After almost 20 years of anchoring alternative-rock powerhouse Silversun Pickups, a whole lot has changed for Nikki Monninger. In that span the band has released five critically acclaimed albums, they’ve traded intimate venues for large headlining bills, they’ve been nominated for Grammy Awards, and for Monninger personally, she now has two six-year-old twin girls. But what hasn’t changed is her massive role in the band’s driving, anthemic music or her use of her beloved Gibson Thunderbird bass, which she’s played since day one. And like the classic muscle car that bears the same name, Nikki’s prefers to put the pedal to the metal and gun it at full speed. “It Doesn’t Matter Why,” the first single from Silversun’s fifth studio album, Willow’s Weeds, exemplifies exactly that with Monninger’s speedy pick work and her melodic steering of the band.
Produced by legendary producer and founder of rock band Garbage, Butch Vig [Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Muse], the album cops a darker and more reflective feel than previous Silversun records, as it propels from fast-paced riffs that take the listener on a ride, to deep, orchestrated tracks that shift the vibe inward. Known for her creative bass work and love of musical motifs and cyclic lines, Monninger exhibits her expansion as a player with broad strokes of tonal dynamics, thanks in part to Vig’s willingness to experiment in the studio and convey the sounds she’s always been chasing. But tone aside, Monninger currently finds herself in a state of elation with her newest material, her band, and her family. While constant change can be a good thing, some good things don’t always have to change.
When we chatted during the recording sessions for your previous two albums, 2012’s Neck of the Woods and 2015’s Better Nature, you were heavily into funk bassists from the ’70s. What was influencing your playing this time around?
I was listening to a lot of ’80s new wave music like Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, and Joy Division. Something about that sound really hit me recently, and I got deep into the bass players from those bands. I like to pull from any influence I can, from classical to rock to even movie scores, which Brian [Aubert, singer/guitarist] is really into. When we talk about writing our songs, he uses a lot of vocabulary from scoring and sound design. That’s why we like to utilize strings in our music and make things thematic. But things don’t have to be musical to inspire you musically. It can be art or nature or movies that drive you to create.
What was it like for you to work with Butch Vig?
Butch is so easygoing, and he makes everyone feel so comfortable, that it’s really easy to open up when you’re in the studio with him. You can fully trust him and explore further. For the first week, we went to his house to do pre-production at his home studio. We recorded four songs with him, and then he had to take a break to tour with Garbage, which turned out great because that allowed us to have a chance to breathe and write new songs. I always get so nervous recording, because I sense the finality of it — that once it comes out commercially, it’s like that forever. I try to shift that nervousness toward putting in the effort of doing my best work possible and being proud of what I record. Butch is the perfect catalyst for that because he’s so supportive and encouraging and he creates a safe space for you to project what you’re really trying to express.
Butch has produced so many legendary albums and has captured some iconic bass tones. Did you try anything new in working with him?
On the song “Simpatico,” I used my fingers instead of a pick. I typically only use a pick, but I felt like that song needed a fingerstyle tone, and I’m a newbie at that, so it was definitely a challenge. It ended up getting more of a dub sound because of that. The last song, “Chameleon,” has my favorite bass tone that I’ve ever captured in the studio. I wanted something really aggressive and chaotic, but I wanted to keep the low end, which is a difficult thing to mix — and he did exactly what I asked of him. He pulled it off precisely how I heard it in my head. The best part of working with Butch is that he always asks each one of us individually what we want our part to sound like. He’s in a band, so he values individual players and what they bring to the group and add to the sum of the whole, so we always knew he was listening to each of us.
You get a very different bass tone on “Bag of Bones” and “Songbirds.” Did you use your acoustic bass for those?
Believe it or not, I actually used my Thunderbird on the whole album. For those two songs we went for a Peter Hook/Joy Division type of sound, which we achieved in the mix. I was really happy with how those came out from a tone standpoint. It’s nice to explore, but I always make sure that my bass always carries a lot of low end. I don’t use a lot of pedals live anymore, because I want my sound to have the big body. If I go for different sounds, I try to manipulate them with my hands on my bass. To me, the first responsibility of bass is to stay true to the deeper foundation, unless there’s a specific tone you’re going for on a particular song that requires some chaos.
“It Doesn’t Matter Why” has a super-catchy and driving bass line.
I knew when we were writing that song that the bass needed to keep moving in an almost robotic way, or like a train. I love repetitive playing, and I knew the bass’ role in that song was to push everything else around me up and drive the beat. I added in some transition notes to those parts, and Butch raised them in the mix, and I’m really happy with how that came out.
A great element of your playing is your use of repetitive, thematic bass lines and ostinatos, like in “Growing Old Is Getting Old.” Is that your M.O. in writing?
I love that song so much. We always get excited when one player plays one riff through a whole song — maybe even just three notes — and then when they switch it up and add even just one more note, it changes everything. There’s beauty in that simplicity, and a little change in that driving motion can shift everything. Same thing with drummers; if they play the same beat over and over and then throw in one hi-hat fill, it can shift the whole course of the song.
You’re doing a lot of singing on the new material, per usual. Has this batch of songs been challenging in juggling both duties?
I’m still a hesitant singer, but Butch made it easy to try things vocally. It really helped my confidence levels. I like being in there when Brian records his parts so that I can think of harmonies in that moment. Brian and I have a special bond between our voices when we sing together, and he’s always supportive of my singing. You have to feel safe to sing, and it’s important to feel comfortable in that space to do that. I’m lucky to have a band that likes my singing, because I’m not a traditional singer; I don’t have a rock & roll voice, but it somehow works in our band.
This is your fifth studio album. How has your playing developed in that span?
When we first started the band, I had barely been playing bass. Brian and I were roommates and he was playing guitar, so I picked up the bass, and now here we are. I’ve learned so much in that 20-year span, but I still feel like there’s so much room for growth. I always want to learn more, but I think that I’ve added to my knowledge with every album. The bass in our music doesn’t have to show off; it needs to make its own path, but it doesn’t need to take the spotlight. I try to dance around Brian’s voice as much as I can. I always try to move with his vocals and what he’s singing.
You’re still rocking the Thunderbird after all these years. How much is that bass part of your musical voice?
When I first playing started I used a Precision, but I was never quite happy with my tone with it. That bass ended up getting stolen early on, and I had always wanted to try a Thunderbird, and I immediately fell in love and it felt like home. Now when I play other basses it feels so different. I even stand a certain way with my Thunderbird. If I’m holding a different bass, I feel awkward because the balance is different, and I do think that I manipulate the strings in a certain way strictly based off the T-Bird. Companies often offer me their basses, but I politely decline because I have my bass and my sound. Should I be trying other basses?
Nah, you’ve become well known for your T-Bird sound.
Okay, I’ll check back next album.
What have you been working on in your personal practice?
I get nervous playing live, so I like to practice the songs a million times before we hit the road. Right now that’s the mode I’ve been in. My twin girls wake me up at 6 AM, and then I sit on the edge of the bed and play my bass for about an hour before I have to get going. But pretty soon my daughters won’t want anything to do with me, so I have to enjoy it now. It can be hard juggling being a mom and being in a band, so I’m trying to savor all of those moments when I do get to be with my girls and also get a chance to practice.
Do you think either of them will want to follow in your footsteps and pick up the bass?
This morning they were both singing one of our new songs, “Freakazoid,” in the bathtub together, so I guess there’s a chance. It was really adorable. But to them it doesn’t matter that I’m in a rock band. To them I’m just Mom, and that’s fine with me.
Silversun Pickups, Widow’s Weeds [New Machine]
Bass Gibson Thunderbird, Epiphone El Capitan IV Acoustic Bass
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL head, SVT 8x10 cabinet
Pedals Zvex Woolly Mammoth Bass Fuzz, Boss ODB-3 Overdrive, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, Fulltone Bass-Drive Mosfet, Aguilar TLC Compressor, DarkGlass Vintage Deluxe
Strings Ernie Ball Roundwound .045–.105
Other Roland SPD-SX Sampler, Suzuki Omnichord OM-27