What’s Going On: Interview with Skating Polly’s Kelli Mayo

Sibling trio Skating Polly is quickly becoming one of the hottest must-watch bands. Kelli Mayo (lead vocals, bass), Kurtis Mayo (drums) and Peyton Bighorse (guitar, vocals) blend punk and bright accessible power-pop into their signature ‘ugly pop’ sound. The Seattle by way of Oklahoma band has amassed a cult following with their melodic hooks and rowdy stage shows. The band hooked back up with producer Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Jesus Lizard, Veruca Salt) for their new album Chaos County Line, due out June 23rd via El Camino Media. We had the pleasure of chatting with Skating Polly’s Kelli Mayo about the new album, the band’s writing process, and their upcoming gig at Toronto’s Bovine Sex Club on June 29th.

Photo credit: Travis Trautt

It seems to be a pretty exciting time right now for Skating Polly. The new album Chaos County Line is coming out on June 23rd and you’ve got the second leg of your North American tour starting soon. What’s it like being back out on the road?

Kelli Mayo: It’s been lovely and it’s been really fun playing all the new songs. The reaction to the new songs so far has been great. We’ve played maybe six of them live. People have been finding clips on YouTube and I’ll hear them singing along to songs that we haven’t even released yet which is really cool. People are ready for it. And we’re ready for it, too. We’re always trying to calculate how many new songs are exciting to play vs. not playing someone’s favorite song that they know. I’m really excited for the record to come out, June 23rd. And then the next leg of the tour starts. We’ve got this great band on tour with us, Lord Friday The 13th, and they are just the sweetest people. They put on a wild chaotic live show, but it’s not chaotic in a violent or a gross way. It’s so punk but also uplifting. I love it.

Tell us a bit about the new album. What was it like working with producer Brad Wood again? He produced your 2018 album The Make It All Show.

KM: It was great! He and I have a really great rapport. I feel like I can communicate things to him that other people would just look at me like I’m a crazy person for saying. He just gets us. He does a good job pushing us and knowing when we have a better take in us. I think he loves embracing the weird, embracing the ugly and he’s always down to try things.  Even when I’m wanting to try putting an organ on something, he’s like “hell yeah.” It was his idea to put horns on the record. The idea of that might seem really weird. They aren’t like ska horns, but more like Beatles-esque horns. It’s crazy how well they fit on the record. It was very nice working with him again.

You mentioned the world ugly. I’ve read that you describe your sound as ugly pop. Can you tell me more about what that means or how that came about?

KM: When I was 13, we wrote a song called “Ugly.” The idea behind it was that you can’t possibly be beautiful to every person and striving for that would destroy you. And that being ugly and embracing the ugly and enjoying that power that comes with that is quite satisfying. To me, ugly is not pretty and it’s really fun to not be pretty. I love poppy music. I love Regina Spektor. I love a couple of Ellie Goulding tracks. I love well-crafted songs. However, I don’t love songs that are so calculated to where it strips away all humanity. The idea behind ugly pop is kind of like an oxymoron. Taking something that people generally think of as this pristine, accessible, easy music and putting some gnarly weirdness in it.

Totally! That comes across in the music. I definitely think that approach opens you up to experimenting with more sounds and even different concepts because you’re not beholden to the idea of being pretty or conventional in a musical sense.

KM: It’s also a fun challenge. For instance, if she wanted, I think Kim Deal could write a straightforward pop song. Instead, she’s so brilliant and always deliberately goes back and puts this weirdness in her songs and breaks stuff up. It catches you off guard a little bit. That’s what I try to strive for. When we write a fun rock song, I want there to be a weird funniness in the lyrics or a strange bridge. I just like to have those little trip-ups in there, something a little bit unexpected.

What struck me from listening to the singles that have been released, especially “I’m Sorry for Always Apologizing,” is just how honest and personal the lyrics are despite it being a really fun song. During the writing process, is it ever overwhelming being that vulnerable on a song?

KM: Sometimes, yeah. But it’s so cathartic. When I don’t use the big feelings I feel to make something, I start to spin. I have to use my biggest feelings to make something, be it a really bad drawing or a postcard or a song, or a collage, etc. If I don’t do that, I’ll unravel. It’s weird when you write a song about such a specific thing. That song is pretty specifically about one dear friend of mine, but at the same time, there’s a fictional story in there. It’s a pretty fun process writing with Peyton and Kurtis, going line by line and asking what scene does this paint for you or what do you think I’m trying to say here? I’m not going to be able to control what the song conjures up in other people’s heads, but still, I try to convey my emotions. 

We’re based out of Toronto and you’ve got a gig up here on June 29th at the Bovine Sex Club. For anyone that hasn’t seen you live before, what can they expect from a Skating Polly show?

KM: We smile a lot. I jump. I kick. I’ll sometimes knock things over by accident. Peyton has the most intense live vocals. She’s an incredible singer and watching her every night is powerful. Kurtis is just a total baddie on the kit. All of the songs have room to change a little every night. We react off of each other with that sibling superpower connection. We’re definitely going to play a lot of the new record. We’re also talking about even bringing keyboards on the tour. It’ll be the first time we’ve brought a keyboard and done piano songs on a Skating Polly tour in years and years, so I’m hoping to make that work. The best part of a classic Skating Polly show is that we’ll switch off instruments. I have a three-string bass, we’ve got a cool St. Vincent Ernie Ball guitar, plus a cool see-through orange drum kit that now has our name on the kick drum. I think I’m describing a Skating Polly show well. It’s loud, it’s rowdy and it’s warm. 

Any fun Toronto stories?

KM: I love Toronto. We’ve been a couple of times. One time that really sticks out to me is going to Lululemon before the show to get black ice cream. That’s the only time I’ve ever been in a Lululemon and for some reason they had black frozen yogurt for sale. I don’t know. It was a good time, a good moment.

Skating Polly’s new album Chaos County Line is out June 23rd via El Camino Media. Preorder Chaos County Line here: https://www.elcaminomedia.com/store

Catch Skating Polly live in Toronto on June 29th at Bovine Sex Club. Get tickets here.

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