, Disney-owned label Hollywood Records, home to tween money-minters Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, came calling. Even with such hitmakers already in-house, few were prepared for the massive impact of ”Hey There Delilah,” the true tale of not-quite-requited love that bloomed beyond its Warped Tour demographic — from minivan moms to Iraq-stationed U.S. soldiers — to become one of 2007’s biggest singles. But Higgenson remembers what should have been an early tip-off to the tender acoustic ballad’s wide appeal: ”My grandpa was initially the person, way back, who said, ‘That’s a hit, and it should be on the radio.”’

If only the song had worked so well on its inspiration. The real Delilah — whose muse-dom garnered her a steady stream of national press as the song went on to sell nearly 2.5 million units — has (alas) a boyfriend. But ”Delilah” continues to open other doors. ”Our goals as a band were really modest,” points out Tirio, ”so to be on the international stage like we are now… It’s bigger and cooler than I ever thought it would be, for sure.” Indeed, the band that once played hole-in-the-wall Midwestern clubs for peanuts is now rocking arena stages across the country; a tour with fellow scene stars Fall Out Boy and Gym Class Heroes will wrap Dec. 2 in Las Vegas. And come January, they’ll head abroad to promote Every Second Counts, before returning to record their fourth album, due for release next September. ”It’s been a hell of a year,” says Higgenson giddily. ”But I’m looking forward to the next one, too.”

2007 has served this five-man band well; a breakdown of their not-so-plain stats

2.35 million Number of ”Hey There Delilah” digital downloads

21.5 million Views of the official ”Delilah” video on YouTube

$13,000 Total cost of said video

4 Albums and EPs the T’s have released; most recently Every Second Counts

1.46 million Total album sales of Every Second

1.1 million Plays that new single ”Our Time Now” has clocked on MySpace

39 Number of cities hit on the band’s current tour, over 48 days

36 Combined number of plain white tees owned by the five band members