Sisters Kelli Mayo (middle) and Peyton Bighorse (right) formed Skating Polly when they were just 14 and 9, respectively, in 2009. Their brother, Kurtis Mayo (left), was recruited in 2017 to play drums. Photo by Angel Ceballos
How has your songwriting changed now that Kurtis is in the band?
Mayo: When I would write a part on guitar or bass, I would cram so many notes in. I thought that’s how I had to mature as a songwriter: make the songs move more and evolve. That made these songs stuffy. But when you have two string instruments, a bass and a guitar, they can do parts and you can have layers. It’s more subtle and I can just keep a groove on bass. Kurtis joined and I could start writing in a totally different way. It was a revelation.
Are the songs finished by the time you get to the studio?
Bighorse: We try to have them done for the most part. We do end up making changes on a lot of the songs, after we get the opinion of the producer or ideas that come into our heads while we’re listening back to the song. But for the most part, we have the structure done and the melody and the lyrics are ready to go.
Do you track live?
Bighorse: We track kind of live. We usually do guitar and bass overdubs, but we have the live track there also. We just add things with the overdubs.
Mayo: We do a little bit of overdubbing here and there, and then the vocals are always overdubbed. I’m really particular about my vocal takes. On this record, we worked with Brad Wood, who also did the New Trick EP, and he is so great at finding tones. I don’t always have the right vocabulary to convey what kind of song I want. I’m like, “It was inspired by Tom Petty and Queens of the Stone Age. What can you do with that?” He would dig out records—parts of the song reminded him of the Cramps and other parts reminded him of AC/DC—he’d pull up Back in Black and compare the tone. He would line it up perfectly. It’s so crazy what an ear he has for that stuff. There were little things, too, that I’d never done before, like writing the bass part and the lead guitar part. I couldn’t always tell if it worked—if it jelled together or if they rubbed against each other and didn’t fit. Sometimes he’d be like, “This is brilliant.” But sometimes he would say, “Whoa. What is that?” He showed me little tricks that I didn’t know.
Would he suggest trying different gear?
Mayo: Sometimes. I played my Ibanez for all my bass parts on the record except for the last two measures at the end of “Queen for a Day.” It’s this simple bass line on the E string and my intonation was a little wack. Whenever I would go too high on the E string, it would get out of tune. So for that one line we switched basses to a P bass. I fucking love P basses, but they are just too heavy, so I will probably never play one. The last two measures of “Queen for a Day” are overdubbed on P bass. I played a cool electric hollowbody guitar on “Camelot” and “Flatwound Strings.” It had a whammy bar on it and I’ve never used a whammy before. I can’t remember the name of. It wasn’t a Gretsch, but it was supposed to look and sound like a Gretsch.
Peyton, are you still using your Hamer?
Bighorse: I got it a few years ago when we still lived in Oklahoma City. It’s got a really dirty, dark, messy sound to it. It fits well with all of our songs. It’s hard to get it to sound exactly how I want it to sound sometimes, but whenever I can get it just right, it’s my favorite guitar. But recently I’ve been playing with a Fender Duo-Sonic—we just got some new guitars—so I left the Hamer in Oklahoma and I’ve been playing with the Duo-Sonic, which is also really cool. It’s a bit brighter sounding and it’s taking some time to figure out, but it’s probably one of the coolest guitars I’ve ever owned.
Here’s a close-up of Whitehorse’s Duo-Sonic and Mayo’s PJ. Both Fenders are recent models.
Are those single-coils giving you trouble with feedback or noise?
Bighorse: I’m actually trying to figure out how to get enough feedback from it [laughs].
Kelli, when you play guitar, do you just use one of Peyton’s?
Mayo: Yeah. We share all the guitars. I play her Hamer. Sometimes I play Kurt’s Gibson.
Bighorse: We have Kurt’s guitar with us for backup and for him to play. It’s a Gibson Les Paul he won years ago on a MySpace raffle. I don’t really play it unless I break a string, but I don’t break strings that often. Kurtis breaks strings almost every night, so it is definitely good for him to have his own guitar.
Skating Polly’s live session for the Audiotree online network features plenty of abrasive guitar tone from Peyton Bighorse and her Fender Duo-Sonic, and Kelli Mayo pummeling her 3-string Fender PJ.