How’s this for rocanrol mythologizing: Skating Polly came outta the “burn it all to hell but with flowers” punk rock scene that is just East of here by jet plane. That nexus of American music, Oklahoma City (damn right, partners) birthed, maintained and grew to fruition the eastern end of a burgeoning southwest rock counterculture that began its ascent in the early ’80s and stretched south to Burque, west to San Francisco and north to Seattle. All the bands you love, all your favorite skate tricks and even the rise of hip-hop came out of that movement.
Add to that legacy shizz the fact that the band just kept moving forward, honing their skills and knocking big rocks out of the park every chance they got. As an added fascination, the young rockers began hanging out and growing creative associations with members of the genre’s intelligentia like Exene Cervenka and Kliph Scurlock. Soon they were a thing. In the days of yore, an A&R dude may have even called the band “the next big thing.”
So yeah, that’s the myth. In reality, today and everyday, Skating Polly (Kelli Mayo on bass, guitarist Peyton Bighorse and drummer Kurtis Mayo) cruises past expectations blithely and keeps on rocking. The brightness and determination of youth all stirred up with a keen knowledge of the culture from whence they came. That’s the band. In person, they’re ironically quiet, humbly introspective and still feeling for the boundaries of the various movements to which they’ve been attached. There’s a sense of astonishment in their music and in their individual voices. Band leader Kelli Mayo told Weekly Alibi that she just started reading Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem—a series of essays that describe and critique the counterculture in California back in the 1960s—and admittedly, we were comforted.
Besides those light and literary moments, we also talked about music, politics and life in America as part of a band called Skating Polly.
Weekly Alibi: Oh, Hi Kelli. It’s August March from Weekly Alibi. How are you doing.
Kelli Mayo: Hi. How are You?
I’m doing pretty good. Do you have a few minutes to talk about Skating Polly?
I sure do.
Awesome. What’s your story?
I think that no matter where we were, probably, we would have started a band. It wasn’t entirely like the local scene—at first—was that influential. We just liked music so much. My dad would always be making road trip mixtapes—mix CDs, really—and we’d watch all kinds of films and music videos, DVD compilations of bands like Nirvana and Beastie Boys.
So you grew up in a rock and roll home?
Well, all kinds of things were important. We also listened to a lot of experimental music growing up. And stuff like Bikini Kill.
So riot grrrl feminism was an influence?
Yeah, but not just stuff like that. Also stuff like Beat Happening. We were listening to a lot of different things. When we did start identifying as a band from Oklahoma, when we went to shows and stuff, a lot of times there wouldn’t be a lot of people there and so we got to meet people like Exene Cervenka or mr. Gnome.
So did being informed about the music and culture around you make a difference in your creative process?
Being from Oklahoma City definitely made a big difference because we got exposed to artists that were legends to us, in a very tangible setting. We’d go to shows every week. And then we did become really involved in the local scene. At first, the scene seemed like a really inclusive group—and it was because it’s really a small city.
How did that exposure affect your trajectory?
A lot of the bands started helping us and showing public support and that resulted in more people coming out to our shows. It gave us more opportunities. We had this cool stamp of approval. [Laughs nervously]
Is that a weight on you now—is it an albatross?
No, it’s definitely a good thing. I’m grateful to everyone that has supported us. It’s been a lot of musicians that we really looked up to. It’s one of the reasons we started a band. We wanted to make music and people [like that] are telling us to keep on doing what we’re doing and that they believe in us. That feels really, really good and it’s very humbling to have people around you that are urging you to be yourself. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten from Kliph (Scurlock) or Exene or whoever the hell is to go with your instincts, do your own thing.
How is that manifesting in the now?
We’re trying to do things that change—that excite us. We never want to write the same song twice. We just recorded two brand new songs, two covers. They sound like the next step after The Make It All Show. There are subtle changes. We’re coming up with a lot of songwriting homework, trying new compositional methods as a challenge. I think I can accept that challenge! [Laughs] That’s the only way to keep the music exciting for our people.
What are you listening to now, what’s influencing you today?
Lately, I’ve really been into Vic Chesnutt. He’s a really cool songwriter with a really distinct sense of humor and darkness. I like the way he crams a whole bunch of words into one line or will drag out a word—I like that. He was paralyzed from the waist down. His limitations make his music very interesting and beautiful. I’ve also been listening to Le Butcherettes a lot. I saw them live the other day, and they blew me away. I thought they were soft and thick and energetic and wild. I just loved it. My boyfriend got me a Joan Didion book, which is also really, really great: It’s called Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Everyone says your live shows are to die for. Tell me a little bit about that!
People are always asking if we’re more studio or more performance [oriented]. I think it depends on the circumstance, on the day. You can have bad, self-doubting days in the studio. Live, it’s fun. There’s something—at shows I kinda like the license to create chaos. I feel like every time I play a song live, it’s a new version of the song, a new song, really. I just fucking like dressing up for shows and putting on crazy outfits. That’s a lot more exciting than the studio where I have to go down there in my PJs. In performance, like with some writing, I’m always trying to push the limits of what I do. But I had to learn the hard way that I can’t scream at 10 all the time, live. That’s what I like about the studio, you can make it seem like you’re screaming at ll. But I really don’t hold back, live.
Do you feel like what you’re doing will influence American youth, particularly young women who want to work in rocanrol but might have shied away because the whole thing’s been so misogynist?
I like to think that we’ve had a real positive effect. Kids really like our music videos a lot. All the 8 year olds I know and love are addicted to YouTube. Some of them are addicted to the toxic shit and the ads. So we provide the alternative to that, music videos like we used to watch when we were growing up. We have a lot of fans that fucking love our music videos. We hope they’re absorbing our art instead of the junk. We want to get them hooked on music so they’ll get interested in other bands. And we’ve heard that works. Several fans have told me they’re making music now because of us.
That’s a real DIY attitude.
Yeah. We’re not, like, above it all; none of us know music theory. I’ve just recently started learning to read music. I didn’t know much about the technical parts at the outset. I’ve had no formal training. Neither did Peyton [Bighorse]. But we both started writing songs. I think that’s something that’s inspired girls in America. Just effing do it!
I love that answer. What about the larger picture, American culture? What’s it like to work in the midst of what we’re all experiencing politically?
There were a lot of lines on our last record that were inspired by the dark cloud of the Trump administration. That looms over everything. [Laughs nervously] It’s something that I think we all need to counter. I’d like to use my voice in every way I can to do that. Sometimes it feels like it’s getting worse and worse.
I put a lot of faith in young people like yourself, Kelli. I hope you can find better solutions than we did.
I’d like to think that, too. By fighting back and not eating the shit, we’ll win. With the music. We’ll win because we’re a three-piece ugly-pop band from OKC! [Laughs]