You can tell there’s something special about King Stingray long before you learn of their bloodline – two band members descend from co-founders of Yothu Yindi – and the unabashed joy in their “yolŋu surf-rock” is as apparent as summer’s first slap of salt water against your shins. We spoke to guitarist Roy Kellaway about the North-East Arnhem Land act’s irrepressible, self-titled debut.
There are almost as many opportunities to lose yourself in Australia’s metropolises as there are in the country’s arid outback – and over the course of the 60 shows King Stingray have hurled themselves into over the last 18 months, the thriving five-piece are veterans of both kinds.
Representing the city camp we have Get Me Out, on which lead singer Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu’s bright harmonies – layered and matched with sublime precision – cry: ”Now I’m lost in the city/ The colours are changing, djäpana/ I know my home is never far away.” In the country camp is buoyant earworm Let’s Go, on which Yirrŋa sing-songs: “Packing up, driving off, breaking down, getting lost,” accompanied by a video embodying all the dust-churning bliss of an adventure across the red earth.
“Oh, yeah – getting bogged, flat tyres – that’s just part of living in such a rugged area,” laughs guitarist Roy Kellaway. “We’re getting lost all the time. But even moreso when we’re in the city. Sydney and Melbourne, the trams? It’s crazy!”
Get Me Out was just one of the band’s debut album tracks written and recorded at Roy’s home. Alongside bandmate Dimathaya Bururrwanga’s yidaki (who makes the instrument sound almost like textured record-scratching) comes Yirrŋa’s vocals. “Yirrŋa is such an amazing singer – and he loves doing harmonies,” says Roy. ”His voice is his instrument, so he’s basically riffing. He wanted to do one more, then one more… I ended up having so many vocal tracks. My computer is so old now, I reckon if I opened up that session it would probably blow it up.”
Yirrŋa’s knack for improvisation is woven through with melodies which are not just in his head, they’re in his DNA. ”Some of his harmonies get dissonant with a traditional element that he adds: Yirrŋa uses songlines, called ‘manikay’,” explains Roy.
(Remember Yolŋu artist Baker Boy’s line from Marryuna, “I’m using my manikay”?)
”So, for instance, in Hey Wanhaka, the manikay he sings there is the traditional songline about the white cockatoos. So you’ve got this awesome mix of something that’s really ancient, and then something that’s really fresh. We joke about how we’re playing the hits from the ’50s and 60 thousand years ago.”
Roy and Yirrŋa’s musical journeys have unfolded in tandem from childhood, alongside a deep friendship. As they grew up together in the Yirrkala community of NT, Roy’s father Stuart and Yirrŋa’s uncle Dr. M Yunupiŋu began to make waves in pop-rock behemoth Yothu Yindi – something Roy attests he didn’t quite comprehend as a kid. ”Growing up, we always had a balance of things,” he says. “Music was a big part, but [my family] made sure it wasn’t all music. We’d go out bush, go fishing, go hunting, go enjoy life.
“The [Yothu Yindi band members] are such humble, softly-spoken people. It wasn’t until I got older that I realised how monumental that band was, the conversations it sparked, and Dr. M’s ideologies. They did so much more than just play music – they had a movement.”
The idea of enjoying life – and experiences adjacent to music – thrums throughout King Stingray, but the boys’ dedication to their instruments is central to their music. In the band’s Instagram stories, we see Dima flicking the mouth-end of his yidaki in-rhythm; on Sweet Arnhem Land we hear Kellaway’s slide guitar, and there’s some banjo pickin’ in Life Goes On. “We love our instruments,” Roy attests, “especially as we tour a lot. We’ve done almost 60 shows now, in the last year and half – we really jammed them in! I think doing that, and relying on your instruments night after night, you really hone in on your instrument. And it pumps you up! Whether that’s the guitar of the didge or voice… we just love music.
“Cam [Messer, bass] plays a fair bit of guitar, and him and I love the production side of recording. I caught up with him in Brisbane just the other night and we spent the night sharing riffs, and talking microphones and gear. We just love nerding out. And he’s an amazing bass player.”
We can hear that truth on the disco-flecked Milkumana, on which Cam puts himself through the phalange-flingin’ wringer. Roy recalls giving the bassist the song’s demo, and not long after, the song had a new bassline. “He just cut sick on this thing and I was like, How? What?!” Roy laughs. “It was awesome hearing that in the studio – such a busy line, it bops around a lot, with all the little ghost notes. I was like, ‘Hooly dooly!’”
The camaraderie and affection in Roy’s enthusiasm for his bandmates is gloriously authentic, and breathes all the way through this remarkable debut. “We’re growing as a band and learning lots, having so much fun and mucking around together,” he smiles. “The older you get, the harder it get to catch up with mates. That’s why it’s so awesome being in a band. You have an excuse for a regular catch-up every week. That’s what I love. I’m on my way back to Arnhem Land now, and I’m so excited – it’s been a week and I can’t wait to see everyone.”
Lead image: King Stingray L – R: Lewis Stiles, Campbell Messer, Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu, Roy Kellaway, Dimathaya Burarrwanga
King Stingray by King Stingray is out Aug 5 via Cooking Vinyl.
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