Unstoppable Sisters: An Interview with Skating Polly

Skating Polly Skating Polly

Do you remember what you were doing when you were a teenager? Probably not touring the continent with your favorite bands. Meet Skating Polly, the incredibly talented step-sister duo, originally from Oklahoma. For almost seven years, they have been shattering expectations with their own brand of music called “ugly pop,” a mix of modern indie-pop and 90s riot grrrl punk, where they regularly switch duties on the guitar/bass and drums. Recently, they have been on tour to support the release of their fourth full-length album, The Big Fit. I caught up with Kelli Mayo, 16, and Peyton Bighorse, 20, when they played their first Montreal date at the Turbo Haus along with The Island Birds, Boids and The Dirty Nil. I was very nervous to be finally meeting them, but they were very approachable and not in the least serious. They both know how to have fun despite exhaustion and when to laugh at themselves.

Chris Aitkens: How long have you been on tour for?

Kelli Mayo: Two weeks, I guess.

Peyton Bighorse: We started June 12th. This is actually our last show for this leg of it. But on July 9th, we’re going back out with Deerhoof on the West Coast.

CA: And you’ve played with them before?

KM: Just once, in Dallas. They’re great. They’re one of the best bands I have ever seen live. I didn’t know that much about them until we saw them live with the Flaming Lips and I was like “Holy shit!” So I started listening to more of their music and every album outdoes itself in some weird way. At first, you’re like “Oh, I think I like the last one more.” Then their next one becomes the one you like more. I’ve heard The Magic and I like that one the most.

CA: What have you been listening to lately?

KM: I’ve been listening to a lot of Breeders, though I’m always listening to the Breeders.

PB: I have been listening to a lot of this guy Alasdair Roberts and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. A bunch of quiet stuff.

KM: I’ve been really into the Melvins. While we were in the UK, our friend Cliff came with us for the whole drive, so he DJ’d in the car and he just had his iPod on shuffle so we listened to a lot of Euros Childs, Super Furry Animals, Griff Rhys Jones and Gwenno Saunders*. It was a lot of stuff I never heard before, but I liked it all very much.

*All Welsh artists

CA: When you get home from a tour, what do you usually do?

KM: Usually we get home and we have to clean. Because everything is so messy.

PB: We spend a few days just doing nothing. We load our equipment into the basement and just leave it there. We don’t even unpack it or set it up. The drums sit in their cases for three or four days before we finally start feeling guilty for not practicing.

KM: On that fourth day, we start back up again. We’ve been working on songs lately. We did a song writing session lately with Veruca Salt a couple months ago and we never ended up finishing the song. So we’ll be going back into the studio soon. We’ve been writing the songs separately and sending each other ideas, then either they will go on tour or we will, and we’ll not be able to work on it for several months. We forget equally as much.

CA: Do you feel people treat you differently on tour? Are there any complications when you have to play at a venue that isn’t all ages?

PB: Sometimes, very rarely though, they’ll make us wait outside except when we’re loading in, playing and then loading out. Only once, we got to a venue and the owners said “Oh, we didn’t know you were under 21, so you can’t play here.” Most of the time, they’re totally cool about it and we can stay in the venue as long as we don’t drink.

KM: One time we were on tour with Sauna and Bad Weather California. It was one of the first long tour that we’ve done and every night we wouldn’t make much money. Most nights, we would make 20 bucks between three bands. And we get to this one show and they told us we can’t play. And we were pissed off. But then they said that they would give us $100! And later I talked to the other bands and they were like “Man, we got seven bucks each. Fuck you!”

CA: Do you fight at all when you’re on tour? Or are they just sisterly squabbles?

PB: We have little arguments about really stupid stuff, but I think that’s just because we don’t get as much sleep as we usually do and we’re trapped in a car for hours every day. But sometimes it’s like “Can you hand me my water?” And I’ll be in the back of the car and say “I’m lying down! I’m super comfortable! I don’t want to give you your water!”

KM: Or “Can I have one of those pillows?” “Fuck you! You’re in the front seat!” Really short stuff like that and we’re never mad at each other for too long. Usually we find common enemies when we’re on tour. You know, if someone is pissing you off at a show. And then we can both laugh about it and we make weird inside jabs at people from the stage at people that are really subtle, but only we know. For example, we were playing with this guy JD McPherson, who is a rockabilly musician. And we’re not rockabilly, so the audience wasn’t having it. And there was this lady, probably in her 50s, and she just hated us. In between songs, she would just shake her head. And we were singing Alabama Movies and at some point I screamed “You fucking bitch!” But it sounded like it was part of the song so she was confused, she couldn’t tell if it was part of the song or not. I would never straight up say “No, you have to leave our show.” In my view, you’re the one who paid, if you don’t want to move around during our show, that’s fine.

CA: Well, besides this particular woman, how have audiences been reacting to you, especially if they’ve never heard of you before?

PB: No one has made me aware that they don’t like us, so as far as I know, it’s been great, all across the board.

KM: I was really surprised when we went to the UK and we had as big of crowds as we did. The show in London, it was free but the whole room was filled and people were outside on the stairs trying to watch us. We’ve only been over there once before with Babes in Toyland, but they heavily endorsed us, and Kat [Bjelland] introduced us one night and called us one of her favorite bands. So they treat us like royalty over there, but for us, we just want to hang out with our fans. We were drawing with little girls before the shows.

CA: You’ve been meeting a lot of your personal heroes when you’re on tour, which encounter made the biggest impression on you?

KM: I cried when I first met Kathleen Hanna, she just walked in when we were doing sound check and I just started bawling. And then I cried again when I saw all of Babes in Toyland together for the first time.

PB: I definitely cried to the point where I couldn’t speak when I met Jeff Mangum and when we met Perfume Genius, it was the same situation. We met John Lydon last Halloween, it was really surreal being in the same space as him.

KM: I get star struck all the time, even with our friends. People who call us family, like Lori [Barbero] and Exene [Cervenka]. I’m still kind of weird around them because I’m still really excited to have met them and I think that they’re the coolest. I’m emotional mess!

CA: Tell me about documentary crew that’s been following you around.

PB: It’s one of our friends. His name is Henry Mortensen, he is the son of Exene and Viggo Mortensen. And he’s been following us around for almost two years now and he started editing recently.

KM: He got some really great moments, he filmed us recording the Big Fit, filmed all of our tours before that, the L7 show, the Babes in Toyland tour and he also filmed us recording tons of stuff that we never released, like us practicing, us fighting and us being huge goofballs. He filmed this one practice session where we would ask each other to do things but since Henry was there it was really uncomfortable so we kept making jokes like “Can you do this and try not to suck so much coz I hate you just kidding?” and we ended every sentence with that. And Henry was saying “This is not going to show up well, this is going to look like you really hate each other.”

CA: This new album, the Big Fit, how do you feel about it compared to your other releases?

PB: I think it’s the best one so far and it’s not saying anything bad about the other ones, because I love all of them, but I think our song writing has really progressed, and this might sound a little conceited, but I like our music and I like to listen to it as much as I listen to my favorite musician’s music. I think it’s really good.

KM: We’re really proud of it. Some of these songs we’ve had for a really long time and some of them we wrote right before we had to record. We maybe only recorded for nine days in total, but we tried lots of different things and we just really worked on it until we got it exactly the way we wanted. It was one of those things where we literally spit blood, sweat and tears on.

PB: I passed out during one of the vocal takes, on “For The View”.

KM: Oh yeah! And Henry got it on camera but on one of his shittiest camera because the battery died on his bigger camera.

CA: Was it because you were exhausted?

PB: No, it was during the chorus of “For the View”, the first line. Everyone was telling me “If you need to take a break, just take a break.” And I just said “I got this guys. I can do it in one take.” But after the first line, I just knew that I couldn’t do it, so I started to turn around to say “OK, that’s all I got!” But instead I just collapsed. I was wearing these really tall shoes, these creepers that were three inches high and I don’t know why I wanted to wear them while we were doing vocals, it felt cool I guess, while I was doing this intense vocal take.

KM: There was a little thud on the recording and the engineer just turned it up and we all listened to it. Henry was so pissed because he had been filming so much and he had cameras around the studio, so he got it but on this tiny GoPro. So you can see her face for a second and then she’s out of frame. Poor Henry, there were so many moments like that. The few things that he didn’t record, we would say “Oh, it’s so lame that you weren’t filming because the coolest thing happened.”

PB: He introduced us to Jack Black and we were just talking and having a fun time. And Jack Black’s bandmate comes up to Henry and says “You know what would be a great thing for the documentary? Skating Polly meeting Jack Black!” And he had to scramble for his camera.

KM: It’s so funny because Henry has become one of our closest friends, we’ve always had this group chat going with him. The documentary is a lot of us teasing each other, I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. But he’s also interviewed a lot of cool people or it too. Viggo is producing it and it’s going to be on Perceval Press, which is his publishing company. And I think Viggo has given Henry a deadline, but they’ve hired some editors and they’ve been working on it. There’s just so much footage, I think he filled up four ten-terabytes hard-drives. And I asked Henry at one point if he could go through all the footage himself first and make sure I don’t look like an ass. He just said “No. I’m sorry, but no.” Fair enough.

CA: When it’s come to writing lyrics, what inspires you?

KM: Generally, I try not to be too on the nose with things. There are certain things that I, for the most part, try to avoid, like making big statements like “What is life? What is love?” I don’t want to say something that’s been said before. And a lot of times, with angry songs, it’s easy to think about a specific situation and hide it under poetry. Sometimes I just mix it up with real things that have happened and abstract stuff, sometimes I’ll just think of a story that’s similar to something that has happened in my life and write about that.

PB: I get inspiration for lyrics from lots of things. For “For the View”, I got it from Home Depot or Lowe’s, because every time I would go there, I would get really stressed out and just walk around in the aisles for twenty minutes before someone who works there will notice that I’ve been walking in circles and ask me if I need anything. I would just get stressed out and start sweating in Home Depot, and that has happened multiple times. I also get a lot of inspiration from books and movies and other music. I just read this book about the White Sox World Series, so I started to write a song that references that. Sometimes just random thoughts will come in my head, sometimes I hear someone say something and I think “Hey, that’s a lyric!” Or if you’re listening to someone else’s song, especially when it’s live and you mishear a lyric, then you can use that, if it’s good.

KM: We misspeak all the time and if you pay attention, you can hear other people misspeak. It’s like what the Beatles would do, like Ringo would say some weird shit and they would write a song around it. Like the title “Perfume for Now,” we were originally going to call it just “Perfume” as a temporary name so we would say it’s called “Perfume, for now,” and we decided to keep it like that.