Skating Polly Walk Us Through Their Expansive New Double LP “Chaos County Line”

Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse break down all 18 tracks on the punk step-siblings’ first record in five years.
Track by Track

Skating Polly Walk Us Through Their Expansive New Double LP Chaos County Line

Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse break down all 18 tracks on the punk step-siblings’ first record in five years.

Words: Mike LeSuer

Photo: Travis Trautt

June 23, 2023

Once known as the most famous trio of teenage step-sibling punk-rockers in Oklahoma, Skating Polly has aged gracefully out of that specific superlative in recent years—band members Kelli Mayo, Peyton Bighorse, and Kurt Mayo are all in their twenties now for one thing, while the band has since relocated far away from their Middle-American home state to Tacoma, Washington, for another. Additionally, the band has established themselves firmly enough in the national punk scene over the past decade that they don’t need to rely on gimmick to stand out, as was forcefully proven on 2018’s The Make It All Show.

Since then Skating Polly has remained mostly quiet, briefly resurfacing in 2020 with their contribution to the soundtrack for Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling alongside Mortensen himself, his ex-wife Exene Cervenka of LA punk royalty X, and his frequent musical collaborator Buckethead (that sentence is a lot, I know—here’s a little more context). Chaos County Line, then, serves as the band’s first proper album in five years, bludgeoning listeners with 18 chaotic songs rapidly catching us up to date with chief songwriters Peyton Bighorse and Kelli Mayo’s personal growth since 2018 and the trials that inspired it. True to the “ugly-pop” tag they’ve designated their own brand of punk, each track probes the underbelly of relationships comfortably from the rearview as Peyton and Kelli move onward and upward.

From the opening song “Baby on My Birthday”—which starts off eerily quiet and expands to sing-along grunge before Kelli’s manic vocals drag the instrumental into surreal limbo in the tail end—onward, there’s no telling where the tracklist will take us. “We had a rule of ‘no over-singing, no over-playing, and absolutely no over-thinking,’” Kelli shares while discussing this particular track which, yeah, is pretty evidently not the product of over-thinking. Rather, it embraces the raw emotion at the core of Chaos County Line—the fuel which elevates these tracks from conventional power-pop to something wholly the band’s own.

With the record out today, Kelli and Peyton took us deep into the creation of each track, sharing how producer and honorary riot grrrl figurehead Brad Wood helped the band see their vision through to completion. With each song’s primary writer detailing the process behind it, their bandmate chimes in on each track mostly just to praise that process and the experiential learning behind it, indicating the tight bond that holds Skating Polly together. Hear the record and read their words below.

1. “Baby on My Birthday”
Kelli: I wrote most of this while taking a shower at Exene Cervenka’s house. Originally this was gonna be a short-and-sweet and sarcastic country ditty—not even a minute and a half long. Brad Wood’s note after hearing the demo was “And then drum fill. Repeat. Full Replacements chaos!”. The first time we tried his note out I was apprehensive about hurting my voice, but I realized there were so many interesting and intense ways to use my voice other than just slamming on my vocal cords. So as we kept running it all these crazy characters started coming out. 

Then I decided it needed one more shift with the chaos dial cranked even higher, which is what spawned the “birthday cake” section. Kurt’s drums fell into place instantly. Pey’s bass and backup vocals were simple and perfect. Creating the most delightfully dumb guitar and vocal tracks with Brad was so rewarding because we were chasing the natural imperfections. We had a rule of “no over-singing, no over-playing, and absolutely no over-thinking.” It was the epitome of ugly-pop! These ended up being the most bonkers vocals I’ve ever tracked. If you listen closely, there’s a part you can hear me splitting my voice into two notes at once…

Peyton: The first time Kelli showed me “Baby on My Birthday” I was hit by two feelings: I thought it was so funny, but I also found it so sweet. It really was the nicest, friendliest little song before it was the beast it is now! My favorite thing about the song, though, is that sometime between when Kelli wrote this song and when we started working on it as a full band we had three cousins move into our parents’ home and the lyric was originally “seven-piece hillbilly family,” but Kelli asked the three young cousins if they wanted to be included and they were all ecstatic at the idea, so she changed it to “10-piece hillbilly family” and it makes me smile so widely every time!

2. “Masquerade” 
Kelli: I’m so proud of the arrangement on this one. I think it’s massive and a new side of Skating Polly. All the voices and instruments have their own distinct part, while still not overcrowding the melody. I had to twist Kurt’s arm to sing on it, but his voice really brought the song home for me. In the song, I’m pleading for the past, and I’m singing about losing someone I love deeply to normalcy. It’s really scary to me when people act like they have to age out of creativity, because my whole life will always be centered around art. I’ve also never understood how to strive to be “normal,” because I’ve always found sanctuary in being an oddity. Usually, I take pride in both those feelings, but when I felt judged by people I really loved for such things, I started to feel idiotic and small. 

So there’s a bit of anger in the lyrics. There’s another half of it that’s just pleading to always mean something to someone who’s no longer mine—that stark realization that there’s no switch to flip that will bring those days back. It’s the idea that love can feel like a collaborative creation you made with someone and the discussion of whether it’s healthy to keep your past love preserved in glass or not. I wanna stay in every trophy case.

Peyton: I couldn’t believe it the first time Kelli played this for me! I was gobsmacked. It was truly unlike anything she’d ever shown me before in the best way possible. Even before it was in its full formation, it was beautiful and mature in a really new and exciting way. I love all the layers on it, and I have to agree with Kelli: Kurt’s vocals on it really drive it home.

3. “Hickey King”
Peyton: The first verse is based on a true story. I drove an hour and a half to go on a date. We lived pretty far from each other, so we met halfway in this cute little town, Roslyn. We hung out for a few hours, I got sunburned, but we had a lot of fun, and we made tentative plans to meet up again. I drove two hours back home, and I wrote those first three lines on the way home. I just thought they were kinda funny and didn’t know what the song would turn into because of it at that point. When I brought the song to Kelli and Kurt it was a lot tamer than the final version, and then Kelli wrote a new chorus for it very loosely based on what I had, and she brought a lot of fun venom to the song that it didn’t really have before. 

Kelli: The “tch tch tch” was originally a placeholder mouth noise I was doing, and then I realized nothing was gonna top that. It cracks me up reading Pey’s breakdown—I never realized she had a fond memory of the sunburn date, so I just wrote from the angsty part of my heart about my problems with hookups. It’s very sarcastic. It's like crowning someone your “hickey king” for leaving such a deep hickey on you. Marking you. It’s also symbolic of the way I can’t stop thinking about hookups (partly why I’m so bad at them). The line “Tiny trophy with your fake name” refers to this weird time we live in where we know people by their internet handles and forget their real names—that always creeps me out a bit.

4. “Girls Night”
Kelli: Not every scene I paint in this literally happened, though a lot of it did. More clear to me than the details of my middle school heartbreak and isolation were the feelings—the feelings are vivid and reoccurring. I really struggled with this side of my identity. I was always scared someone would try to invalidate it and I was scared to admit I was scared about it because I thought even that would be picked apart and used against me. We live in an era where everyone loves to gatekeep each other’s sexuality. This song was really freeing for me because, at the end of the day, I decided I’m not really labeling myself in it or claiming to understand my queerness. The line “Feel like a predator of my own kind” was something I said in a therapy session once before quickly changing the subject. Then later I realized if I feel this lonely and scared, I need to make something out of these feelings and maybe it could provide solace for someone else.

Peyton: I love this song so much. It’s so moody, and Kelli gets so vulnerable in it. One of my favorite parts of the song is the baritone guitar—it sounds very Twin-Peaks-theme-song-ish to me. 

photo by Megan Magdalena

5. “All the Choices”
Peyton: “All the Choices” is kind of like a quarter-life crisis song, but mostly it’s about being overwhelmed by the number of choices you have to make every day. I wrote it during what was arguably the roughest year of my life so far. I had just moved into my own place for the first time right at the beginning of 2021 and I felt like I was always scrambling to keep up with everything. On top of that, I felt pretty lonely most of the time. Even though I was still going back home to see my family most days, I ended up spending a lot of time alone. 

I’ve always valued alone time, but this was just different. In a lot of ways, I was floundering. Kelli was in LA, which was the first time since we started Skating Polly that we spent a long time away from each other, and I really felt her absence. It was difficult, and when I was writing “All the Choices” I was still very much in this sad little hole. Because of that, I don’t think “All the Choices” has a very happy ending, but writing it helped me immensely. By the time we were in the studio recording, I was in a much better place, but I knew it would be a difficult song for me to track vocals on just because of how heavy it still felt to me. It was the only song where I had to stop in the middle of tracking vocals and go have a big, long cry. 

Kelli: This song was extremely powerful long before me and Kurt had anything to do with it. The first time I heard it, Peyton was playing it acoustically. I tried to make some structural and arrangement choices to make the instrumental as powerful as her vocal melody and lyrics. Kurt’s drums brought so much oomph. And the instrumental break before the first chorus is one of my favorite moments on the whole record. The first time Brad heard it he said it reminded him of David Bowie, which was a pretty sick compliment.

6. “Booster Seat”
Kelli: I wrote “Booster Seat” the week I heard Fetch the Bolt Cutters. I really like how the musical bed on a lot of the songs on that record is vocal chants instead of instrumentation. I thought that felt like a fun new process to songwriting that I had to try. 

It's about how situations can be as nice as money can buy and yet feel so dark depending on who's spending it and why. I used to date a girl who had sugar daddies—men she couldn't stand, but who would buy her gifts or take her to nice dinners, and she was actually good at somehow finding pleasure in the experience regardless of how gross the guys were. I've never experienced that. Instead, when people I dislike spend money on me I feel scared and stuck. I've had lots of 50-year-old men try and take me out to nice dinners thinking that would give them the right to boss me around in my career or manipulate me into doing things I was strongly opposed to. Such a trope, like a bad guy in a music biopic. Hasn't worked yet! But it has ended a lot of working relationships and friendships!

 Peyton: Kelli does so many new things I’ve never heard her do before. The part where she sings “so condescending,” it sounds like a sweet and innocent song from the ’50s, which is extra crazy to me because nothing else about “Booster Seat” is like that—but it works so well altogether.

7. “Hush Now”
Peyton: “Hush Now” is a pretty fictionalized story about my ex-boyfriend. It’s how I always imagined he felt in the relationship—like he was so much smarter than me and had so much power over me. He tried to isolate me from my family and monopolize all my time. He lied to me over and over again about small and big things. He told me that he’d been accepted to Harvard but that he decided to go to Evergreen instead when in reality he never went to college. He cheated on me. Lots of fake social media profiles got involved. He would let things slip sometimes, which really showed just how manipulative he tried to be. He got caught on some online dating apps when I was with him and he really fought hard to make me believe that he was only on them for an ego boost. Kurtis got in his face about it, and later when it was just me and him together he started laughing about how easy it was to just act sorry, how he just had to make himself tear up a little bit. It was one of the first big red flags that I ignored. 

So “Hush Now” is from the point of view of the guy who thinks he’s really good at manipulation, even though looking back this guy wasn’t as smart and clever as he thought—my family and friends told me from the beginning that he was bad news, and everything after that was just me ignoring his blatant attempts at manipulation and making up excuses for him.

Kelli: This is the first song we’ve ever written with Pey on my three-string bass! And the first song where I play guitar while Peyton sings lead vocals. I think, again, the lyrics are just superb. Peyton is so honest and direct on this record in a brilliant new way.

8. “Rabbit Food”
Kelli: “Rabbit Food” was purely an exercise in trying to make something less emotionally heavy. I wanted something sarcastic, fun, snarly, and riff-driven. It's still very musically heavy, but it's not self-serious, and I think that’s a much-needed breath on the record. Kurt and Peyton wrote basically all of the outro lyrics. They really helped finish this because I was scared not having deep lyrics meant it was a cheap song. They helped me get over that by crafting cool imagery and fun wordplay. The drums throughout are massive and the rototoms at the end are incredibly epic.

Peyton: “Rabbit Food” is one of the most fun songs to play altogether in my opinion! It gets so angry but in an almost funny way, and I think that’s a really fun attitude to play around with as a full band.

9. “Tiger at the Drugstore”
Peyton: I had the song, but was having a lot of trouble with the lyrics. I had a lot of scrap lyrics when I brought it to Kelli and Kurt. I knew that to me it was about all this anxiety and depression I’d been having during the pandemic. I had to “break up” with one of my best friends because I found out she had done some pretty back-stabby stuff and lied to me a bunch about it, and that led to a bunch of destructive habits. I ended up spending a lot of time talking to therapists and psychiatrists and going to group therapy and just trying really hard to build myself back up, and for me that’s what “Tiger at the Drugstore” is about—trying (and succeeding!) to come out of this low place and not having to pretend like everything was OK.

Kelli: Me, Peyton, and Kurt all had lots of talks about the lyrics. We all had our different unhealthy coping mechanisms take hold during the pandemic. I wanted to make the lyrics touch on all of them in surreal, symbolic ways. I ended up using mostly old poems I wrote and then riffing on that same imagery. The vocals were really challenging for me to track. I broke down in the recording booth and Brad Wood had to come in and give me a pep talk. And as powerful as I felt the words and vocals were, I was self-conscious it didn’t have enough going for it. Until we heard the horns. That changed everything, better than I ever could’ve hoped for. Danny T. Levin laid down these beautiful Beatles-esque melodies that really brought the whole song home. And then all of a sudden I was worried it would be glaringly superior to every other track. My anxious brain can never accept a good thing! 

10. “Singalong”
Kelli: “Singalong” started as a song I had on piano called “Mindblock” that I wrote when I was 13. I always loved the verse lyrics, but couldn’t find a cohesive chorus for the longest time. Fast forward eight years to jamming with Peyton and Kurtis on a new tune with a sort of Pixies-esque vibe and voila—I found a home for those verse lyrics! They were updated here and there: I definitely didn’t say “Get me all the pretty bitches and fame” when I was 13. 

As the song took form, it became my celebration anthem for getting my voice back after surgery. It has a super satisfying-to-sing satirical cockiness. The bridge goes into total fairy world madness—a complete departure from everything else. It’s supposed to be the song the narrator bought from the “idea place.” No idea was off-limits while building this. We tried so many things and added so many layers. Thank god for Brad’s amazing mixing abilities. He gave it so much texture without it becoming overwhelming. We tread so much new territory in this, but it somehow is still so very perfectly ugly-pop. 

Peyton: “Singalong” has some of my favorite guitar on the whole record. I love how it really feels like it’s moving and grooving along. And then it hits that bridge and it feels like such a sweet release!

11. “Someone Like a Friend”
Kelli: I hope this song resonates with people. I think I’m partially scared of it because it’s so special to me and close to my heart. When people single this one out as their favorite it means the most to me. I’ve had it since 2018. I wrote it on the piano in Brad’s studio when I was trying to teach myself how to read music.

This song really hurt my ex-boyfriend. When he heard me writing it, we were still together. Toward the end of our relationship, we both made a habit of hurting each other. Sometimes it was on purpose just to prove to ourselves we meant something. We both felt so alone. I was screaming inside for a sweeter love. Something less ego-driven. I made the classic mistake of pining for someone else, thinking it would be my getaway. My heart was confused and selfish. I had a brief romantic fling with Tim from Starcrawler before me and my boyfriend Thomas were an item and never fully let go of it. Tim, like every person I’ve ever fallen for, would show me amazing music. He’d pack little messages in the songs he would send me. So I naively felt like if I perfectly crafted this song, I could repair the damage I’d done between me and Tim and hop ship into a new utopian relationship. 

That challenge made my lyrics brutally honest and raw. The words started evolving into so much more than just a song for Tim—it was more so a song about me and my loneliness. My unsatisfied young heart and lack of self-worth at the time. And, of course, it didn’t work that way, though he did like the song. And he even helped me with the piano on it. Both boys are dear friends of mine and I’m so lucky they’re still a part of my life.

Peyton: When Kelli showed me “Someone Like a Friend” my jaw dropped all the way to the floor! It’s so emotionally heavy, and Kelli’s vocals on it are absolutely bonkers. I couldn’t even imagine doing some of the stuff she does! I mean, I’ve sung along many times and I don’t know how she does it.

12. “Double Decker”
Peyton: I’ve had [this song] for years, and for the longest time, it was just the first verse and chorus repeated a few times. It was a super simple and sweet little dedication to a good friend of mine who, at one time, could have maybe been something more, but I didn’t treat him the best when it was time to decide what I wanted. I met him on tour in the UK, and we stayed with him and his roommates after his band played with us. I stayed up most of the night talking to him, and then we stayed connected after I got back home. One night I just kind of freaked out and told him I didn’t want to talk to him—at least in that capacity—anymore. And then as soon as I sent the message I felt so stupid, but that ended things between me and him. So specifically, “Double Decker” is about how bad and dumb I felt after all of that, but it’s also more generally about my tendency to freak out and end things abruptly and sometimes unkindly. 

Kelli: Peyton's vocals on this left me and Brad speechless. It's incredible how many words she can spit out in full power without taking a breath. My contribution to this song was busting up the arrangement here and there and creating lots of highs and lows. I really had fun playing with the dialogue between my bass and Pey’s guitar on this. A lot of times I write our guitar parts with my mouth and then Pey very quickly learns what I'm singing and turns it into something even more glorious. She was pissed at me for the solo on this song and was nervous she wouldn’t get it right in the studio. Sure enough, it only took her a couple of takes, and then she nailed it all the way through with no flubs or edits. I caught this on video—she looks so surprised and happy at the end. The choruses are the most gentle and vulnerable part, which is pretty unusual. Kurt's drums also really blew me away. The rhythm is different from any other song we've done. It was challenging to track, but he killed it. 

photo by Brittne Lunniss

13. “Charlie’s Brother”
Peyton: This is my big heartbreak song. It’s about the kindest, most intimate rejection I’ve ever received (I promise no one actually called me ugly!). I was so sad for so long. It wasn’t an all-consuming sadness, but I was devastated. I knew as it was happening that I was gonna write a song about it, but it took a while to actually get there. I think maybe a year-ish later we were spending the night at London Heathrow, trying and failing to sleep on the wooden bench seat at a Costa in the baggage claim area because they kicked us out of the terminal. None of us were sleeping—we were so uncomfortable and frustrated that we were gonna have to go through security again in the morning since we got kicked from the terminal. I was pacing around just writing the lyrics and melody. We flew out the next morning and I had the very rough beginnings of a song. 

It’s the song I’m most nervous about releasing because I haven’t talked to the guy who rejected me since a couple of days after the rejection—it’s been 6 years now—and I’m definitely a little scared he’ll hear it (or worse: read this), and then he’ll know. I’m getting the jitters just thinking about it! 

Kelli: This song was perfect just the way Pey brought it to me. She asked me to add back-up vocals and I assured her that my voice was completely unnecessary. I compromised by writing piano. I wanted it to feel like Nina Nastasia’s record On Leaving. I do love the way it comes in on the song and am very proud of it. She was also nervous about the outro because she didn't have solid vocal parts. She rewrote the entire outro in the studio, on the spot, with a little help from Brad and absolutely no feedback from me! I sat back and listened. It was beautiful. She's a majestic, heavenly melody-maker.

14. “Send a Priest”
Kelli: I write from a perspective here that’s not at all usually how I feel. That being said, I've felt it. It's many different characters' stories being told all with the central theme of choosing cheap, fake love despite knowing it'll cause them damage. Craving damage as long as that means getting immediate sexual and romantic attention. 

I'm very proud of the sound the bass and guitar make when we slide in opposite directions at the same time. Kurt and I would play this all the time before it was finished. We tried so many different parts and structures before landing on this configuration. His drums really brought my riffs to another level. He's so good at picking up the vibe without much direction.

Peyton: We’ve been playing this live as an encore recently, and it’s one of the best moments in the set I think. It’s a really wild, chaotic song that is very classic Skating Polly. I got so frustrated demoing it because the guitar part moves so fast. When I’m not playing fast I have to be thinking fast, so even when it sounds like it’s slowing down it still feels so fast to me. It’s also the song most likely to get stuck in my head throughout the day. 

15. “I’m Sorry for Always Apologizing”
Kelli: It's a song about hurting someone who's so good to you because you've deemed them too good for you. I would catch myself doing selfish cruel things with my actions and then coming back with huge romantic gestures and kind words. And so many apologies, and then apologies for the apologies. I've said the title of this song so often, not referencing this song—it's probably my catchphrase. The huge villain I play as the narrator is my worst fear of how my actions must've come across. And wearing the dunce cap and singing as that asshole is only a further extension of my apologies.

Peyton: “Apologizing” has some of Kelli’s best lyrics ever. It's definitely my favorite on the record and likely my favorite in our entire discography. And the best part is, I feel like even now I can find some new way they’re clever that I haven’t noticed before. 

16. “Not Going Back Again”
Peyton: This one is about my relationship with my dad. It kind of popped out of nowhere, really. I haven’t seen or talked to my dad in over 10 years now, and it’s something I used to spend a lot of time thinking about but don’t anymore. I was a teenager the last time I saw him, and we had a really rough end to our relationship. I’ve never written about him or the situation before, and I honestly never thought I would, but one day I was just playing around on guitar and it fell out of me. It’s a weird thing for me to write about because, for the most part, I feel like I’ve processed that part of my life, but then this song spilled out of me and I realized that I still feel quite hurt by everything that happened, not only during the end of my relationship with my dad but by everything he did before that, too.

Kelli: We tracked the main vocals for this together, at the same time, sharing one mic. I wanted it to feel raw and intimate, but then the chorus is extremely colorful and trippy. You can hear Peyton’s cat Denny purring in the beginning.

17. “Man Out There”
Kelli: In October 2021 we rented a cheap Airbnb cabin in the middle of nowhere in Washington for a month to write the record. We were watching lots of horror movies and I am notoriously a big scaredy cat. The cabin had all these windows with no curtains or blinds, it was all too easy for me to imagine creepy men lurking in the dark waiting to kill me. So naturally, we decided to write a song about it. I thought it would make for a cool Halloween anthem if done right. When we first were writing I said how cool it would be to get David Yow or the actor Lance Henriksen to be the male character on the song. But I have lots of ideas like this, and even though we’re friendly with both of them I was too scared to dare approach either. 

Fast-forward to a year later, I run into David who brings me backstage to meet all of Flipper, gives me an amazingly complimentary introduction, and then ends up inviting me to come sing with him onstage. I was completely mind-blown and honored. Then I started re-listening to all my Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard favorites obsessively. “Man Out There” did not feel complete. I was really struggling with it. So I thought, I have to ask Yow and see what he says. He said yes! Let me tell you, sitting in the vocal booth with him while he tracked vocals to this was one of the most punk-rock and inspiring things I've ever witnessed.

Peyton: “Man Out There” always gave me the heebie-jeebies when we would play it at the cabin at nighttime. I’d be all amped up from playing the song, getting ready to go to bed, and the old, creaky cabin would move around and make a sound and it was terrifying. I checked the locks probably five times every night after we wrote this one. I think this song has a 10/10 on the scary meter.

18. “Party House”
Kelli: We reached a point where we’d recorded 17 really great songs with Brad. The three of us from the get-go were determined to make a double record. The label was hesitant. They didn’t know if putting all 17 tracks together would get the most mileage for them. I asked for Brad’s opinion and he told us directly that he’d have an easier time pushing for a double record if we had an even 18 songs—the same length as the record most people know Brad for [co-producing], Exile in Guyville. He said the whole record felt so heavy we needed a song with levity—almost a campfire sing-along vibe. And he said he thought we should record it ourselves and send it to him to mix. 

All of me and Peyton’s song ideas in recent memory were moody and gloomy. But Goonies never say “die,” so we kept thinking and started digging up songs from many years ago...songs we wrote when we were still children. And that’s when we remembered “Party House.” Thank goodness a friend of ours had uploaded a live version of it from 2012. I took the melody and lyrics and only added—no subtraction or rewrites. I put it on guitar and assigned Peyton and Kurtis their own verses. And then we asked my dad, Peyton’s mom, our 15-year-old cousin, our grandma, and Kurt’s girlfriend Sarah to sing on it with us. It was important to me that people we love and who love our music all sang on this last track together. Sent it to Brad, he added some percussion, and sent me back a mix that brought tears to my eyes. There was no better way to end the record.

Peyton: “Party House” is so so so special. Hearing our family singing along with us never fails to make me smile, and I feel so lucky to not only have the best, most creative family, but now to also have this gem as a reminder of how amazing they are.