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Sage Youth: an interview with Skating Polly

“I see other kid bands singing ‘Oh I’m in love,’ and I’m like ‘you’re not in love, you’re 12.'”

Kelli Mayo

I called Skating Polly on a sunny afternoon from the deck of an apartment in a quiet neighborhood outside of Paris. The hoarse voices of Peyton Bighorse and Kelli Mayo, originating in Oklahoma and rising from the speakerphone into the day, are content to be back home–they had a show last night.

Since an impromptu halloween party jam session in 2009, stepsisters Kelli–13–and Peyton–17–have been making music as Skating Polly. When I ask about the name Kelli’s first response is: “We wanted something kind of ironically juvenile.” I can’t help smiling as she goes on to explain how the name Skating Polly is meant to evoke an ironic tension between the girls’ stature and the sincerity of the music they write, “we are little, but we try not to act cutsie or little whenever we’re actually making our music. It was just this image in my head, like, skater girls are all tough or whatever and that clashes with the idea of Pollys being princesses.” Also, she tells me, the K in ‘Skating’ is for Kelli, and the P in ‘Polly’ is for Peyton.

Skating Polly is not a kid band–they don’t write songs about getting put down at school, or about love, which at this age they admittedly know nothing about. They don’t seem to have an age, actually, or to address a particular age group; their music speaks to everyone and is laced with universals. Halfway through one of their songs, you might notice the stinging of an impending tear welling in your eye for no particular reason, and then you realize that there’s just something innately beautiful about the phrase “lost wonderfuls,” something that coaxes powerful emotions to the surface. And I can’t say for sure what that something is, because it’s different for all of us.

Yet apparently “Lost Wonderfuls” is about a stranger’s encounter with a secret government agency–Peyton and Kelli don’t take lyrics too seriously. They don’t worry about making sense given their propensity for choosing a repeated lyric like ‘Placer’ because “the word sounds interesting with the music.” What is Placer supposed to mean? Even Kelli couldn’t tell you, but that’s of little importance because the lyric makes sense exactly where it is. The track is one of the purest, most evocative pieces of punk rock you’ve heard since the last time you listened to “Debaser” by the Pixies. Skating Polly covers a host of genres without losing that unique signature, the timbre in the voice that can always be traced back to the musician–a musical fingerprint, however subtle. “I always try to write music that sounds like it’s coming from the same person” Kelli says of their multi-genre setlist. They’ve listed artists like Johnny Cash alongside Nirvana and Babes in Toyland as influences. A Beirut-esque ukulele track, a simple, plodding piano piece, and the scorching scream-filled chorus of ‘Placer’ are artfully crammed into their latest disc.

For a pair of teenagers whose mentors have included Exene Cervenka of the ‘80s punk rock group X  and Kliph Scurlock of the Flaming Lips, Peyton and Kelli are admirably modest when it comes to discussing their musicianship, “I always kind of think, at least of myself, that I can’t play anything” Kelli admits. Between the two of them, they play guitar, drums, keys, bass, and a homegrown instrument called a bassitar–a guitar strung with two bass strings tuned a fifth apart–that their father made for Kelli when her fingers were still too small to play all six strings of an actual guitar. Small, yes, but the levelness of their voices, the assuredness that buttresses their statements–it’s evident that time spent in this brutal business where judgement and taste are the primary arbiters of success has taught valuable lessons in self-confidence, faith and perseverance. Peyton is telling me about the time they opened for Band of Horses,  “I didn’t notice that people in the crowd were booing until our family told us after, and then people up front looked like they were annoyed and bored out of their minds. If I ever thought I started looking like I was bored I would look at them because I thought it was pretty funny that they looked so bored,” to which Kelli adds: “Yeah, whenever I see people plug their ears or look like ‘this is just noise, I don’t like this’ I just kind of get humor out of it and play harder. I throw a music tantrum.” What the members of Skating Polly just described is every artist’s worst nightmare, except the fans are twice their age–yet these two are completely unfazed.

Skating Polly is a duo of unfailing optimists. In between the answers they offered me–answers more honest and thoughtful and unburdened by ego or pretension than those most adults in their position could have given–they giggled. They talked about being booed on stage and they giggled. Skating Polly is not a kid band, but they remind us what it’s like to be kids, unaware of age, delivered from the weights we ultimately hang on ourselves with the passing years. There’s a sort of wisdom to be found in their music, at once tranquil and determined. “Me and Petyon plan on doing this for the rest of our lives” says Kelli, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that they’re going to do exactly that.


Bonus : “Walking With Jesus (Spacemen 3 cover),” Skating Polly feat. Depth & Current