Stepsister duo Skating Polly are wiser than most people would expect from two teenagers who first started playing music together in a jam session at a Halloween party. Kelli, 14, and Peyton, 18, formed in 2009 and have been making self-proclaimed “ugly pop” songs like nobody’s business. At times tracks are quieter, poppier, or ‘90s alt-punk-inspired, but all of them are solid, whether the message is serious (“Ugly”) or silly (“Carrots”). The sisters share instrumental responsibilities equally, as both Kelli and Peyton play drums, guitar, bass, and sing. The Oklahomans have received plenty of well-deserved attention from acclaimed musicians like Exene Cervenka of X and Kliph Scurlock of the Flaming Lips, both of whom were involved in making the band’s sophomore record Lost Wonderfuls. They recently released their third studio album Fuzz Steilacoom and have been touring nonstop to promote it, so we were stoked to grab them for an interview. Kelli and Peyton open up about feeling ugly and give some damn good advice about being a young, female musician.
You started playing music together at a Halloween party in 2009 but what was your first real show? How did it go? Were you nervous?
Peyton: Our first show was on June 15, 2010 opening for the band Feel Spectres at their album release show. We were so nervous from the moment we got the show to the moment of the show. But because we were so nervous we practiced a lot and the show went pretty well.
Kelli: Yeah, I remember planning what I was going to wear and say. There’s actually a video of us on YouTube talking right before our first show. I was pretty nervous. I remember I wrote a song called “Rainbows” the day of the show and we ended up opening our set with it. As soon as that song was over I was relieved to hear all the clapping and cheering. It felt like people really enjoyed it and were a little surprised. I felt great after that, even though I'm sure we screwed up a few times times during that show.
Have your parents been supportive throughout your music careers? How do they feel about you guys going on tour and things like that?
P: Our parents have always been super supportive of us! They really believe in us and think it’s awesome that we get to do what we really want to. They take us on all our tours, and we always have a fun time.
K: Yes, definitely. They have made this possible. I am so incredibly grateful for all of their help and support. My dad made my first basitar for me, and he has encouraged me to play around on instruments in the house since I was 2. We live in a household where we are pretty much surrounded by music.
Did you guys drop out of school to be in the band or have you found a way to balance the band and school?
P: I graduated from high school last May, but before that I did balance school with Skating Polly. It’s a lot easier now that I am out of school, though. I spent a lot of time practicing for my ACT test and getting into college but after I got accepted, I realized that my heart was much more into my music. Our parents both have a lot of education and I didn't know how they would feel about me putting off college to concentrate on the band, but they were really cool about it. They basically said you can always go to college but if you're already doing something you love then don't stop.
K: I started homeschooling this year. I balanced Skating Polly with a normal school schedule for a long time. We would go on tours and then come back and go straight back to school. Our sleeping schedules would be completely off, and also it was so hard to concentrate and sit still in a desk after we had just gotten back from the excitement of playing shows.
You recently released a music video for “Ugly.” Tell me about what it was like to make that video.
P: We had a lot of fun making it with our friend Drake Matney. The scenes out in the forest were interesting because we didn’t get permission to shoot there, and I don’t know if we needed it. People would drive by and we kept thinking they were going to ask us to leave so we tried to shoot that stuff pretty quickly.
K: Yes, lots and lots of fun. The underwater scenes were actually really hard to get. We shot those about four different times and it was awful because water kept coming up my nose and I was supposed to just keep still. But the finished product looked really cool so I’m not complaining. My favorite scenes to shoot were the ones of Peyton and I dancing into the camera. So much fun just jumping around and being crazy.
You guys have covered a lot of different bands/musicians. Who would you want to hear cover one of your songs? Which song would it be?
P: I don’t know who I would specifically want to cover one of our songs, but I think it would be cool to hear it really quiet and pretty, almost like Elliott Smith or Perfume Genius. And I’d probably want the song to be “Scummy Summer,” as far as my songs go. I think it would be great to hear any of Kelli’s crazy loud songs really quiet and pretty, though.
K: That's hard. Maybe Fiona Apple just because I like her voice so much. I think it would be cool to hear her cover “Ugly” or “Lilly” and just hear her kind of go all over the place with the high and low vocals. Also I just think it would be really interesting to hear how she would do the instrumentation on one of those songs. Or to have St. Vincent cover “A Little Late” I would love to hear her version of such a stripped down, simple song.
You guys just released Fuzz Steilacoom. Are you guys already working on your fourth album? I heard a rumor that it was going to have a lot of piano-based songs on it.
P: We haven’t started recording the fourth album yet, but we do have quite a few songs that we are planning on recording for it. We have lots of demos and songs that weren't supposed to be demos but we just haven't ever released them. And Kelli has written a lot of piano-based songs that we plan on releasing at some point.
K: Yeah we haven’t started recording it yet, but we have started planning a bunch for it. I do have a lot of piano songs but I don’t know how many of them we are going to use. I might rewrite a lot of them or move them to different instruments. Peyton has lots of songs she’s written on acoustic guitar, but again I don’t know how many we are going to actually leave on acoustic guitar. I think the next album will be really awesome though. I’m very excited to start that whole process over again.
I know that there was a vague concept behind Lost Wonderfuls that involved a secret government agency. Is there a storyline like this behind Fuzz Steilacoom? If not, how would you describe what Fuzz Steilacoom is mostly about?
K: We haven’t found a concept. All the songs are so varied as far as what they are about. “Alabama Movies” is about all these people around me always trying to prove how tough and cool they are, and how I’ve always felt out of place with them. “Ugly” is about being so caught up with not wanting to be ugly, but in the end just realizing that I don’t really care all that much about what people think of my physical appearance, and neither should anyone else. So I don’t know, I guess a lot of my songs on this album are about how I feel around other people. I don’t know if that is much of a theme though, and I don’t know what all of Peyton’s song are about.
I really love “Oh Well, We’ll Win.” It’s like a “fuck you” to anyone who’s doubting you, or at least that’s how I view it. Is that kind of what you were going for?
P: That is kind of what we were going for. We were inspired by a large corporation coming in and taking over a really cool local radio station, The Spy. We wrote it as a sort of protest against that.
K: Definitely! That was definitely the message I was trying to send out, and I thought it’d be cool to do it through a soft ukulele song. And I figured it would work for more scenarios than just this radio station.
I’ve heard you guys talk about the different ways you hear about new music and someone mentioned that Kelli’s brother keeps you updated on underground rap. Are there any rap or hip-hop artists that you guys are really into or are listening to right now?
P: There is this band that Kurtis found out about called BLKHRTS who are really cool. They take a sample from the movie Eraserhead and made it into this awesome song called "N HVN VRYTNG S BLK." We want to play a show with them someday.
K: Yes he does! He shows me so many cool rappers. He introduced me to Death Grips. I really like them. He also got me into older music like Frank Zappa and Brian Eno. But as far as rappers go, I like Public Enemy and most of the Wu-Tang stuff. Ice Cube and N.W.A. are also really cool. Some of my favorite newer rappers are probably Kanye West, Danny Brown and Earl. A lot of rappers are constantly releasing new music and I think that's really cool.
Kliph Scurlock is a fan and friend of you guys and in addition to giving you guys his old drum set, I know he’s given you some records. What records has he bought you and have they had a big influence on you? Also, were you both Flaming Lips fans before you became friends with Kliph?
P: One record for me that has really stuck out is Andorra by Caribou. I think it’s one of the happiest records I’ve heard. My favorite track is the first one, “Melody Day.” It’s just a very summery record.
One of the first records he ever bought me and one of my personal favorites was [Harry Nilsson’s] Nilsson Schmilsson. I love that record so much. I still listen to it quite a bit. Another one is Tapestry by Carole King. When he bought me that I listened to the first track “I Feel the Earth Move” over and over again and would dance around in the house to it. A lot of times we will tell him about some new music we think he might like and he'll be like, "If you like that, you should hear this!" Phantom Power by Super Furry Animals is also up there. I love the harmonies and production on that album. I also really like all the Cate Le Bon records he has showed me. I actually got to see her live for the first time and meet her because of Kliph.
K: Actually me and Peyton were not huge Flaming Lips fans before we met Kliph. We knew their most popular songs but I had never seen them live and I really appreciated them so much more once we saw them for the first time. After we met Kliph I started listening to them a lot more and The Terror was one of my favorite records last year. They're a great band to open up for too!
You two are also good friends with Exene of X. Is there any really great advice that she’s given you or anything you’d say you’ve learned from your friendship with her?
P: She told us that we would always listen to records we’ve released and wished we would have done something differently but at some point we just need to move past that and be happy with what you release. She said to remember that at some point you did like it, so it must be ok.
K: One of my favorite things Exene has ever told me was “Whatever you release is going to be around for forever so make sure it something that YOU like. When you try to make something based on what you think other people will like it won’t be any good and you won't like it.” That is so true and probably some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.
Your music is so inspiring, especially for young girls who might be intimidated at the thought of starting a band. What’s been the hardest part of being in a band at such a young age?
P: I think the hardest part of being in a band as women and teenagers is being labeled automatically as something that we may not be. I know a lot of bands with guys who are my age and they’d never get labeled as a cutesy kid band. A lot of people have thought and do think we are just some novelty that will wear off soon and be irrelevant. We have a lot of great fans who do believe in us, so I am not trying to just complain like the whole world is against us, but we have gotten comments before suggesting we are not serious about this or we are too young for this. But at some point you just have to move past all the comments and focus on ways to throw yourself into it and appreciate the people who do believe in what you’re doing, which is what I try to do all the time, and I think it’s really important to do that if you want to succeed. Just focus on the positive and, for the most part, keep away from the negative.
K: I've noticed one thing holding a lot of girls back from making music is that they think they have to have a "beautiful sexy" image. They think that in order to be in a band and be a girl you have to be pretty and it really pisses me off that girls are getting this idea. You don't have to be pretty to be in a band, or make music. Because the music is about the music, not the image and I'm not going to lie, it's not easy being a girl in a band. There will always be assholes who try to bring you down by making you feel "ugly." And there will be people who are constantly talking down to you, like sound men, music store employees, or even just anonymous people online. But it's up to us girls to just completely disregard them and make great music anyway. It's not easy but I think if more and more girls get out and start making music it also won't be hard.
Buy Fuzz Steilacoom here and check out Skating Polly’s upcoming tour dates below!
Photos by Doug Schwarz
"Rock Dreams" is an ongoing series of interviews with amazing female musicians we love, and is sponsored by Sock Dreams.