With a Yothu Yindi lineage, some serious songwriting chops, and an electric live show to boot, the Yolŋu surf-rockers are fast becoming the Australian band to watch.
Content warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this article contains names of deceased persons, which have been published here with permission.
It’s been drizzling for a day and a half and the grass that leads down to the Meadow Festival’s Bambra Bowl stage, in a damp corner of Victoria’s surf coast, is now a muddy slip and slide. But the raincoat-clad crowd couldn’t care less, because five young men from Arnhem Land are picking up bilma (clapsticks) and slinging guitars over their shoulders—and they’ve brought a bit of that Northern Territory sunshine with them.
The set kicks off with the King Stingray signature: a gut-punching mix of surf-rock hooks and reverb-heavy riffs interspersed with Indigenous storytelling and language. Frontman Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu jumps from his yidaki (didgeridoo) to bilma, switching effortlessly between English and his native Yolŋu Matha, his powerful vibrato echoing around the bowl. The result is a sound that’s at once unique and nostalgic; somehow both ancient and brand new.
And it’s a sound that’s been garnering the group an abundance of attention since their formation at the end of 2020.
“We call it Yolŋu surf rock,” explains Roy Kellaway, the group’s lion-maned guitarist and co-songwriter over the phone some weeks later. “Lyrically, we’re not singing about surfing. But environmentally—the land and the ocean—that’s a big part of what we like to write about. It’s a big source of inspiration.”
The musical heritage of the quintet runs deep. Roy and Yirrŋa grew up as wawas (brothers) on Arnhem Land’s Gove Peninsula and spent the majority of their childhoods riding push bikes around small-town Yirrkala and getting guitar lessons from Roy’s dad, Stu Kellaway, who was both the local music teacher and a founding member—alongside Yirrŋa’s uncle, Dr M Yunupiŋu—of the groundbreaking Nineties collective, Yothu Yindi.
As second-generation music royalty, and now touring members of Yothu Yindi themselves, Roy and Yirrŋa want King Stingray to uphold “Treaty” values but do so “through a different lens with a contemporary sound”.
“A lot of our lyrics are positive and uplifting, they’re about coming together and enjoying music as one human race.”
“We’re trying to celebrate the culture and multiculturalism here in Australia, just like Dr M Yunupiŋu did. His legacy is something we always talk about,” says Roy. “[Yirrŋa] especially has strong incentive to teach and showcase and educate. […] He loves to pass on information, it’s a beautiful thing to witness. That’s why a lot of our lyrics are positive and uplifting, they’re about coming together and enjoying music as one human race.”
Judging by the euphoric response from the Meadow Festival crowd, that message is hitting home.
On stage Roy and Yirrŋa, joined by bassist Campbell Messer, guitarist Dimathaya Burarrwanga on guitar and drummer Lewis Stiles, move seamlessly into their debut track “Hey Wanhaka!” a high-energy tune reminiscent of Eighties Australiana. Something like The Black Keys meets King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, but make it bilingual.
“‘Hey Wanhaka!’ came out of a jam, when Yirrŋa and I were just mucking around. Wanhaka is the Yolŋu way of saying, ‘What’s up’. It means ‘How ya going’ or ‘Where ya going’. In the song, Yirrŋa is putting the call out through the white cockatoo to check in on everyone,” says Roy, who is fluent in Yolŋu Matha.
The jam, also known as a “yarn and strum”, seems to be the go-to King Stingray creative process. Most of their upcoming tracks were birthed in hotel rooms while on tour or at Fifty Riffs, the home recording studio built by Roy and Stu on eight acres of Northern Rivers rainforest.
“We’re so lucky to have dad as a mentor,” says Roy. “As someone who was a professional musician, he’s a veteran of the vibes. He’s always told me, even from a young age, to play ‘loud and proud, wrong and strong’. When you’re about to sing in front of your mates, and your voice is cracking, that’s when you gotta be ‘loud and proud, wrong and strong’. Like, no one cares. Just have fun, give it a crack. When I took that advice on board, I started to enjoy music more. You’re your own worst critic, after all.”
This “give it a crack” mentality is serving the band well. Since their first gig in South-East Queensland in December 2020, they’ve signed with The Chats’ Bargain Bin Records, released singles (including “Hey Wanhaka!” and the potent “Get Me Out”) to rave press, and won a triple j Unearthed film clip competition. Looking ahead, the plan is to tour nationally with their next single, and drop a much-anticipated first album in the new year.
When asked about influences, Roy cites Warumpi Band and, of course Yothu Yindi, who the boys have idolised since they were toddlers getting caught underfoot at gigs. But when it comes to dream collaborators, he’s quick to list legends like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, David Byrne from Talking Heads, and Paul Kelly.
“We’ll see what happens on the collaborating front, but we’ve had so much optimism and support from people it’s crazy,” he says. At a recent sold-out gig in Brisbane, the crowd went so wild that the band couldn’t move onto their next track.
“They just screamed for like, four minutes straight. Everyone was banging their feet and clapping their hands, the whole crowd was just so pumped up, it was surreal. I remember seeing Yirrŋa’s face, he kept trying to introduce the next song but you couldn’t hear his voice. We were all just laughing on stage […]. The buzz was real,” laughs Roy.
For Roy, Yirrŋa, and co., that response brought them back to the reasons they started the band: to try and connect people in tangible, musical joy. “We love to think we’re bringing people together in music,” says Roy. “Fun underpins everything we’re doing and we hope that when people see us live, they can join us in it.”
Maybe it’s divine timing or perhaps just exceptional scheduling, but as King Stingray performs “Get Me Out” at Meadow Festival, the sun above the Bambra Bowl begins its liquid gold descent. And for a split second, as the skies clear and the crowd is bathed in golden light, we’re momentarily transported to Yirrkala; to the heat of Yolŋu Country. A Country that inspired two wawas to dream up something new, something old, and something powerful.