King Stingray: ‘All of a sudden kids are looking up to us’

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King Stingray: ‘All of a sudden kids are looking up to us’

King Stingray
Words by Bryget Chrisfield

Winning awards, showcasing at SxSW, selling out two all-ages shows at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, performing (and having yarns with) Colin Hay – King Stingray are having one helluva busy year, so their next single is about “finding those little peaceful moments”, says guitarist Roy Kellaway.

King Stingray is composed of six Yolŋu (First Nations) and balanda (non-Indigenous) mates. They sing in both English and Yolŋu Matha, the native language of the band’s Yolŋu contingent. King Stingray’s guitarist Roy Kellaway and frontman Yirrŋa Yunupingu, whose name translates to ‘place of stingray’, are descendants of the ground-breaking musical collective Yothu Yindi: Roy is the son of bassist, Stu Kellaway, and Yirrnga is the late frontman Dr M Yunupiŋu’s nephew – both of these boys have been jamming onstage with Yothu Yindi since they were toddlers and became official touring members in 2017.

Earlier this year, King Stingray showcased at SxSW in Austin, Texas, and Kellaway points out, “It’s a full day’s travel to get to anywhere in Australia from Arnhem Land, let alone overseas.”

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King Stingray’s self-titled debut record took out the 2022 Australian Music Prize, about which Kellaway extols, “That was incredible! We flew in – the flight was delayed and there was all this craziness – and we were like, ‘Far out, we’re gonna miss this thing!’ We got there just in time, ran into the venue and it was a pretty turbo environment to pull into. All these musicians who are super-excited and other people and we were kinda rabbits in the headlights just off the plane and then, yeah! We won the award, which we couldn’t believe, and we were walking home with this massive fake cheque thing [laughs] – it was so cool! We tried to keep it: Dima [Dimathaya Burarrwanga, guitarist] tried to fold it to put it in his luggage and it just snapped in half.”

Kellaway reckons Raypirri – written when they were still in high school (“or even middle school, potentially”) – was the first song King Stingray wrote that made it onto their first album. “I remember Yirrŋa singing that in the Yirrkala music room and, you know, rockin’ out, gettin’ up onto the tables, pushin’ off all the pencils on the desk and playing guitar – he was goin’ nuts!” Kellaway reflects, laughing. “Yeah, it was a vibe.”

When asked whether he’s noticed King Stingray’s success inspiring kids from their local community to pick up musical instruments and maybe even start their own bands, Kellaway says, “It’s funny you should say that, because we’ve had a lot of that going on recently. A good friend of ours Azza [Arian Ganambarr-Pearson] – he runs The Mulka Project, which is this awesome facility and recording studio in Yirrkala [at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre]. Whoever’s got a song can go in there and track it, so he’s recording lots of local bands and, you know, lots of kids are coming in wanting to sing and play guitar.

“And that’s how we kinda started, as well – we grew up recording songs with The Mulka Project as kids – and it’s amazing, ‘cause not so long ago we were the little guys looking up to our parents and family who have played music in different bands and stuff, and then all of a sudden kids are looking up to us! It’s pretty cool.”

King Stingray played two sold-out, all-ages gigs at Sidney Myer Music Bowl in March, about which Kellaway says, “It blew our minds, like, we had 35 school buses coming in from – some were four hours drive out of Melbourne. So these schools were doing excursions to come and see us and the response from the kids and the schools has been amazing.

“A big part of our joy of music is definitely sharing it with little guys; we love that. Any opportunity to do an all-ages show we’re frothing to do, because kids are such a vibe. And we love kids – we’re kids ourselves – and, you know, we grew up in a community where the boys have such a big family, so many young kids in their lives. It’s so much fun for us. The kids are so innocent and really just crack you up.”

Their song Lupa was nominated in the peer-voted Song Of The Year category at the 2023 APRA Music Awards. At the ceremony, Lupa was performed by Yirrmal, Darren Middleton, Benjamin Hakalitz, Andy Schrav, Chris Pearson and Dallas Frasca. “It was really awesome to see,” Kellaway enthuses. “We were lovin’ it, filmin’ it and just laughing and loving everyone. ‘Cause, I mean, we’re a band that are really, really hard to cover; especially since we’ve got Yolŋu Matha in some of our songs. Yolŋu Matha’s only spoken by, not a heap of people in the world. But Yirrmal is an amazing Yolŋu musician. He is such an incredible fella and a very dear friend of ours that we love so much, and he absolutely smashed it.”

So was that the first time he’d heard someone covering a King Stingray song? “We’ve had some amazing videos sent to us of kids in schools learning, like, Milkumana and Get Me Out,” Kellaway enlightens. “Some of our songs are online – like, the chords and stuff; someone’s tabbed them up on the guitar, or whatever it’s called. So the kids can learn the songs and have a crack at playing them; people put different spins on our music and we’ve seen some really awesome versions.”

As part of Tourism Australia’s global Come And Say G’day campaign, King Stingray released their rendition of Men At Work’s Down Under – titled Down Under (Under One Sun) – which they performed to close out the APRA Music Awards alongside a very special guest: Colin Hay. “We got to hang out with Colin Hay from Men At Work!” Kellaway gushes. “He’s such an amazing guy – so resilient – and he just had so much good oil to share about music and making songs… And he’s just one of these guys who have played music for, I dunno, 30, 40, 50 years that we’ve kinda run into and had the opportunity to have a yarn with – it’s incredible!” 

Can Kellaway please give readers some insight into King Stingray’s upcoming single release and first taste of album number two? “We have been touring around, travelling, and we’ve been real busy and so we thought it’d be cool to write a song about finding those little peaceful moments where you’re just removing all the thoughts that come through your mind – letting them go – and you’re just focused on looking at a beautiful outlook,” he reveals. “For some reason things like a big, deep ocean or a campfire can really do amazing things for just, like, re-centering yourself. I guess it’s a pretty global, human feeling.”

King Stingray are playing The Forum on July 1.