For the past several years, the reoccurring theme in Nikki Monninger’s life has been stepping out of her comfort zone. It all began when she took a nine-month maternity leave from Silversun Pickups’ 2012 Neck of the Woods tour to take care of her twin daughters. Although she was elated to bring her babies home while Sarah Negahdari filled in for her on bass, Monninger found it difficult to step away from the band she co-founded. Luckily, she was able to jump back in on the last several dates of the tour, but that, too, proved challenging after almost a year of being a stay-at-home mother.
Fast-forward to 2014, when Monninger and Silversun Pickups entered the studio with ace producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Weezer) to record their fourth album, Better Nature. Not only did Lee insist that she play instruments she had never played before, but he also had her use basses other than her trusty Gibson Thunderbird. By all accounts, the results were a triumphant success: Monninger’s gritty, rhythmic playing serves as the heart of Better Nature, especially on “Cradle,” “Nightlight,” and “Tapedeck.” And now that she’s waking up at 5 am every day to practice bass before being a mom, Monninger has finally found her happy zone.
How was it working with Jacknife Lee?
Jacknife likes us to play what we’re feeling in the moment instead of what we prepared, which was hard for me because I’m always immaculately prepared. We work differently, but I like the fact that he pushed me to do things outside of my comfort zone. Ultimately, it made things better.
What new things did you try in the studio?
I used my acoustic bass for the song “Tapedeck,” which was exciting because I hadn’t recorded with an acoustic before. I also played vibraphone on that song, which is something completely new to me. I play keys on several parts of the album, and on “Nightlight,” I played higher on the neck than I usually do.
How do you approach writing your lines?
The artist Paul Klee once said, “Drawing is taking a line for a walk.” I’ve always felt like a song is like taking a bass line for a walk, and I try to adhere to that mentality. I like a lot of movement within my playing, like on “Growing Old Is Getting Old” [from Swoon, 2009], but with enough foundation to support everything else.
How has your playing evolved over the course of four albums?
When we first started the band, I had only played bass for around six months. Since then, I’ve evolved as a musician, and we’ve all gotten better as a band. I feel like my bass lines are getting more complicated, but now they really hold the songs together. I’ve found ways to strengthen the song’s structure while making things interesting.
Silversun Pickups, Better Nature [2015, New Machine]
Bass: Gibson Thunderbird, Epiphone El Capitan IV acoustic bass
Rig: Ampeg SVT-CL head, Ampeg SVT 8x10
Pedals: Malekko B:Assmaster, Zvex Woolly Mammoth Bass Fuzz, Boss ODB-3 Overdrive, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, Fulltone Bass-Drive Mosfet, EBS Octabass, Aguilar TLC Compressor
Strings: Ernie Ball Roundwound (.045–.105)
Photos by David Patrick Valera (top) and Victoria Schmidt (bottom)