Skating Polly is the Tacoma-based band founded by stepsisters Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse when they were 9 and 14 years old, respectively.
Since then their fresh take on noisy alt-rock, punk, and indie melodies (a combination they have dubbed, “ugly pop”) has yielded four releases, including their acclaimed 2016 album, The Big Fit, landed them tour slots opening for artists like Kate Nash and Babes and Toyland, and has drawn the attention of influential alt- and punk rock musicians including members of X, the Flaming Lips, and recently… Louise Post and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt.
When mutual industry friends proposed the idea of a collaborative songwriting session, both bands jumped at the opportunity. “I was taken in by the songwriting and by their personalities, and I took them seriously and realized they were a force to be reckoned with,” Post says. “And I was totally intrigued by the idea of writing with them, and what would come out of that. Nina was too.”
The two songwriting duos met up for a two-day work session. By the end of their time together they had demoed a new song, “Hail Mary,” and had formed a true connection. A few months later, Mayo says, “We were like, ‘How would we feel about actually revising this song? Let’s go back in… We could do an EP!’”
Soon, they entered the studio with producer Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins) where they collaborated on a three-song Skating Polly EP titled New Trick. Both bands walked away energized by the experience. “It was fun for me and Louise to just step out of our own molds that we have established in terms of the way we write together,” Gordon says.
For Skating Polly, the fuller sound of their new songs inspired them to change their group in a fundamental way: expanding from a duo into a trio, with the addition of their brother, Kurtis Mayo.
She Shreds recently invited Post, Gordon, Mayo, and Bighorse to interview each other about New Trick, and more. A condensed and lightly edited version of our conversation follows.
New Trick is available now on El Camino Media.
She Shreds: After working together, Veruca Salt, do you have any burning questions to ask Skating Polly. And Skating Polly, do you have any burning questions to ask Veruca Salt?
Nina Gordon: Here’s my question for Skating Polly. When we went in the studio with you guys, Skating Polly was just the two of you. And then we recorded this big rock EP with guitars and bass and drums and harmonies, and all that stuff. And you’ve played shows since, and you now have Kelli’s brother in the band playing drums, and I’m just wondering how different it is, and what it’s like being a three piece versus a two piece. And also, have you played these songs yet?
Kelli Mayo: Yeah, so pretty quickly after recording inside a studio with you guys, we thought, “How are we gonna play these songs live?” And we needed to play these songs live. Because these songs are really good.
Even past that, we just loved the experience so much and the full sound of having more than one guitar and drums. You two both know how my bass is: a three string, weird, guitar/bass in-between. The decision was almost kind of obvious, because we have our brother who likes all the same music as us, and knows about loads more. He plays all the same instruments as us, and he’s stuck in our house with us, so it’s easy to get him to practice. We asked him if he’d join, and he said, “Yes.”
Peyton Bighorse: It’s been awesome having him play with us. It sounds a lot fuller live. And it’s felt almost like starting over as a band. When you’re learning all the songs and everything. Writing new parts to the songs. Only we’re like getting better faster than we did when we sort of started. Things are coming together a lot faster, but it is really nice having that extra person in the back live.
I always thought our shows were cool, but maybe they sounded a little thin because sometimes depending on the room it can be hard to make two people sound big. But now we always sound big.
Kelli: The new songs are actually our picks live right now. We haven’t played “Black Sky” live yet, but we’ve been playing “Letter In Outer Space,” and “Hail Mary,” and we’ve been trying to play “Black Sky” as well. It’s incredible. “Black Sky” is officially the first song I play of our own on an actual six string guitar.
Louise Post: So it sounds like this experience compelled you guys to expand your versions of yourselves. How you perceive yourselves. And if I’m correct, does that feel good?
Kelli: Yes. We definitely wanted to expand. Working with you guys made me realize how much extra guitars, or a bass line, or a back up vocal even harmonies, can really move a song. … When it was just us recently, I was just like, “I need to make the riff better than any other riff has ever been, and I need to have it pretty full because it has to be the guitar and the bass. But I can’t do two things at once.
Now it’s like I can start with more simple ideas, and then I can add on and have things running in the back of my mind going at the same time. And so that’s really exciting because I’ve been able to think like that now, too. Like, “Okay, and while this bass part is going, Oh I hear this other melody.” Like on, “Hail Mary.” That was one of the first times my brain could split in two and do two different melodies. Ever since then, it’s been doing that a lot more, and we’ve been able to execute these melodies. And then we have Kurtis, who can learn anything we can play, and also goes in crazy Keith Moon, Jackie Lee type directions with things. It’s amazing.
Louise: That’s so great. Nina and I have always found that when you record with someone and you have a new project—and especially with new producers—and having to learn it to play live, generally speaking sort of makes you better, and helps you grow as a band.
Speaking of that, this morning, I was telling [my daughter] Lyla that I wanted her to take her plates into the kitchen because we have a dog now, and he’ll eat food off her plate. Plus she’s about to be seven and it’s an opportunity for growth. She was like, “I don’t want to do it.” And I started singing this jingle. “An opportunity for growth.” I got that in my head right now. I told her that grown ups grow up too.
It’s always a challenge and an opportunity for growth to try out someone’s ideas, even if they’re contrary to your instincts with each other. And especially with the guys in our band. So to have that experience with you made us better songwriters, and better collaborators. We learned that we can write with people other than ourselves, and we have written with other people individually and somewhat collectively.
But we really learned on a new level that when the chemistry is right that co-songwriting and collaborating is something we really enjoy and want to do more of, and it made us better song writers to work with you guys. I don’t know if I’ve told you that before.
Kelli: You definitely made us better songwriters. Not only did working with you guys install a new confidence in me and Peyton, but I don’t know, just kind of keeping up with the fast pace of writing and recording in the studio. Remember when we’d listen back to a take and we were listening to hear if there was a vocal going flat, and then Nina would start writing another harmony? I’d keep going and it was amazing. I was blown away by it. It put my brain in total creative go-go-go mode. It was incredibly inspiring.
Louise: That’s great to hear. I’m so glad.
Nina: I agree with everything everyone’s saying. It’s so great to hear that everybody’s happy and it was fun. I mean we had so much fun plus Peyton taught me how to use Pokemon Go. So whenever I think of a Ponyta I think of Peyton.
Were there any Pokemon in the recording studio?
Nina: There were. Remember that one day when you first opened the account for me, and there was a pikachu nearby? We didn’t get it, and my son has never forgiven me for that. Because I don’t think he’s ever gotten a pikachu.
Kelli: That’s too bad! Okay. Here’s a question for both of you: On “Black Sky,” when you had the drum beat for the chorus fully formed in your head and we went through you trying to show me by playing it yourself—but you couldn’t quite play it because you don’t play drums, so you mouthed it and the Brad tried to get it and I tried to get it—how close was my drum beat to what you actually had in your head?
Louise: It never quite got there. Even after Brad and I kind of did a little song doctoring with what was there, I just couldn’t get it to sound like it did in my head. So, it’s no fault of your own. It’s kind of a weird thing that I can’t make sense of because it’s in my head. I can’t play it. I couldn’t quite communicate it. And I hope that the song lends to others in the way that I feel like it needs to. The chorus for me never quite got there because of the drums not exactly being what I pictured. It’s just a little more swing to it in my head. And it’s much more straight. It’s a little more Jimmy Chamberlin, and a little less My Bloody Valentine. I could never get that swing in there in the way that I was communicating it to you.
Now it’s possible, as it is with many things, that my perception is off and that I’m kind of stuck in my own vision of it. It’s a weird place to be. I asked Brad, “Are you sure?” And Nina too. I was texting and panicking, and saying like, “Do you guys feel like this landed?” And Brad said, “Yes. I find this chorus deeply satisfying.”
Kelli: The whole chorus turned out really well. I was very happy with it. Even though I didn’t quite ever figure out every crack in the Louise drum code, I came up with this drum beat, based off of what you said, that is totally unlike any other drum beat that I have ever written. And I like it.
Louise: Oh good. So you were happy with it? You were happy with the way the chorus lands?
Kelli: Yeah. Remember all those back-up vocals coming in? It’s amazing. It’s kind of hard to even follow the rest of the back-up vocals, the way they kind of wave in and out. It surrounds you and it dances in your ears. It’s very satisfying, yeah.
Louise: That is really all that matters, because I don’t trust myself really in this. In fact, one thing that occurred to me is that it might be, actually, the way My Bloody Valentine guitars lands that is throwing me off. It might not be the drums.
Kelli: I love those guitars. Your guitars are amazing on them.
Louise: Thank you. I love the way the guitars sound, and I’m happy with them, But I’m talking about the timing of them. It might be the way they land that is throwing me, rhythmically. It’s so strange. I hope it just goes away. It might in time. That does sometimes happen. I’m trusting that everybody else is good with it and that’s all that matters.
Nina: A comment I want to make is the video for “Louder In Outer Space” is so good, and so charming. And it reminds me of the Sophie Muller videos that we loved in the 90s, like the one for Sinead O’Connor one for was it for “Emperor’s New Clothes?” What was it for? I can’t remember No it … It wasn’t. [ed. Note: it was]. And then the whole video for “Dog Park,” maybe, or “Miss World” maybe?
Louise: Yeah it was “Miss World.” And then it was Bjork [for “Venus as a Boy”].
Nina: Yeah, just like the charm and sparkle of a Sophie Muller video, who was one of our favorite directors that we never got to work with. And I love the song. It’s so good. And you guys look beautiful and cool. And I love how much—Kelli your brother looks so much like you. You guys have the same face!
Kelli: I know. And Kurtis is the most adorable, most friendly, funniest member of Skating Polly. He’s gonna be [people’s] favorite because even before he was in our band, we’d take him on road trips with us. And he was everyone’s favorite member of Skating Polly even when he wasn’t a member. He steals the show. He steals that video for sure. He’s already a lot of people’s favorites, and we haven’t even toured with him yet. It’s just like people are drawn to him. I don’t know what it is.
Louise: So when Nina and I were starting our band, we wanted to have an all female band. Mainly because I had just seen L7 and I was obsessed with having an all-female band. I can’t remember why. Nina, why it was important to you? We felt like it was important.
Nina: Just because we were feminists and we wanted to be in a band with all women. And we had seen Wendy and Lisa and all those women on stage. We were super into it, so we wanted an all-girl band.
Louise: We ended up putting an add in the paper for a female rhythm section. We got a few calls but they couldn’t really play their instruments, unfortunately. And then this guy answered the add and he’s like, “I know I’m a dude, but I really like your influences and …” It ended up being Steve [Lack]. He enhanced the music and made the songs better just by his presence. And then Nina’s brother Jim said, “I’m not really a drummer, but I can play with you guys and give you some ideas.” And he brought John Bonham to the party, and all of a sudden we were a band.
I was telling my brother about it, saying, “We never expected to be a co-ed band.” He said, “Louise, this means there’s something for everyone.” So, you guys have something for everyone, and people can focus on Kurtis, because the two of you—as charming and delightful and funny and hysterical as you both are—you’re also very intense, which is great. So you get to have Kurtis defuse the intensity for all the people who need it.
Kelli: Especially in that video. Peyton’s somewhere in between incredibly happy and emotionally distraught, and I’m just kind of rocking out, and Kurtis is just cheesing it up with is rosy, red cheeks. I love it.
Both of your bands have a brother in the lineup, which is not something you come across a lot. Have you found that working with your brothers is different than working with men who are not related to you, as far as communication styles?
Nina: Yeah, there are definitely pros and cons. My experience in being in a band with my brother, at times it was the greatest thing in the world because he and I got to travel all over the world together. We’ve always been very close. We think the same things are funny. My brother’s one of the funniest people on the planet.
So we got to experience all of these really awesome things together for years and that was really great. But there was sometimes some tension. We were both quick to anger with each other but then we’d resolve it quickly. Unlike a band member that isn’t your sibling where if you have an argument…
But I mean, Kelli and Peyton are step-sisters anyway, they grew up together, so they’ve got all of that sibling energy already. The nice thing about having a brother in a band is you can tell them what you think and you don’t have to beat around the bush. And then they might get pissed out you but then it’s over pretty quick.
Just recently, I was looking through old journals from when we were first on the road and first starting the band. Louise—I can’t wait to share them with you! It’s so crazy. Just reading just the drama from the very beginning. One of the things I found from early on, like in 1994 says, “I really hope Jim can be nice to everyone. And I hope he can be nice to everyone and stay in this band for a while.”
Nina: Yeah. That was in ‘94. And then, you know, he couldn’t stay in the band past ‘96, ‘97. He’d had it. I was like, “I hope he can be nice” because I think there was a lot of snapping and a lot of criticism, so it was tricky. Jim was the best, but then it could also get kind of intense. So, I don’t know what it’s gonna be like with Kurtis, but I assume you guys are all siblings, so you probably know what you’re in for.
Louise: The good thing about being siblings is it’s less likely… there’s not gonna be any inter-band romance. So you had that one comfort [laughs]. The problem is, if there’s even like an inkling of anything happening on the road with somebody… you’re out there for so long that someone you never considered suddenly starts to look like a possibility.
Nina: It’s like a cartoon when they’re in the desert and one person starts to look like a steak. You know what I mean? Do you guys do that? All of a sudden there’s a mirage and it’s like your best friend looks like meal. It’s the same kind of mentality.
Louise: But the good news is that you guys get to have your inter-band relationship with people you tour with and then you get off the road and you don’t have that distraction anymore.
Peyton. I think you’re the only one who has not asked a question yet. Did you have one for them?
Peyton: What songs from the EP are you guys most proud of?
Louise: Oh wow.
Nina: There are only three songs, so we love them all. There are no duds. Yeah. You can’t pick. Because there are only three, right? We didn’t do four did we? There are three.
Nina: Right. I don’t know that I could choose.
Louise: Yeah, that’s tough. Because seriously I love them all.
Nina: What about you guys?
Louise: Yeah. What about you?
Kelli: I don’t know. I kind of go back and forth. I actually think lately “Black Sky” has been my favorite, just because that’s the most recent song we’ve learned. And like I was saying, the way those vocals kind of just like swirl around. There’s so many different parts, you can’t really tell who is who at certain points.
Louise: I love the way the bridge worked out in that song. I am so happy with that bridge. Aren’t you guys?
Kelli: I love everything about bridge. I loved the guitars. I loved the backup vocals. I loved the main vocals. I loved the drums. I just had the drum part beating in my head when I was trying to go to bed that night. The bridge drum part was just playing over and over again.
Peyton: I think I’m most proud of “Louder in Outer Space” because whenever I’m at that verse part that I would have written for so long, I never thought it was gonna get turned into anything. And I loved it. I’d been trying to work it into something for years. And I think the chorus that we came up with was just perfect for it.
Nina: You should be so proud of your vocals on that song. They are so gorgeous. .Peyton just has such a cool voice, and there’s this one moment when she says, “Some kind of new trick.” Whatever you’re doing with your voice… That might be my favorite moment on the whole thing. You know what I’m talking about.
Peyton: You mean “Some Kind of New Trick?” That one? That was Kelli’s idea.
Louise: It was Kelli’s idea that Peyton sang. Remember we tried it a couple times. It sounds great. At the time Kelli had a really specific way of singing it, and then Peyton copied it and it ended up sounding fantastic.
Kelli: It was amazing.
Nina: Oh my god, yeah! And then the outro… your voice is incredible on that song.
Kelli: We were all in the studio. Me, Brad, Nina, and Louise. And you were out in the vocal booth. And I wanted to film them reacting to your vocals, because they were like, “Oh my god.” And then another time they would be like, “Oh my god. Oh my god!”
That chorus is actually maybe the thing I’m most proud of on the whole EP, because that’s one of those new tricks that I’m talking about that me and Peyton never would have thought of. That riff, Nina. Our brains didn’t work like that…. How the chorus comes together and everything was so catchy with the harmony and everything. It was like a classic chorus, but also something super fresh, and super new to me that I don’t think I would have ever naturally come up with.
Louise: That’s the best part of a collaboration or a co-write. And I feel this way with Nina all the time. She’ll come up with something and I’ll think, “Oh my god, I would never have thought of that. My brain doesn’t work that way.” That’s the best part of co-writing. Someone just expanded your vision of where the song could go and takes it in a different direction.
I feel the same way about that chorus. I love it. And that song in particular makes me really happy. And gives me chills also at the end. “Black Sky” makes me feel a ton. It really gets to me. Despite my problem with the drums. It really gets me in a deep emotional way. And I think it’s glorious and beautiful. And “Hail Mary” too. It’s intense and it’s deep and it grabs me.
Kelli: It’s interesting because definitely “Hail Mary” is the one that weighs heaviest on me as far as just like emotional. Every time I play it I’m like, “Oooh.” A lot of emotion.
Nina: That’s gotta be a really cool song to play live because it’s so moody and heavy. And I would imagine that’s a really powerful one live.
Kelli: Yeah. For Christmas I got a bass, and it’s an Ernie Ball Musicman. But it sounds a lot like the P bass we used on the recording, and that’s why I wanted it. I wanted a full scale, full size bass bass that sounded preferably like a P bass. Or just a P bass. But P basses are heavy, man. Anyway, I do love it. I love just playing around with this thing that almost weighs more than me. And it’s not incredibly screamy either. Which was one thing that I really wanted to do with this EP, write a song that could be really heavy, and pretty punk, without having these balls to the walls screams.
Louise: Yeah. That experiment was I think a success.
I’ll just close with one last question. Now that the first EP is done, do you think there might be some more inter-band collaborations going forward?
Kelli: Yeah. I can’t wait to see Nina and Louise again! They’re like long lost sisters.