It’s clear that the members of Skating Polly were born to rock. Stepsisters Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse started the self-proclaimed “ugly pop” band in 2009, when they were 9 and 14 years old, respectively. Since then, they’ve released four albums and received acclaim from artists like Exene Cervenka of X and Kliph Scurlock of The Flaming Lips. Recently, the band worked on their EP New Trick with Louise Post and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. Now, they’re touring the country, joined onstage by one new member—Kurtis Mayo, Kelli’s brother, who plays the drums.
We were able to send Skating Polly a few questions about their music and touring experiences. Their answers revealed all kinds of insights and fun facts. Read on to learn about the meaning behind their single “Hail Mary,” their favorite music videos to film, and their memorable encounters with Jeff Mangum and Sleater-Kinney.
TYF: Kelli and Peyton, you started Skating Polly when you were just 9 and 14 years old, so you’ve been involved with the rock world for a long time. Do you remember some of the moments when you first fell in love with rock music?
Peyton Bighorse: The biggest moment for me was hearing “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” by the X-Ray Spex. Before that, I liked music, but I didn’t really know how much music was out there. I was accidentally limiting myself to music I heard on the radio, but after I heard that song, I wanted to know everything I could. I started digging for a bunch of different music.
Kelli Mayo: When I got my first iPod, it was a huge revelation because I started learning the names of songs and bands that had been playing in the background all my life. Coincidentally, that was right around the same time Peyton came into my life. We would each take an earbud and go on walks around our suburban neighborhood singing/shouting the lyrics to Sleater-Kinney, X, The Ramones, Nirvana, Dandy Warhols, The White Stripes, Dredsen Dolls, Throwing Muses, Sex Pistols, Portishead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Beat Happening, Pixies, Daisy Chainsaw, and many, many more. It was great because even though I knew the melodies and the words and had become obsessed with certain songs, with Peyton I started to actually recognize titles. So in that way, I discovered them with her. We worshipped all these bands and studied and lost our minds to the music together. I remember playing Babes in Toyland to my 3rd grade classmates to scare them. To me, they were the ultimate badge of fearlessness and punk rock.
TYF: You’re currently touring the U.S. with X. What has this experience been like so far? Any funny or interesting stories from the road you’d like to share?
Bighorse: Touring with them was so, so, SO much fun. We just played our last show of the tour with them a few days ago at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina. They’re all some of the coolest and sweetest people we’ve had the pleasure of working with. And they’re all hilarious! We were pretty much laughing the whole tour.
Mayo: It was unforgettable. Every night, I would get these insane nerves before we went on because we were not only playing with one of our biggest influences, but we were playing in front of crowds that had seen A LOT of music. I felt like there was this added pressure that we had to be really great if we wanted to make an impression. On top of that, we were doing this new thing (adding Kurtis and playing New Trick), but their crowds were great to us and made every night a blast. We started playing Word With Friends with Exene, which was a big mistake. I think she won our game by well over 100 points. I should’ve learned my lesson from the time she swept the floor with us in Farkle. So there’s a tip for you, don’t challenge Exene!! She’s the game master. But I’ve got to say my favorite tour anecdote was when Billy Zoom asked me what it’s like to be 17 in the 21st century, and I told him that I think sometimes the internet and social media makes me more self conscious than I’d like to be, and he said, “I’m self conscious too. You know how everyone says I’m always smiling onstage? I’m not smiling. I’m gritting my teeth.” We all started cracking up about it, including Billy. At the end of the tour, we took some pics with all of X and Billy was flashing his classic Billy grin. so afterwards I asked if he was smiling or gritting his teeth and he said “Smiling of course.” And kissed me on top of my head. So many great memories from that tour.
TYF: You worked with Nina Gordon and Louise Post of Veruca Salt on your EP New Trick. What was it like to collaborate with them?
Bighorse: Collaborating with Nina and Louise was an incredible experience. They taught us so much and introduced us to lots of little tricks and ideas that we would have never thought of before we met them that we’ll incorporate into our new songs. Plus, we now have life-long friends who can continue to teach us lots!
Mayo: I’m still just incredibly giddy that I got to sing and harmonize and rock out with Nina and Louise. We’d run a song together and it would just randomly hit me that I was playing in a group with Louise Post and Nina Gordon, so I’d start beaming. The writing process was fast-paced, but instead of that limiting the songs, I think the challenge just spurred lots of creativity. We were writing basically in the studio, so we came up with all these layers and harmonies and subtle nuances and then we stripped away and voted on what was necessary to stay. Thank God we had Brad Wood behind the mixing board because he just got it and seemed to know exactly what we wanted, even when we didn’t know what we wanted.
TYF: In “Louder In Outer Space,” one of the songs from the EP, you mention someone named Charlie. Who is this character?
Bighorse: Charlie is just a character I made up who kind of represents lots of different things. No one specific, but just feelings and things. Really, Charlie is just someone to sing to.
TYF: “Hail Mary,” another song from the EP, has recently gotten attention from outlets like NPR and Stereogum. What is the story behind this track and its mentions of “Mary” and “Hera”?
Mayo: There are two stories going on in “Hail Mary”. There’s the fairytale I wrote on the surface, which is about a princess with this posh lifestyle and this prince that are literally poisonous to her but she’s too scared to leave it because she thinks those things define her. The narrator is pleading with her to run away and never look back. The bridge is about someone who wants to take Mary’s life from her because she only sees the perks of it. I was pulling from fairytales, and Greek mythology, and biblical stories for the lyrics. But all the characters and verse and bridge lyrics represent specific people and things in my life.
TYF: The music video for “Hail Mary” has a lot of interesting imagery, such as the moving mannequins and the woman stabbing her own artwork. How did you come up with the concept for this video?
Bighorse: We went through so many storylines before we landed on this one. We rented this really cool looking house in Goldendale, Washington about 3 and a half hours from where we live and then drew inspiration from the house. Once we got there, we just stayed up late the first night throwing ideas around until we had something to go off. We started shooting the next morning and it just evolved as we went along.
Mayo: It represents the lyrics and the storyline of the song without literally depicting the lyrics. We wanted to tell that basic fairytale in an abstract way.
TYF: Speaking of videos, you have over a dozen music videos on your YouTube channel. Which ones were the most fun to make?
Bighorse: One of my favorites to make was “Oddie Moore.” Most of the time spent on it was actually just practicing how we were going to move because we were trying to do it in just two shots and then make it look like one. (We ended up doing three shots in the end.) It was lots of fun trying to time everything perfectly. Kelli and I were running all over the basement of our house trying to get to our next mark before the camera did. It was like a little game.
Mayo: I think “For The View” might have been the most fun because I could be as silly and cheesy as I ever dreamed of being and wasn’t worried about looking dumb because I was already dressed in men’s clothing with a fake mustache playing in front of a green screen. But also “A Little Late” was incredibly fun and I think it turned out just straight up lovely. It was lots of giggling, dancing, and singing in front of strangers on their morning hikes in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. (They couldn’t hear the music either, only me with my one earbud discreetly tucked into my dress.) It was just a blast, and of course all the locations were beautiful.
TYF: Kurtis Mayo is now officially a part of Skating Polly. Kelli and Peyton, what is it like to have a new member? Kurtis, what is it like to be the new member?
Bighorse: It was a really natural transition bringing Kurtis on to be an official member. He’s has always been kind of like an unofficial third member of Skating Polly anyway―we’d always get his opinion when we were stuck on a song or if we were unsure of something. He’s helped us with lyrics and little instrumental parts. After working with Nina and Louise and getting to experience what a full band was like, we knew we wanted another member. Picking Kurtis was a no-brainer. There was really no one else we would have trusted or wanted.
Kelli Mayo: It’s so fun playing off Kurtis live and having an official rhythm section of SP. We’re so insanely stoked for everyone to see the new lineup live because it’s just so much more powerful.
Kurtis Mayo: I’m just extremely excited, grateful, and proud to be involved. So far, this has been the coolest experience of my life. I was always so proud of the girls when they were a duo. They were putting on shows the way bands like The Who or Nirvana would with just two people. So, when they approached me about joining, I was honored, but nervous to mess with that chemistry they had on stage, but the new setup still has the dynamics the girls established from the beginning. I couldn’t be more honored to be involved.
TYF: In addition to making New Trick with Veruca Salt, you have toured and worked with a number of your inspirations at this point, such as Babes in Toyland and Kliph Scurlock. What are some of the most surreal moments you’ve shared with people you admire?
Bighorse: Probably the most surreal moment I’ve had is meeting Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel. Laura [Carter] from Elf Power, who was opening for NMH, invited us to come to a show in Albuquerque, and after the show we were hanging out in the back with Elf Power and a few of the members of NMH, but Jeff was somewhere else when we first got there. He walked out when I was talking to Laura and I just flipped around so no one could see the tears that were forcing themselves out of my eyes. I couldn’t speak. Laura took me over to meet him and I was so nervous. He gave me a hug and I managed to get a few words out, “You are my biggest inspiration” and “I’m in a band called Skating Polly”. Then he said, “Oh yeah, you guys are awesome” and I flipped out. I couldn’t believe that he’d heard us. We’d been to numerous other Neutral Milk Hotel shows and I gave him some of our CDs by throwing them on stage, but I never imagined he’d listen to them. It was incredible.
Kelli Mayo: Never gonna forget the time Kliph took us backstage at Sleater-Kinney and Corin [Tucker] offered us Pellegrino and Carrie [Brownstein] told me about this amazing Turkish psych guitarist Selda. We passionately love both of those things now, so thank you very much, Sleater-Kinney! They were so sweet and down to Earth. I was holding back tears from the excitement and they were asking us what working with Calvin Johnson was like. Coupled with the AMAZING show they put on that night, it was quite the dream!
TYF: As young musicians who have found success doing what you love, do you have any words of wisdom for any of your fellow young musicians who might be reading this interview?
Mayo: Don’t imitate! Be inspired and influenced but don’t train yourself to play dress up and pretend to be someone you look up to. You can have more lessons and practice under your belt than anyone else in the world but if you don’t put yourself in your art it won’t stand the test of time and frankly you’re cheating yourself. Music is an art not a sport and art is personal! Other than that have fun and be happy! And if things start picking up and the work load gets heavy try not to be overwhelmed and remember that you have the coolest job in the world!
Bighorse: I think the most important thing when you’re doing something creative (or anything you love, really) is to keep at it and not worry too much about other people’s opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to not get strapped in a rut because you’re so worried about disappointing people, but then you’ll never get anything done. You just gotta do what you like!
TYF: Finally, do you prefer ice skating or roller skating?
Bighorse: Definitely roller skating! I’ve only been ice skating once and it was so terrifying. I clung to the wall the whole time and the only thing I could think about was someone skating over my fingers if I fell down. I’m not that good at roller skating either, but anything beats ice skating.
Mayo: I love both but gotta choose ice skating since I get to do it less and it’s always incredibly special and fun when I can finally convince someone to go ice skating with me.