King Stingray: “We’re full of love in our heart – that makes us believe in ourselves”

The ascendant Yolŋu surf rockers are carrying on the legacy of Yothu Yindi with heartfelt, hooky songs about home, community and country

Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander readers are advised that this story contains the name of a person who has died.

“Gapirri power.” Stingray power: that’s how Dimathaya Burarrwaŋa sums up the vibe of King Stingray, the ascendant Yolŋu surf rock band NME meets on a June day in Brisbane, where the group are helping local heroes Ball Park Music kick off a national tour.

‘Powerful’ isn’t the word vocalist Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu would choose to describe himself today, though. Rather, he’s “cold” – from Yirrkala in East Arnhem land, the 26-year-old isn’t used to the chill, wrapping his arms around himself and rubbing them briskly to emphasise the point.

Yunupiŋu looks every inch the lead singer, dressed in a black jacket and wearing what is fast becoming his trademark – coloured mirrored sunglasses. He radiates cool without even trying, and is perfectly suited to lead King Stingray as they rocket on their trajectory as one of Australia’s most exciting young bands.

It’s already been a mammoth two years for the group. They made their official debut in October 2020, and have since won a bunch of awards (including Best New Act From Australia at the BandLab NME Awards 2022), effortlessly scored two entries in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2021, and performed before more than 70,000 AFL fans as part of the ‘Dreamtime at the ’G’ Indigenous round. They’ve even got their own clothing collab with Cotton On.

King Stingray
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

Add to the list of achievements their debut album ‘King Stingray’ – 10 songs about home, country and community – and you know there’s still more to come.

Since debuting with the single ‘Hey Wanhaka’ in 2020, King Stingray quickly found an audience who couldn’t get enough of their unique ‘King Sting’ sound. But guitarist Roy Kellaway, 26, admits an album was far from their minds when that first single dropped. “We weren’t really thinking about an album. We were just putting out songs and then we got heaps of backing from that and lots of love.”

The backing Kellaway refers to is signing with Bargain Bin Records, the label founded by punk trio The Chats – who took King Stingray with them on tour even though they didn’t even have a setlist yet.

Kellaway recalls that hectic time: “We had all these songs to choose from and we’re like, ‘let’s pull a band together’. We basically took the ideas, had a run through like the day before the gig, put the band together with Cam [Campbell Messer, bassist, 26] and Lewi [Lewis Stiles, drummer, 27] … and the next day we set off for our first gig.”

“[The energy] just flows because no one’s critical. We’re all happy joyful people. It’s not like, ‘no, I don’t like that idea’. Anything goes”

Their first ever gig was in December 2020 at Ipswich, south of Brisbane. Kellaway says it was a surreal moment for them.

“We were really surprised by seeing people in the crowd singing what they knew of that first song we put out,” he remembers. “We’re like, how have they even heard this song? Because it wasn’t even out for very long. And obviously, coming from a rural place in the bush where you play a gig and kind of know everyone in the crowd, [going] to playing a gig where you know no one was really strange… That was kind of when we officially became a band.”

King Stingray
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

Though that was when King Stingray was born, Kellaway and Yunupiŋu, both descendants of the original members of revered band Yothu Yindi, have been writing and playing together for far longer. “We got lots of songs from growing up,” Kellaway says. “What do they say? You got your whole life to write your first album, or something.”

‘King Stingray’, though, contains a wisdom older than the band themselves. Out this August on Cooking Vinyl Australia, it’s a record about home, connection to country, community and the beauty of Northeast Arnhem Land – all wrapped up in the positivity that NME can feel speaking to them in person.

The album was recorded and produced between the Northern Territory, Brisbane and Tintenbar in the Byron Bay Hinterland, the latter a home studio project Kellaway and his father have been working on. ‘King Stingray’ was recorded in places surrounded by the natural environment that had “good space”, Kellaway says. “Capturing that energy and that vibe was really important.”

For the album, King Sting didn’t set out to make any big changes to their process. “The approach was more or less the same as how we do everything… We’re family members and we love playing music. We kept that mentality.”

There’s no one “recipe” to what they do, Kellaway says, though the members of King Stingray “complement” each other – over time the other members of the band, especially Burarrwaŋa, 27, have become more involved in the songwriting process.

King Stingray on the cover of NME Australia #32
King Stingray on the cover of NME Australia #32

“It doesn’t always work when you work collaboratively sometimes, but this just feels right,” Kellaway reflects. “I’ve collaborated with other people in the past and sometimes it can feel… It’s not flowing, the energy’s not there. But this just flows because no one’s critical. We’re all happy joyful people. It’s not like, ‘no, I don’t like that idea’. Anything goes. Stu, my old man, he’s just a vibe master too. So he’s always been good to encourage us because there’s enough critics out there in the world to bring you down.”

Roy’s father Stuart Kellaway was a founding member of Yothu Yindi, as was Yirrŋa’s uncle, the esteemed Dr. M. Yunupiŋu. Much has been written about King Stingray’s connection to Yothu Yindi, and there’s no denying that their legacy and messages of humanity and solidarity continue to have an effect on the band.

“That’s like the legendary family,” Yunupiŋu acknowledges. “They were great… [They] inspired us and the world. We’ve grown up with their songs.”

“We obviously are inspired by the legend Dr M. Yunupiŋu who has been preaching these words for a long time and we’re here also to continue that legacy of cultural celebration,” Kellaway adds. “All these ideologies and stuff, we’re sort of grabbing with both hands in our own way… and keeping the legacy of following true to your roots, being who you are and [sharing] that to the world.”

“[Yothu Yindi are] the legendary family. They were great… [They] inspired us and the world. We’ve grown up with their songs”

It’s clear that watching from the sidelines as youngsters and getting to play with the Yothu Yindi project in 2017 have seeped into Yunupiŋu and Kellway’s consciousness more than they know. ‘King Stingray’ has parallels to Yothu Yindi’s debut, ‘Homeland Movement’, which was also written around Manikay, an ancestral song tradition.

King Stingray, too, are guided by Manikay and the spirit of gratitude and sharing. “We’ve got the music structures and choruses and verses,” says Burarrwaŋa, “because it’s based on the land and the sea, the sky, [and] talks about everything around us. The music structure always talks about the real value we have. So, we wouldn’t have to keep it to ourselves. It’s like thanksgiving, everyone has to have a thanksgiving to the spirit of the universe or the land itself.”

King Stingray's Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu
Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu. Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

For Yunupiŋu, the album wasn’t just about upholding the cultural responsibility he has to his community and his Elders, but also about how the non-Indigenous community could connect to Yolŋu culture too.

“[These] songs, we’re doing so that our people, Old People back at home can understand and see, so they can be happy. [We] show them and tell them, so they can support us. We need more support from our Elders, from our people. And that’s why we’re doing these songs our way – Yolŋu way, to connect to non-Indigenous people. And so they make it balanced – to do something different and something new for our community and our people, which is good.”

Aside from Yothu Yindi, King Stingray’s songs evoke other lndigenous legacy artists like No Fixed Address and Warumpi Band (the ‘Desert Surf Guitar’ instrumental album that Warumpi guitarist Sammy Butcher put out in the early 2000s also comes to mind). The difference here is that King Stingray have managed to fuse desert rock, saltwater reggae and other influences into their unique Yolŋu surf rock sound.

King Stingray's Roy Kellaway
Roy Kellaway. Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

While all the singles you’ve come to love are on this debut – ‘Milkumana’, ‘Camp Dog’, ‘Hey Wanhaka’, ‘Let’s Go’ and lockdown anthem ‘Get Me Out’ – there’s a bunch of new songs that also speak to the larger theme of country and connection: the road trippin’ ‘Lupa’, live favourite ‘Raypirri’ and the melancholic acoustic closer ‘Life Goes On’.

Yunupiŋu and Burarrwaŋa – who speak 17 languages each – sing in both Yolŋu Matha and English. It’s important for Yunupiŋu to sing in Yolŋu Matha, his first language, and “for young people to sing all the songs to the language”.

Burarrwaŋa adds, “I think it’s really important for us to be able to share our language, first language, an ancient language as well. I think it’s [about] giving a little bit of education to Western society so we can be in the same boat and recognise each other through languages, cultural backgrounds, upbringings and values.”

King Stingray's Campbell Messer
Campbell Messer. Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

On ‘Malk Mirri Wayin’, Burarrwaŋa shares his language with us through a songline about the giant red kangaroo. Out of respect for his family, he called his relatives back home in the Bawaka homeland to receive the proper permissions to put his songline into this track. This punky tune also speaks to skin names (malk), generations-old kinship (gurruṯu) systems and their place in the Yolŋu world, as Burarrwaŋa reveals.

“Malk Mirri Bangadi, the big red kangaroo, it travelled across Arnhem Land – started from Gulkula, Dhumpuma, and then went [to] West Arnhem,” he says. “So it’s like identification for us. If we travel to another country, or town in West Arnhem Land, if we say, ‘gotjuk’ or ‘ngarritji’, they’ll identify you that quick… [Even] if you don’t know the person, they know your Malk, the Malk Mirri, so they’ll identify your straight away and then say, OK, you’re my cousin or you’re my Uncle.”

King Stingray's Dimathaya Burarrwaŋa
Dimathaya Burarrwaŋa. Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

The heart of the album is ‘Sweet Arnhem Land’ which Yunupiŋu wrote before King Stingray formed. It’s built around Gumatj Manikay, an ancestral song tradition from the Gumatj clan of the Yolŋu, which references the great ancestral hunter, Ganbulapula. It’s an ode to where he comes from that speaks directly to the connection the Yolŋu have both to the physical and spiritual world around them.

Yunupiŋu explains that the song is about the land and the Garma Festival, the annual festival celebrating Yolŋu culture and promoting cultural exchange.

“Through the language that I’m singing, it’s about Ganbulapula, the spirit of the country and also the land that people are always [going] to, to the festival called Garma. It’s saying, it’s [a] good opportunity for people to come and celebrate Yolŋu culture in Garma. It’s all about Arnhem Land, Sweet Arnhem Land – a lot of people from different countries coming there and learning about Yolŋu culture… It’s got a lot of different names, but [it’s] one country, one spirit.”

King Stingray's Lewis Stiles
Lewis Stiles. Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

Yunupiŋu says it’s important King Stingray’s non-Indigenous audience understands the importance of country through these songs. They may be released by King Stingray, but these songs come from elsewhere, and he’s just the vessel which channels them – a conduit for a timeless message.

“We don’t own Mother Earth, the Earth owns us,” Yunupiŋu asserts. “That’s where to give thanks to the people, all our ancestors, and all that spirit to this country… All that message that we have is not from us. It’s from nature and all the ancestors.”

That message about the importance of country: it’s one King Stingray have been sending from the very beginning with their debut single ‘Hey Wanhaka’. It carries an ancient songline, Lorrpu Manikay, about the celebration of nature and the Yolŋu way of life – a way of life at one with the Earth, and last November, was nominated for the inaugural Environmental Music Prize.

“All that message that we have is not from us. It’s from nature and all the ancestors

Where Yunupiŋu and Burarrwaŋa come from there are 16 seasons, each with “big stories” and law behind it: cultural songlines and specific ceremonies that happen in each season. But those “seasons are slowly changing” as the climate crisis worsens, deeply affecting Yolŋu life and culture.

King Stingray become serious when the conversation turns to climate change and how it has begun to affect Arnhem Land. “It’s been really difficult this year for us to be able to see all this stuff lying down on the beaches [and] coastal areas,” says Burarrwaŋa of the pollution back home. “It’s really sad for us.”

Coming back home after spending time touring, they were struck anew by the extent of the contamination, from plastic debris to ghost netting, Kellaway says.

“Yolŋu people are perhaps the original conservationists of Earth, you know, they’ve been looking after country since the beginning. So there’s a lot that Westerners and other people, I reckon, have to learn from Yolŋu people… Like what Yirrŋa was saying: without the environment, we don’t exist. I don’t understand how humans have lost sight of that.”

King Stingray
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

As we chat about the ‘plastic pandemic’ back home and veer off the path of discussing the debut album, it’s obvious that King Stingray are eager to use their platform for more than music.

“Having the stage as a platform to share your story is I think what we’re doing,” says Kellaway. “We’re obviously not the first people to do that. There’s been amazing people before us do that. But we have something we want to say, we have stuff we want to tell people. As Dima was saying about education: those are all themes that kind of underpin our music.”

Anyone who’s seen King Stingray live know that they command the stage, using all elements at their disposal to send a powerful message. “Yirrŋa’s been given that opportunity to grab that bilma [clapsticks] and to sing these Manikay. Same with Dima, to be the voice to try and make change,” says Kellaway. “So there’s that power in the bilma, the stage, the yidaki [didgeridoo] – there’s lots of elements, which create the opportunity to put the word out there.”

Yunupiŋu and Kellaway have no idea what the future holds for King Stingray, but with heartfelt, hooky songwriting that’s connected profoundly to country and community, anyone can see the sky’s the limit for this band.

“We’re full of love in our heart… and I think that makes us believe in ourselves and not have so much self doubt,” muses Kellaway. “Because when you’re writing songs, it’s an expressive form, and it can be quite vulnerable if you’re sharing your story. But we believe in what we’re talking about. [Our songs] are real stories… It makes us obviously feel this music ourselves. We believe in it.”

‘King Stingray’ is out on August 5 via Cooking Vinyl Australia