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Skating Polly make “ugly pop” magic with their riot grrrl heroes

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Skating Polly’s sense of humor may be dryer than yours. - ALICE FINNERAN
  • Alice Finneran
  • Skating Polly’s sense of humor may be dryer than yours.
It is borderline impossible to write a story about Oklahoma City’s Skating Polly without mentioning the following:
  1. Co-founders Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse (which may or may not be their real names) are stepsisters who room together in their parents’ basement;

  2. They started their band nearly a decade ago, at a ridiculously young age, and began referring to their music as “ugly pop”;

  3. They’ve since collaborated with a number of their indie-rock heroes — including Veruca Salt’s Louise Post and Nina Gordon, X co-founder Exene Cervanka, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, and The Flaming Lips’ Kliph Scurlock — all of whom had been through at least one band breakup before Kelli was even born.
Take, for example, the legendary vocalist and songwriter whose band X essentially defined American punk-rock back in the late ’70s. “When we first met Exene, I was 9 and Peyton was 14, and we had literally just started our band,” says Kelli, who is now 18, of their backstage encounter. “We were completely geeked out on her, and she actually gave us her email and kept in touch with us. Then, when we recorded our first record, we sent it to her and she told us she wanted to produce the next one.”

Exene spent four days in an Oklahoma studio producing the duo’s 2011 sophomore album, Lost Wonderfuls. Not long after that, Skating Polly’s praises were being sung by musicians ranging from country-rock icon Rosanne Cash to Babes in Toyland riot grrrl Lori Barbero.

This month will see the release of Skating Polly’s latest album, The Make It All Show, which should, and most likely will, earn a place on numerous critics’ year-end lists. With brother Kurtis Mayo behind the drumkit, Skating Polly have grown into a proper band featuring Kelli and Peyton’s infectious lead vocals, keen pop instincts, and guitar-heavy rock arrangements. Especially press-worthy is the single “Queen for a Day,” which features lyrics that Exene sent the stepsisters by text.

“We’d played a few shows with X at that point, and she kind of teased the idea that she was going to send me some lyrics,” says Kelli. “She’d be like, ‘Well, I don’t know if you’ll even want them, they might not be that good’ — she kept saying stuff like that! We were actually in practice when I got the text, and it was amazing. She was one of my biggest heroes. She’s like family now.”
With a new album to promote, Skating Polly will be spending a lot of time out on the road in the months ahead. Many of the shows on their current 34-city run are shared bills with Charly Bliss, the Brooklyn power-pop band whose Glitter LP was Kelli’s favorite album from last year.

After that, it’s back home to Oklahoma, a place Kelli speaks of with cheerful enthusiasm: “The basement is our garage, our practice space, and also me and Peyton’s room,” she says. “It has cement walls, and this horrible wood paneling, and then the ceiling is just like exposed wood beams and pipes and fiberglass. We can hear when someone turns on the sink.”

Not surprisingly for musicians whose tastes are timeless and eclectic, the basement is packed full of music-related memorabilia: posters of musicians like Charlotte Gainsbourg, George Harrison, Jesus Lizard and St. Vincent. Backstage passes from all the tours they’ve done so far. An entire section devoted to Babes in Toyland that includes a get-well note from lead singer Kat Bjelland. Lots of Polaroids, a photo-booth strip of Andy Warhol selfies, even a drawing of Cyndi Lauper by Kat Kon, the Greek illustrator who did the artwork for Skating Polly’s fourth record, The Big Fit.

And then there are the musical instruments, including the homemade “basitar” that saw Kelli through the band’s early writing and recording stages. “It’s just two bass strings on a really small guitar that I got at Walmart or somewhere,” she says of her version of the mutant instrument that was popularized, to the extent that it can be, by punk-pop band The Presidents of the United States of America and the exceptionally original alt-rock trio Morphine.

“I had it tuned to C sharp and G sharp, but now it also has an E string on top,” Kelli admits. “I don’t think I’ll get a fourth string, though. I think my brain is like finally wrapped around this tuning.”

You can hear Kelli’s basitar in action on the duo’s YouTube channel, scattered among a decade’s worth of official videos, live performances and tongue-in-cheek promo clips. The 90-second “Skating Polly Explains Why They Started Their Band,” for example, is a black-and-white video from 2012 that finds Peyton rolling her eyes as Kelli dryly declares that what the world needs now is another great rock ’n’ roll band, and how she believes that “Skating Polly could very well be the one of which the pundits speak.”
“It was actually Steely Dan liner notes that I was reading,” she laughs, recalling how the boy she dated through middle school was both taken in and put off by it.

“He said, ‘You seem really pompous and self-absorbed in this video,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s the whole point, dude!’ So that’s what I always think of whenever people bring up that video. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, if my holier-than-thou seventh grade boyfriend thought I looked pompous, I wonder how many other people actually think I was being serious.”

The channel’s most endearing clip, which was shot by their father, shows the two stepsisters giggling and screaming as they listen to one of their songs being played on the radio for the first time.

“It’s so funny how we randomly get asked about that in interviews every now and then,” says Kelli. “Peyton hates the video, because she was a teenager, so she was like, ‘Oh I hate myself, I’m so awkward.’ But I was 9 years old at the time, so I just thought it was weird and cute. I was a fucking little twerp or whatever. I still think it’s adorable.”

That said, the duo has its serious side as well. A more recent video shows them covering the ’60s protest anthem “Morning Dew” the day before Donald Trump was elected. “It was a Girls Rock benefit type of thing,” says Kelli. “And then when we watched it all happen on election night, I remember my stepmom started screaming, and me and Peyton just starting bawling and went down to our room. I don’t know, it’s just really, really scary.”

Which is part of the reason why the lyrics on The Make It All Show album come across as more personal and heartfelt than on previous recordings. “They’re all very vulnerable, emotional songs, and I think the lyrics are darker than anything we’ve written before,” says Kelli. “I kind of wrote from this more open place where I wasn’t trying to hide behind narrative or poetic layers. I still do that, but now you can tell what I’m talking about.”

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