From Miley Cyrus to Panic at The Disco, Nicole Row takes on every big gig with a sense of poise and rationality.
On December 27, 2018, Panic At The Disco’s longtime bass player, Dallon Weekes, announced he was leaving the band to pursue his own musical interests. With a pending tour on the books and a busy year ahead, Panic frontman Brandon Urie knew he had to act fast in finding his next bassist. It was around this time that Nicole Row had been playing with Miley Cyrus on a stretch of performances after gaining notoriety for her work with Fat Joe, Ty Dollar Sign, Dallas Austin, Remy Ma, and Troye Sivan. She received a call from Panic’s manager, who asked her to join. Before she knew it, she was heading over to meet the band — and her Instagram profile began blowing up with a new swarm of followers when the news broke that she landed the chair.
With only two weeks to learn a diverse catalogue of music that spanned six albums over a 14-year period, Row immediately got to woodshedding in an effort to master the bass lines and vocal harmonies that she would soon be performing to big audiences all over the world. Her background in jazz and her years of playing electric, upright, and synth bass aided her efforts, and she was soon on the road and infusing herself into Panic’s bold, theatric performances. To aid her sound, Row enlisted Fender’s Custom Shop to create a 30″ short-scale Jazz Bass 5-string that would deliver the booming tone she loved, paired with the playability of the smaller fingerboard. Thanks to her experience performing on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, Billboard Music Awards, and other marquee events and big bills, she masterfully took on the task.
How did you learn Panic’s challenging catalogue so quickly?
I had only a couple of weeks to learn all of the material before jumping on the tour, and I didn’t know specifically which songs we would be playing for the shows, so I sat down and started with all of the hits. I began with the bass parts and then had to work through learning all of the vocal parts, too. I used the album recordings and went with all of the highest harmonies I could [sing], and then I threw the vocals on top of the bass parts. Panic’s music can be really tricky to match the singing with the playing at the same time.
Has it always been natural for you to sing and play?
I’m not going to say it was ever easy, because that would be a lie. I feel like anybody who starts to sing and play will say that it’s difficult, unless you’re someone like Larry Graham. There were no instruments in my house as a kid, so I started off singing. That was the only thing I knew to do. So thankfully I don’t have to think about how to sing when I’m playing bass. But doing both of those things at once is definitely a challenge. To make it fun for myself. I like to think that it’s like playing drums. You have to separate parts of your body and divide your mind and you have to stack the grooves. It becomes fun when you get it down.
Do you feel any pressure to replicate the presence and playing of Dallon Weekes?
I’ve learned that when people ask you to play with them, they want your authentic self, and the only thing you can do is really be yourself. You can’t try to replicate anything anyone else is doing, because you’re not them. The first questions I had for the band were whether they wanted me to replicate the sounds from the album and whether they wanted me to play with a pick, which isn’t my preferred method of playing, as it’s not my first language on bass. They kind of laughed and said that they love my playing and my tone and they want me to have fun and do what I like. They said it’s not a gig, it’s a band, and I should approach it like that. When I first joined, Dallon reached out and sent me the nicest message congratulating me. He’s a great guy and I really like his playing. But I’m trying to approach this band as myself as a player.
How are you able to infuse some of yourself into the lines?
I’m playing the songs as they are on the album for a specific reason, because the people who come to these shows are diehard fans and they know the songs front to back. I want the audience to enjoy the show, so I’m sticking to the script pretty closely. However, we’re playing live versions of the songs that have a lot of different touches differentiating them a bit from the album work, and we always play off each other. My touch can change night to night in feeding off the crowds. I might hit harder or phrase something differently, so it’s a bit of a mix.
You’re a multi-threat who also plays upright and synth bass. How do you approach them all differently?
When I’m playing upright, I look at it more similarly to singing. There are no frets, so there’s a lot more freedom. You’re always going to be different than everyone else on upright; people will hear notes slightly sharper or more flat than the next person. You can articulate things differently. I don’t really take any of the same playing principles from electric to upright; it just wouldn’t sound the same. As for keybass, usually the lines that require that instrument are more open and sparse, so I try to give the songs exactly what they need.
Tell us about your custom short-scale Jazz Bass 5-string. What do you love about the 30″ scale?
It all started when I got my hands on Fender’s short-scale Mustang Bass. But there’s something about a 5-string’s punch that really comes across in the music and cuts through, and in the world of Fender, there weren’t any short-scale 5-strings. Dennis [Galuszka] at the Custom Shop was nervous about making this instrument because it was a new thing for Fender. I knew I needed that room between the neck pick up and the neck because I slap, so I had to have that area for my thumb to hit. Little things like that went into it and made it ultimately great for the overall design. I got everything that I have in my American Elite bass, but in a smaller package that fits me just perfectly. When I play my other regular scale basses I’ve learned to develop a technique of these tiny little jumps when I’m playing chromatic notes. I jump to get to just the right spot and this smaller bass gets rid of that. And stupid things, like when I have to tune my bass, I always have to pull my bass closer to reach the tuning pegs because I’m a small person. With this bass that isn’t an issue anymore. I was overwhelmed by how perfectly this bass came out.
Describe your playing technique.
I feel like bass players only think about that all of the time. It‘s our lifelong journey. In my head, I feel like most all of my personal tone comes form my hands. If you give the same bass to a bunch of different players it’s always going to sound different depending on who is playing it. My original way of living was that I believed in playing one bass and you create a bond with that bass with your tone and touch. There’s something really great about having one instrument that you meld with. My original bass was a Fender Marcus Miller Signature Jazz and it still just feels like home when I pick it up. I need the low B string for Panic, but when I get home it’s just magical when I play it. I set up all of the basses with really low action so that they’re sensitive to my touch, and it gives me more possibilities when it comes to dynamics.
What is your ideal bass tone?
If I could have vintage Precision tone plus modern Jazz bass tone, that would be my ideal sound. I don’t like just one thing, so I wish I could have both. I love to play funk, R&B, soul, Motown, and rock, so I want my tone to be authentic in all of those genres.
You come from a jazz foundation as your background. How does that influence you as a player overall?
Jazz is a huge part of my musical identity. It allows me to be open to improvising and take on anything that’s thrown at me. It makes everything easier to apply in any genre. I’m so grateful that I got my start in jazz because it has had a huge part in helping me become the player that I am now.
Before Panic, you played with Miley Cyrus. What was that gig like for you?
That was a really fun gig to play bass on. I came in expecting to play what I heard on the radio and assumed that I would be playing synth bass primarily. But she was in every single rehearsal with us musical directing everything and she would tell us exactly how she wanted things and she’d come up with musical changes on the fly. I had never had rehearsals like that with an artist, and especially not one of her caliber. She’s a really amazing musician and I feel like a lot of people don’t know that about her. She’s very much about doing your thing and being yourself, but also nailing the lines.
You’ve played on some big stages with some big names. What are the keys to approaching huge gigs like those?
You can’t overthink it. When you walk out there you have to be prepared and know what you have to do, but there are so many factors that go into that. Your sound is going to be different everywhere you play, and you’re not going to have the same vibe from venue to venue. And in big arenas the sound won’t be as booming from the stage perspective. You’re wearing in-ears and you have to really focus on what everyone else is doing. When you walk out there you have to let all of that go and just focus on the music and focus on having a good time. Always remember that all of those people are there to have a good time and because they love the music, so you should always try to relax and ease into that moment.
When did you start playing bass?
I was actually older than I wish I had been. I didn’t start playing bass until I was 17, and it was a foggy time for me as I was getting in a lot of trouble back then. I didn’t really grow up with any instruments, but my older brother got a drum set and it made me want to play drums, but my brother said no way. I had all these friends who were musicians, so I picked up a bass at some point and it came naturally and I realized that all of the music that I liked was bass-oriented. I didn’t even think about the fact that I wanted to be a bass player, it just kind of happened. I started playing with people in garages and jamming with as many people as I could. I learned all of my favorite songs and at the time I wasn’t playing music in school, so I didn’t really think about how I was going to do this as a lifestyle. I didn’t plan ahead I just started doing it. Kids usually don’t know what they’re going to do or a have a life plan, and if you tell people you’re going to play music they’re like, good luck with that. But I made it happen and it happened pretty quickly.
Who are your biggest bass influences?
When I was really young I was obsessed with Sublime. Eric Wilson is such a great bass player and I was a diehard fan of his. Once I turned 18 and I made my move out to LA I got really into funk music and then got really into Larry Graham, Marcus Miller, Nate Phillips, and all those players. Then I transitioned into Motown. It’s a pretty standard progression for us bass players. Then I got into fusion and eventually into John Paul Jones. I love how he approached a rock band and how he incorporated the blues into his lines.
What’s your best advice you’d give to another player?
There’s a local bass player who is a big inspiration to me, named Frank Abraham, and we were talking about getting up on stage for open jam sessions and he told me that you just have to put yourself in all of those situations and let yourself be scared. Once you do it, all that fear goes away and you’ll grow so much and take so many things from experiences that might make you uncomfortable or terrified at first. The only way you’ll learn is by doing it. Don’t stress about it, keep doing what you love, and those gigs will come. And that’s exactly what I did. I put myself in different situations, I scared the shit out of myself, I got up and played with musicians I couldn’t hang with, and he was right, those gigs came.
Bass Fender Custom Shop short-scale Jazz Bass 5-string, Fender American Professional Precision and Jazz Basses, American Elite Precision and Jazz Basses, American Original Precision and Jazz Basses, Mustang PJ, American Original ’70s Jazz Bass, Marcus Miller Signature Jazz Bass; Holbein ¾-size upright
Rig EICH T-1000, EICH T-500, EICH 212M
Effects Boss OC3 Octave, Darkglass Vintage Microtubes, Aguilar Fuzzistor Bass Fuzz, Tech 21 SansAmp DI
Strings Ernie Ball Mediums