Kelli Mayo snarls into the microphone. The girl with fire-pink hair, turquoise leggings, a black skirt, and white tee furiously strums her guitar, repeating the same three-chord progression—a threatening, low-end drone—over and over as she growls the opening lines to her last song of the night:
“To what extraordinary lengths would you go to avoid your head? They asked me why I dye my hair and I said, ’cuz I am red.’”
She commands a rapt crowd of maybe sixty. Most are college students and über-hip 20-somethings who occasionally tap their foot or nod their head in cautious approval. Mostly, they just watch, enthralled.
The bright, multi-colored little fireball can’t be taller than 50 inches, and the large outdoor stage that she helms in the parking lot of the University of Oklahoma student union only serves to further dwarf her. Her voice is all high-pitched, quivery squeak-and-squeal, suggesting a pre-pubescent Karen O or Kathleen Hanna—the flamboyant elfin goddesses of perennial post-punk act Yeah Yeah Yeahs and riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, respectively.
Kelli is one half of the duo Skating Polly, a band whose biggest obstacle may be its adolescent moniker, a forgivable caveat when you consider that the raging colorful little punk rocker convulsing on stage is only 11 years old. Her other half, 16-year-old Peyton Suitor, is regrettably absent on this particular night, held hostage in Texas by her father on the order of a custer county judge, while the band opens for indie darlings Twin Sister and Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Kelli’s white tee shirt is tagged with black marker to read “We Heart Peyton! Free her now!”
In Peyton’s place is Kelli’s 14-year-old brother Kurtis, who trades instruments with his sister every few songs, toggling between guitar and drums. Unaccustomed to performing for crowds of poker-faced Norman hipsters, he seems nervous and a little stiff, and occasionally makes the small mistake. Kelli, on the other hand, is well acquainted with her audience, having opened for Norman punks-du-jour Broncho several times, and played a CD release show for Polly’s debut Taking Over the World at Guestroom Records. She appears incredibly comfortable on stage—a natural, commanding presence whose ferocity and edge is matched by a charming tween bounciness.
Kelli approaches the chorus, screams “Mr. Proper English Man,” throws her head back and jump-shakes in an epileptic fit while running her pick across the guitar’s neck, creating a screeching, high-pitched wail of thrashing electric dissonance. “You make me blow off my hand!”
she’s a blur of pink and turquoise. she screams and flails and beats the shit out of her guitar until the song falls into a rhythmic grunge-glide with a melodic wail straight out of Nirvana:
“Noo more PUNCTUATION! Noo more ABBREVIATION! Noo more CAPITALIZATION! Waay more EXCLAMATION!”
As the song crescendos, the drums cease and Kelli falls over the mic, thumping her guitar and yelping a crackling “Now get out of my head!” several times, her voice suddenly throaty and tired, guitar fuzz and feedback swirling around her and eventually falling to a resting hum. She throws her guitar down and hop-skips off stage. The show is over.
* * *
A week before the Norman performance, I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon with the girls at their practice space—the living room of Kelli’s home (I should say, her father’s home) in North Oklahoma City. When I first arrived, through the blinds of the glass door I spied a pint-sized silhouette hop towards me. The door flew open, and a mock-serious/ suspicious Kelli stared at me for a second before asking “Heeelllloooo?” in her best baritone. Before I could respond, she broke character and giggled, stepping aside to let me into the living room. I was greeted by Peyton, who sat on the couch cross-legged, smiling and zen-like, and Peyton’s mother, Amber (in a Pixies tee and OU hoodie), chaperoning while Kelli’s father was at work, tending to a toddler and generally maintaining the chaos of a house occupied by hyperactive teenage girls.
In contrast to Kelli’s manic pixie persona—the red hair, the bright clothes, the extroverted personality—Peyton seemed comparatively reticent, if not downright conservative. Her hair, though dyed, is its natural brunette color, she prefers tattered Nirvana tee shirts over multicolored costumes, and she exudes a tomboyish awkwardness on stage. She’s the Kim Deal, the big sis, to Kelli’s Kathleen Hanna.
Multiple guitars hung on the wall behind a pristine drum set and various pieces of recording gear. I asked the girls if the instruments and equipment were their own. Amber cut in and answered, smiling, “They’re ours.” she laughed, “We let them use them.”
Kelli’s father, David, and Amber have known each other for some time. They developed a friendship while attending law school at OCU, bonded over a shared enthusiasm for music, and eventually became involved romantically. Kelli and Peyton are from separate previous marriages, but over the years have become like surrogate sisters.
They played their first show as Skating Polly on Halloween in 2009. Kelli, on guitar, was nine and Peyton, on drums, was 14, and they had written one song—“Don’t”—which they performed at their own house party for a group of 30 underwhelmed kids.
“They didn’t actually know how to play anything,” Amber recalled.
Kelli cut in, “No matter how lame this sounds, I don’t know how to play a single instrument. I just mess with it, really.” She thought about this statement for a moment and backtracked. “I mean, it’s not like i’m just making random noises on the guitar, ya know.”
Kelli plays what she calls a bassitar, a guitar body holding two lone bass strings tuned to C# and G# her dad rigged for her. “I hold the string anywhere and it plays a chord. Our whole band is pretty simple. We never do something extraordinary. We just have so much energy in it, and we can write melodies that are catchy.”
Indeed, the secret weapon of Skating Polly is an incredibly sophisticated sense of melody and good taste beyond their years. Though inexperienced as musicians, the skill of their songwriting often elevates their technical shortcomings to a level of generic purpose that begs to be justified with apologist adjectives like “Raw,” “DIY,” or “Lo-Fi.” And it’s earned them a far-reaching fanbase that includes producer Chris Harris and his regional label Nice People (which released Polly’s first record), programmers at OKC’s the Spy FM, virtually every musician in the Norman-Oklahoma City area, and alternative rock royalty like The Breeders (who’ve tweeted their adoration) and, perhaps most significantly, Exene Cervenka, vocalist for Los Angeles punk legends X.
“They both are very unspoiled by the world, by the culture,” Cervenka told me. “They haven’t been corrupted by the culture. And I love that about them.”
Cervenka first met Skating Polly two years ago, when Amber took the girls to see her perform a solo gig in Oklahoma City.
“There weren’t a lot of people there,” Cervenka remembered. “It was cold. It was a dark little punk club and these two little beams of light showed up who were so excited to be there. They made the night really special.”
After the show, they all exchanged e-mail addresses. Peyton and Kelli were soon sending Cervenka Skating Polly demos. This is something of a pattern for the girls—they may be the most guileless networkers to ever work a room. They’ve gained the ear and support of other notable artists like the Dollyrots and Holly Golightly just by approaching them after shows.
Cervenka, a 35-year veteran of the music industry who came of age in the early L.A. punk scene of the late 70s, has since taken on a mentorship role with the girls, and is very protective (“I am here to keep them from getting caught up in things that will ruin them in the music business,” she said). Formal agreements have been made for her to produce Polly’s next record.
“I hear a lot of music by a lot of people, and theirs stands out because it’s so good. They’re great songwriters and arrangers. They are very, very talented.”
Naturally, the intelligence of Skating Polly’s music is due at least in part to the influence of the girls’ parents.
“There’s a certain quality that they have as artists that I think sets them apart,” Cervenka observed. “It’s a nod to the parenting.”
David and Amber have no hand in the songwriting but the two attorneys are pro-active as cultural educators, and they’ve instilled in their girls a sense of appreciation for the music they grew up listening to—the alt-rock giants of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Every week, the two families come together, usually at David’s house, for a meeting that consists of listening to an album and then deconstructing it in a roundtable discussion—a family of music critics.
“It’s funny, I saw a headline on the Onion that reminded me of me and Kelli,” David laughed when we spoke on the phone. “It said ‘Cool Dad Raising Daughter on Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out of Touch With Her Generation.’ It’s a picture of this guy with gray hair giving his daughter a Talking Heads vinyl and she’s looking at it like, ‘What the hell?’ ”
No doubt because of these “cool dad” tutoring sessions, when you ask Kelli and Peyton to name their influences and favorite bands, you get a cliffs notes lesson on the best pop music of the last 25 years. Peyton’s favorite band in the world is Broncho, Kelli’s is Nirvana. But they both love Hole, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Smiths, Pixies, Bikini Kill, The Dresden Dolls, Elliott Smith, Tori Amos—an encyclopedic rundown of would-be hits, critical favorites, and under-the-radar essentials. Kelli is on a hip-hop kick and has been listening to Eminem, Kanye West, and Wu Tang Clan. At a Tulsa show, she covered ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” to wild applause.
During our visit, Peyton sang the praises of the new Girls and St. Vincent albums, but she was most excited about the prospect of opening for New York indie rock act Pains of Being Pure at Heart, whose latest album Belong she claims as one of her favorites of the year. Though scheduled to visit her father in Texas just days before the show, she was confident she’d be back in time for the Norman performance.
* * *
An hour after Kelli and her brother barreled through “Mr. Proper English Man” on stage, Pains of Being Pure at Heart lead singer Kip Berman asks the audience to applaud Skating Polly. “We want to dedicate this song to Peyton, who’s being held against her will in Texas. We’re sorry we missed you. To Peyton, in absentia.”
Later, he tweets, “oh, seriously, @SkatingPolly was awesome! #freepeyton!”
A modest hashtag meme is born. Peyton picks up on it, and starts tweeting from Texas: “I’m protesting by never getting out of bed until I get home. #freepeyton”
Broncho and Depth & Current (Harris’s band) follow suit. “#freepeyton!”
Kelli then tweets from her personal account: “For those of you freeing earl it would be nice if you could also help FREE PEYTON!”
The “Earl” Kelli refers to is the 16-year-old hip hop prodigy and Odd Future member whose mother plucked him from a bourgeoning career and forced him into boarding school just as his music was becoming wildly popular. Members of Odd Future often perform wearing “Free Earl” tee shirts.
On Skating Polly’s Twitter, Peyton alludes to legal issues—“#freepeyton court date was moved to November 30th. Anyone else feel like crying?”
I spoke with her on the phone several days after the Pains show. “I’m being forced to be here against my will,” she lamented. She couldn’t talk about the details, but explained to me that her dad and mom are in a custody battle, and the judge has ordered her to live with her father in Stamford, Texas until a late November court date when her fate will be determined. Because her parents were divorced in Custer County, Peyton’s future rides on an embattled county judicial system in Western oklahoma that has endured accusations of corruption and incompetence. Most recently, Sheriff Mike Burgess was sentenced to 79 years in prison for running a sex slave ring out of the county jail. In explaining how something so depraved could be allowed to happen, the attorneys involved pointed to incestuous, good ol’ boy relationships between the sheriff ’s office, public attorneys, and judges.
Peyton seems well aware of the fact that her chances of getting a fair shake—that is, a judge who fully examines and considers her situation—in Custer are 50/50. “I’m down here because people have been lying a lot. The attorneys have been lying… I just wanna go home. it really blows down here.”
She told me she’d intended to run away from Stamford for the last Polly show, but couldn’t because a bus ticket “costs like a million dollars.” She’s nervous about her situation. She said she loves her dad, but her heart belongs in Oklahoma City with Amber, David, Kelli, and Skating Polly. “I hate not living with my mom. It’s pretty miserable down here.” She’s also acutely aware of how much the future of the band depends on her getting back to Oklahoma. The girls are riding a wave of momentum from their last several shows (including multiple sets at last July’s FreeTulsa), and Cervenka is scheduled to start production with them this December. I asked Peyton what she plans to do if the judge rules against her wishes or the court date is delayed again. She immediately answered, “There’s this kid who’s, like, a pretty bad person. I’m gonna see if he can give me a ride.”
I warned her to be careful, and she backtracked. “He’s not a bad person, he just skips school all the time.”
The fledgling punk rocker has enacted another plan of rebellion in the meantime. “I’m protesting by going on a homework strike. I figure if I do bad enough down here, they’ll let me go home in November. But it’s been killing me because I hate getting bad grades.”
“There aren’t a lot of obstacles between who they are and what they do that prevent them from being honest,” Cervenka said. “There’s a genuine quality that comes straight out of them. And part of it is because they are so young. But they can keep that quality. I am here to help them.”
X is currently on tour with Pearl Jam in South America. Cervenka plans to start production along with Harris, who will co-produce, and Polly in December. Once finished, the album will be released through Cervenka’s own Moonlight records, a progressive-minded indie label that uses a fluid, out-of-the-box strategy to market and promote its artists. But Peyton has to get back to OKC first.
As the end of our rainy Saturday afternoon approached, Peyton and Kelli volunteered a living room performance. After five minutes of giggly set-up involving false starts, faulty power cords, uncooperative snares, and an increasingly impatient mother, the girls launched into, what else, “Mr. Proper English Man,” the show-off song, the show-closer, the interview ender, and the song that most impresses live.
The house transformed into a wind tunnel. Peyton furiously punished the drum kit, Kelli screamed her little head off and hammered her bassitar. By the time Kelli commanded, “Now you leave, now get out of my head” for the last time, they were both visibly worn out. As the song closed, the girls smiled sheepish, proud and self-conscious.
“My eyeballs are sweaty,” Peyton offered. “We always have to play that one last.”