Arts & Culture

Skating Polly gliding into Iowa City

Oklahoma City alt rockers touring with new album

Alice Finnera photo

Skating Polly, an alt rock band formed in Oklahoma City in 2009, is coming to Gabe’s in Iowa City on Monday night for an all-ages show.
Alice Finnera photo Skating Polly, an alt rock band formed in Oklahoma City in 2009, is coming to Gabe’s in Iowa City on Monday night for an all-ages show.

It’s borderline impossible to write a story about Oklahoma City’s Skating Polly without mentioning the following:

1) Co-founders Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse (which may or may not be their real names) are stepsisters who room together in their parents’ basement.

2) They started their band a decade ago, at a ridiculously young age, and began referring to their music as “ugly pop.”

3) They’ve since collaborated with a number of their indie-rock heroes — including Veruca Salt’s Louise Post and Nina Gordon, X co-founder Exene Cervanka, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, and The Flaming Lips’ Kliph Scurlock — all of whom had been through at least one band breakup before Kelli was even born.

Take, for example, the legendary vocalist and songwriter whose band X essentially defined American punk-rock back in the late ’70s.

“When we first met Exene, I was 9 and Peyton was 14, and we had literally just started our band,” said Mayo, who is now 19, of their backstage encounter. “We were completely geeked out on her, and she actually gave us her email and kept in touch with us. Then, when we recorded our first record, we sent it to her and she told us she wanted to produce the next one.”

Cervenka spent four days in an Oklahoma studio producing the duo’s 2011 sophomore album, “Lost Wonderfuls.” Not long after that, Skating Polly’s praises were being sung by musicians ranging from country-rock icon Rosanne Cash to Babes in Toyland riot grrrl Lori Barbero.

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Last year saw the release of Skating Polly’s latest album, “The Make It All Show,” another acclaimed release from the band. With brother Kurtis Mayo behind the drum kit, Skating Polly has grown into a proper band featuring Kelli Mayo and Bighorse’s infectious lead vocals, keen pop instincts, and guitar-heavy rock arrangements. Especially press-worthy is the single “Queen for a Day,” which features lyrics that Cervenka sent the stepsisters by text.

“We’d played a few shows with X at that point, and she kind of teased the idea that she was going to send me some lyrics,” Mayo said. “She’d be like, ‘Well, I don’t know if you’ll even want them, they might not be that good.’ She kept saying stuff like that. We were actually in practice when I got the text, and it was amazing. She was one of my biggest heroes. She’s like family now.”

With “The Make It All Show” to promote — as well as a trio of singles that have been released in recent months, “Flyer,” Play House” and “Classless Act” — Skating Polly is playing a number of shows this fall. The band will be at Gabe’s in Iowa City on Monday night for an all-ages show.

When not on the road, it’s back home to Oklahoma, a place Mayo speaks of with cheerful enthusiasm.

“The basement is our garage, our practice space, and also me and Peyton’s room,” she said. “It has cement walls, and this horrible wood paneling, and then the ceiling is just like exposed wood beams and pipes and fiberglass. We can hear when someone turns on the sink.”

Not surprisingly for musicians whose tastes are timeless and eclectic, the basement is packed full of music-related memorabilia: posters of musicians like Charlotte Gainsbourg, George Harrison, Jesus Lizard and St. Vincent; backstage passes from all the tours they’ve done so far; an entire section devoted to Babes in Toyland that includes a get-well note from lead singer Kat Bjelland; lots of Polaroids, a photo-booth strip of Andy Warhol selfies, even a drawing of Cyndi Lauper by Kat Kon, the Greek illustrator who did the artwork for Skating Polly’s fourth record, “The Big Fit.”

And then there are the musical instruments, including the homemade “basitar” that saw Mayo through the band’s early writing and recording stages. “It’s just two bass strings on a really small guitar that I got at Walmart or somewhere,” she said of her version of the mutant instrument that was popularized, to the extent that it can be, by punk-pop band The Presidents of the United States of America and the exceptionally original alt-rock trio Morphine.

“I had it tuned to C sharp and G sharp, but now it also has an E string on top,” Mayo added. “I don’t think I’ll get a fourth string, though. I think my brain is like finally wrapped around this tuning.”

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You can hear her basitar in action on the duo’s YouTube channel, scattered among a decade’s worth of official videos, live performances and tongue-in-cheek promo clips. The 90-second “Skating Polly Explains Why They Started Their Band,” for example, is a black-and-white video from 2012 that finds Bighorse rolling her eyes as Mayo dryly declares that what the world needs now is another great rock ’n’ roll band, and how she believes that “Skating Polly could very well be the one of which the pundits speak.”

“It was actually Steely Dan liner notes that I was reading,” she laughed, recalling how the boy she dated through middle school was both taken in and put off by it.

“He said, ‘You seem really pompous and self-absorbed in this video,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s the whole point, dude.’ So that’s what I always think of whenever people bring up that video. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, if my holier-than-thou seventh grade boyfriend thought I looked pompous, I wonder how many other people actually think I was being serious.’”

The channel’s most endearing clip, which was shot by their father, shows the two stepsisters giggling and screaming as they listen to one of their songs being played on the radio for the first time.

“It’s so funny how we randomly get asked about that in interviews every now and then,” Mayo said. “Peyton hates the video, because she was a teenager, so she was like, ‘Oh I hate myself, I’m so awkward.’ But I was 9 years old at the time, so I just thought it was weird and cute. I was a (expletive) little twerp or whatever. I still think it’s adorable.”

The duo has its serious side as well. A more recent video shows them covering the ’60s protest anthem “Morning Dew” the day before Donald Trump was elected.

“It was a Girls Rock benefit type of thing,” Mayo said. “And then when we watch it all happen on election night, I remember my stepmom started screaming, and me and Peyton just starting bawling and went down to our room. I don’t know, it’s just really, really scary.”

That’s part of the reason why the lyrics on “The Make It All Show” album come across as more personal and heartfelt than on previous recordings. “They’re all very vulnerable, emotional songs, and I think the lyrics are darker than anything we’ve written before,” Mayo said. “I kind of wrote from this more open place where I wasn’t trying to hide behind narrative or poetic layers. I still do that, but now you can tell what I’m talking about.”

If You Go

• What: Skating Polly

• Where: Gabe’s 330 E. Washington St., Iowa City

• When: 8 p.m. Monday (9/16)

• Tickets: $10, all ages, Icgabes.com/calendar/

• Band’s website: Skatingpolly.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.