Music is in King Stingray’s bloodline. Two members of the band – guitarist Roy Kellaway and frontman Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu – are descendants of ground-breaking musical collective Yothu Yindi. Roy is the son of bassist Stu Kellaway, while Yirrnga is the nephew of its late frontman, Dr M Yunupiŋu.

Roy talks Bryget Chrisfield through what has been an incredible first year for this self-described “Yolŋu surf rock” band from north-east Arnhem Land.

Straight outta Yirrkala

Roy: “Yirrŋa, Dimathaya [Burarrwanga, drummer] and myself – we all grew up on the same street in Yirrkala and were mates. My old man was the music teacher and taught all of us at school. We played music in bands and stuff, so music was always around. All the talent that has come outta that small community in north-east Arnhem Land [population around 800] is pretty incredible; just growing up there we were surrounded by lots of musos. So you end up getting up on stage when you’re just a toddler, for lots of little jam spots, and everyone gets behind you and looks after you; that’s a pretty quick way to get the nerves outta the away. And then you really start to enjoy bouncing around and having fun on the stage, ‘cause you’re introduced to [performing] at such an early age up there.”

Instrumental experimentation  

Roy: “My first instrument was trumpet, then drums and then guitar. But I love guitar, because it’s so expressive and it really opened the world of songwriting up for me and that’s my main thing: I love making songs. So the same with Yirrŋa. He started on as drummer, initially, and then went to guitar and then really found his voice as a singer. Actually, I think that’s the same as Dimathaya, he started on drums. And he’s definitely the best drummer, but he’s also a bit of a multi-instrumentalist – he can kind of do it all.”

Born to (surf) rock

Roy: “Dad [Stu Kellaway] is in Horse Trank, an old sort of scunge surf-rock band, and he was in Swamp Jockeys – who were the precursor to Yothu Yindi. So there’s a family line of hard-hitting Darwin surf-rock music in my blood.”

Joining Yothu Yindi, forming King Stingray

Roy: “Yirrŋa and I started touring with Yothu Yindi in 2017, but have been nurturing and working on our own stuff for the last couple of years. I suppose it is that story of lifelong friendship and mateship coming together and then, yeah! We pulled the band together and King Stingray became a thing. We’ve only been an actual band for probably about 12 months now. Because we’ve got so many good news stories from our family taking music to the world – with Yothu Yindi, they did that – naturally we’re filled with that optimism. We’ve hit the ground running since we played our first-ever show together as a band, as King Stingray, and that was supporting The Chats.”

Read More: A Game Of Word Association With The Chats

Support for The Chats 

Roy: “They’re legends! We were so lucky to jump on a little part of their tour with them: two nights in Brisbane, two nights in Toowoomba and two nights in Ipswich, I think it was. At our first ever show, we were able to play a sold-out venue! At the time we had just one song released [Hey Wanhaka, the equivalent of ‘Yo, what’s up?’ in Yolngu matha] and we put that out through The Chats’ label, Bargain Bin Records, so it was a really fun start to getting our music out there. Since that first song we put out and the first few shows we played, everything has just snowballed into so much exciting stuff that – as musos – you kinda dream of your whole life.”

Yidaki power

Roy: “The origins of the yidaki stemmed from that really tiny part of Australia, in north-east Arnhem Land, where the boys are from so it’s got this really special, indescribable feeling and sound – it’s a Yolŋu power. And we’re not the only ones who have done this, it’s bands like Warumpi Band who are bashing together some rock tunes with didge – and obviously Yothu Yindi – and many, many, many bands before us. We’re doing our contemporary flavour and, you know, we’re not reinventing the wheel but we are definitely having a red-hot crack at making this sort of sound in the modern generation.”

Celebrating multiculturalism 

Roy: “When I moved to the city [Brisbane], a lot of people my age hadn’t heard of Yothu Yindi or Warumpi Band and it’s a generation that has almost missed out now on these Indigenous Australian rock bands. So I suppose we’re trying to keep it all relevant and keep it all contemporary, ‘cause it’s still an important thing. And celebrating multiculturalism in Australia – white and black, we’re all one family trying to look after each other; that’s kind of our thing.”

Storytelling through song

Roy: “Songwriting has always been a big part of what we like doing, because my dad – who’s always been an amazing songwriter – has helped us. All of King Stingray’s songs have a strong story, or narrative, that kind of takes you from A to B and I suppose that’s what is unique about our band: each song has a story. And it’s not just gobbledygook, it’s our story. But it’s also a story that a lot of people can relate to, I reckon.”

Singing in both English and Yolngu matha

Roy: “We sing in both English and Yolngu matha, which is Yirrŋa our singer’s native language – that’s who he is. And then we all speak English as well – which is, I suppose, that bridge to get culture into the mainstream, and to celebrate it, so that people can understand the message more broadly around the world as well.”

Debut album deets

Roy: “We’ve got our debut album in the bag. It’s gonna be released really early next year. I just produced it myself, but we were fortunate enough to work with some really awesome engineers in the NT and in Brisbane. I mean, there’s a good friend of ours Kris Keogh who has recorded every single one of my songs I’ve ever done as a young fella, basically, and same with Yirrŋa. [Keogh] is a Northern boy, a local NT legend, and he’s mixed and done a lot of stuff for pretty much every band that’s come out of there in the last 15 years or so.”

Milkumana Queensland tour dates:

Harvey Road Tavern, Clinton QLD

Thursday, November 4 
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Magnums Hotel, Airlie Beach QLD

Friday, November 5

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Dalrymple Hotel, Garbutt QLD

Saturday, November 6

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Edge Hill Tavern, Manunda QLD

Sunday, November 7
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