Emerging from the serene coastal community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land, King Stingray are one of Australia’s most exciting new rock bands today. Fusing Yolngu language and instruments like the yidaki (didgeridoo) with hooky guitar riffs, King Stingray make profoundly uplifting music that’s making easy fans of music lovers nationwide and beyond.
King Stingray’s ascent has been rapid. It has been less than a year since the release of their debut single, but they’ve gone on tour with The Chats and played festivals like Dark Mofo and Splendour XR, signed to Cooking Vinyl Australia and become a triple j favourite. And King Stingray are only set to build on this momentum with a regional tour of Queensland next month and a 2022 debut album that will serve as a full-length introduction to their winning genre of Yolngu surf rock.
Music and storytelling are in the King Stingray’s blood: Guitarist Roy Kellaway and lead singer Yirrnga Yunupingu are descended from founding members of Australian rock royals Yothu Yindi. Kellaway is the son of original bassist Stu Kellaway and Yunupingu, a Gumatj clan songman whose name translates to ‘place of stingray’, the nephew of late frontman Dr. M. Yunupingu.
As “number one fans”, Kellaway tells NME that it was an honour for him and Yunupingu to join Yothu Yindi as guitarist and lead singer respectively in the iconic band’s 2017 comeback. The late nights spent yarning and jamming on tour became the catalyst for the duo to, as Kellaway puts it, “take their own music out of the garage and onto the stage”.
“We spent a lot of time on the road and in hotels and we would just muck around, talking about things and working on songs,” Kellaway says. King Stingray “formed from just being made to play music and lifelong friendship and family.”
Yunupingu, Kellaway, and bassist and backing vocalist Dimathaya Burrarwanga grew up learning and playing music together in Yirrkala (King Stingray are rounded out by Campbell Messer on bass and Lewis Styles on drums). They were taught by Kellaway’s dad, “a bit of a vibe master” who now tours with them. “It’s a pleasure to be around him doing music,” says Kellaway. “He’s just chill and it’s all for fun, which is exactly why he does music and why we do it. The legacy of what he’s been able to bring to the table is helping us to make sure we’re having fun, that’s the main focus.”
Yunupingi, Kellaway and Burrarwanga were influenced by Yothu Yindi, Swamp Jockeys and Warumpi band. But one particular song looms large in their musical origin story: ‘Wipe Out’ by ’60s California band The Surfaris, a surf rock instrumental that Kellaway says was “weirdly just a huge hit with a lot of communities in Arnhem Land”.
“It goes off and would be played pretty much every step growing up. Everyone would line up at the drum kit, taking turns for the drum solo part,” he recalls. “People dance and carry on and it’s just a fun song. Maybe that sort of fast rhythm and the hard-hitting and powerful drums is what has inspired us to play rock music.”
“Our album has some hard-hitting numbers and some that will give you goosebumps and make you want to cry”
Just as Yothu Yindi did decades before with their own music and message, King Stingray want to “bring Yolngu surf rock to the world”. At first, Kellaway admits, the band couldn’t predict what people would think. But after selling out shows earlier this year King Stingray realised they had created something people loved.
“You rock up to a gig and you’re like ‘What? There are people other than my family and friends that are coming to see me’, which is weird because when you’re in a little rock’n’roll band in town you usually know every single person in the crowd.”
King Stingray’s songs are “very relevant for Yolngu culture, but they are also pretty universal feelings,” Kellaway says. He points to their second single, ‘Get Me Out’, as an example. Released in January as several cities in Australia endured snap lockdowns, the song became number one Most Played Australian Track on triple j. ‘Get Me Out’ is charged with a palpable sense of yearning, with its wistful guitar lines and lyrics: “The colours are changing / I know my home is never far away / Get me out of the city.”
‘Get Me Out’ joins the two other songs in the small but formidable King Stingray canon so far: debut single, ‘Hey Wanhaka’, a resonant track grounded by the deep and melodious undertone of the yidaki, and their upbeat latest, ‘Milkumana’, which means ‘showing the way’ in Yolngu language.
Kellaway, who co-directed the music video shot in Yirrkala, says it’s about coming together. “In the chorus, ‘wangany’thirri’ is basically saying, we’re all one, we’re all in this together and we’ve got to help each other and look after each other and support each other.”
King Stingray’s anticipated debut album will stay true to their upbeat and positive personalities, Kellaway says, but some of the new songs will explore a more emotional side to the band that we’ve yet to hear.
“Whether it’s a story about running away from angry community camp dogs that want to bite you or chase you, or about going bush and just hopping in the car and trying to go out fishing, there’s all different stories and different energies coming through the songs. Some hard-hitting numbers and some that will give you goosebumps and make you want to cry,” Kellaway teases. “It’s like going on a journey, into different places and sharing insights but also having a laugh and having a play.”
Now, feeling like they’ve found a “missing good little piece” to finalise the record, Kellaway says they are pumped to put it out.
“It’s an Australian sound and like our parents did in Yothu Yindi, we’d love to bring our music to different parts of the world.”
King Stingray’s Milkumana tour of Queensland begins next month. Find tickets on Oztix