Meet Babes in Toyland's New Favorite Grunge Band, "Ugly Pop" Trailblazers Skating Polly
"Our music can be pretty, but it also can be really loud with gut-wrenching vocals where we scream until we can’t talk for a week."
Photo by Drake Matney
Forget Courtney Love for a second, because Skating Polly are the new girls with the most cake. At only fifteen and nineteen, the unstoppable Oklahoma stepsisters have already charmed the likes of The Flaming Lips and Jeff Mangum with their no-holds-barred approach to rabid teenage rock, or what they like to call “ugly pop”. Armed with a just a homemade bassitar and pair of backwards facing drum sticks, Skating Polly’s music is as barbed and cutting as the braces on their teeth. Raised on riot grrrl and root beer in the red-state Bible Belt, Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse are far from your typical middle American teenagers.
With three albums to their name and another on the way, Skating Polly are already selling out venues they can’t even legally get into. This summer, they hit the road as the opening act for legendary grunge band Babes In Toyland on a European tour. Noisey called up the punk rock sisters to chat about everything from hating makeup to their upcoming rock-doc, and find out why ugly is their favorite word.
Noisey: So I have to ask. What exactly is “ugly pop?”
Kelli: “Ugly pop” all started with me writing the song “Ugly.” Originally, it was tongue in cheek. I was going through this big phase of hating makeup. This was a very short phase. Like two weeks. But by the time I got done writing it, I realized I was writing it about myself. The message was no matter if I wear a bunch of make up or if I don’t—if I just wear cargo shorts and over-sized T-shirts—people are going to call me ugly. Then I realized that’s kind of how our music is. If we make it really produced, people will tear us down for that. Or if we make it really simple, people will say that we don’t know how to play our instruments. We can have really simple two-chord songs and then also have bigger songs produced by Kliph Spurlock (Flaming Lips) or Exene Cervenka (X). I like the word ugly.
How come? I remember being terrified of that word when I was your age.
Kelli: Because it’s the opposite of pretty, and our music can be pretty, but it also can be really loud with gut-wrenching vocals where we scream until we can’t talk for a week. I do like the word a lot. When I was younger, I was just getting into riot grrrl, so I wore my punk rock clothes and all these boys would call me ugly or call me a dyke. It used to really get to me. But then when I wrote “Ugly,” I was like, I don’t fucking care. They’re not saying I’m not talented. They’re not saying I’m stupid. They’re literally just saying they’re not attracted to me and that’s bullshit. I don’t give a fuck if they think that. Yeah, I’ll be ugly. That’s great. I’d love to be the opposite of pretty. Great, I’m not perfect and this asshole’s not attracted to me. Great. I’m ugly. I like the dirtiness and roughness of it.
You mentioned riot grrrl which is interesting because the way you are reclaiming the word ugly reminds me of Kathleen Hanna writing “SLUT” on her chest in lipstick at Bikini Kill shows. It’s similar to the how you wrote “UGLY” across your faces for the music video for “Ugly.” Do you consider Skating Polly a feminist band?
Kelli: We’re both feminists. Most of the songs I wrote are personal to me, but once it’s finished, I do see how it could be taken as a feminist message and I think that’s cool. If other girls get empowered by us and want to start their own band, that’s awesome. I don’t want to call us riot grrrl because we’re ugly pop! That’s our genre. Peyton: Like Kelli said, I am a feminist. But whenever I’m writing songs, though I can see how people can take them as about feminism or women’s rights, but I’m not really looking to write about that intentionally. If it comes out that way, that’s great, but not all of my songs are about feminism.
You often use other girls' names and personas to represent characters in your songs. Are these reflections of yourselves directly, or mouthpieces for a larger conversation about what it means to be a teenage girl today?
Kelli: In the song “Ugly,” the character is “Shay,” and that was because I chose to closest word to “she.” After we released that song, people kept tweeting the lyrics as “she wants to be a pretty girl.” Different names we use are represented for different things. Sometimes I’m talking about about a broad group of people and I’ll put a name on it because I don’t just want to say “they” or “you.” Other times, I am just talking about myself and saying “I” is really personal and awkward.
You’ve both said that “Skating Polly is intent on ignoring what’s fashionable.” What did you mean by that?
Peyton: We don’t really care what’s big right now with music and what people expect or want to hear from us. We just go off how we feel and what we want to do. We don’t always dress in a way people would call conventionally cute or pretty, and that’s in all aspects of our lives really.
Speaking of style, do you have a band whose style or look you find particularly rad?
Kelli: Yeah. I really like Kat Bjelland’s style from Babes In Toyland, like a babydoll screaming. It was scary for people to see that. I also really like Exene Cervenka’s style. Lots of beads and dangly bracelets. It’s weird because these are people that we know, but I’ve been in love with their style forever and before we knew them. Peyton: Definitely Exene. She has incredible style and still does today! I’ve never seen her in an outfit that wasn’t completely amazing. She always looks like a badass.
Kelli: Also, Prince has really cool style.
Do you feel like the music industry wants to present you in a certain way given your age and gender? Peyton: I feel like if we went into certain parts of the music industry, people would try to exploit our ages and gender, but we are very conscious of who we work with. None of them have really tried to sexualize us or make our ages a gimmick. But I’m positive that people would try if they could, because that’s just how it is.
Teen girls have a presence in rock music now like never before, considering other big-bill bands with teenage frontwomen like Girlpool and Cherry Glazerr, but you’ve been in the game a lot longer than most of them. What’s it like to see more and more teenage girls popping up on the scene?
Kelli: I think it’s really cool! It’s sending a message that anyone can do anything and sound like anything. You can dress however you want or be whatever age and gender and just make music and go for it. I think the message Skating Polly is trying to send is that you can be the simplest musician and as long as you are true to yourself, it will come off as genuine. It’s not about how well you can curl your hair or how much money you have to play a big venue. It’s about substance.
I hear you guys are having a documentary made about you?
Peyton: Henry Mortensen, who is the son of Viggo Mortensen and Exene Cervenka from X, came to one of our shows last year and I guess he was really into it because a few weeks later he sent us an Instagram message with some ideas he had. He called me and the first thing he said was, “I want to make a movie about you guys.” My jaw dropped. He went on tour with us and basically goes on all them with us now. He’s visited us at our house in Oklahoma a few times. He’ll be coming with us this summer when we tour with Babes In Toyland.
You’ve mentioned multiple times how much you love Babes In Toyland and how influential their music has been to Skating Polly. How does it feel to be opening for your idols?
Kelli: My parents have been playing Babes In Toyland since I was really young but it wasn’t until fourth or firth grade that I learned the names of their songs and could recognize that sound and stuff. They changed my music world. That was when I wanted to start our band. I did write a couple of songs where I was going for that sound. That was my influence. We got in contact with Babes In Toyland drummer, Lori Barbero, who came and saw us at SXSW, and she’s been a fan ever since.
Bryn Lovitt is getting grungy on Twitter: @brynlov