Posted August 5, 2007

Leadfinger's the nom de plume for SETWART CUNNINGHAM, a fixture on the Australian rock and roll underground scene for nigh on 20 years. As guitarist for the Detroit-via-Wollongong Proton Energy Pills, the muscle-bound Asteroid B612, the explosive power trio Brother Brick (for whom he also sang) or the Replacements-inspired, ragged pop of Challenger 7, the Leadfinger visage has been at or close to the axis of some stunning Rock Action. If a reminder were needed of the guy's credentials, it came in the first half of 2007 with Off the Hip's "Stranded in the Nineties", a double CD compiling Brother Brick's recordings and some hotwired unreleased live stuff.

That was a stunning retrospective but the Leadfinger ethos has always been about pushing things forward. That's what Spanish label Bang! Records set out to demonstrate when they simultaneously released "The Floating Life", a Cunningham solo album under the Leadfinger moniker. "The Floating Life" is Leadfinger like you've never heard him before, a departure into left-field introspection with bluesy laments nestling up against rifferama rock one moment and skeletal spiritualism in the next.

Recorded after a move from inner-city Newtown to his old semi-rural stamping ground of Helensburgh on Sydney's southern reaches, it was recorded solo in Stewart's home studio over a period of years, after a long period of writer's block. In its own mostly quiet way, it's every bit as intense as Stew's previous work, without any concession to heavy production.
Both it and the Brother Brick compile are essential listening.

With Leadfinger (The Man) doing some selected gigs with Leadfinger (The Band) - drummer Steve O'Brien and bassist Wayne Graves - and making noises about overseas shows, THE BARMAN thought it opportune to drag Stewart to the Bar. Here's the result.

Q I have a theory (not that original) that albums are reflective of the place people live or the environment in which they were created. Is that true of "The Floating Life" and the place you live, Helensburgh?

A Oh yeah, defintiely. It's not necesarilly the 'Burgh directly. It's about being on the edge. One of the songs is "The Edge of Suburbia" and it's about being outside. Outside whatever you want. The city, the mainstream. Forgotten about. On the margins. That sort of thing.

Helensburgh's a bit like that. It's changing but for years it was very very working class. It had no amenities. It was too far north for Wollongong and too far south for Sydney. Stuck in the middle and forgotten about. And that, for me, is what the town symbolises the most, and living here, playing music, it kind of came together as some sort of subconscious theme.

Q Did you grow up there or move there?

A I moved here when I was about 12. You can imagine moving to what was almost a small country town when you're young. It's hard to make friends! Plus I was sort of a punk looking dude. So everyone thought I was a poofter!

Q It's a really different kind of record to anything else you've done. What sort of stuff were you influenced by for this album?

A I was listening to a lot of blues and solo sort of blues players, as well as guys like Robyn Hitchcock. Paul Westerberg was a big listening influence. And Rory Gallagher. A lot of Bob Dylan, by memory.

Q How long was it recorded over?

A It was recorded over two years. Not purposely. It kinda happened by accident. Eventually I had all these songs and the album started to take shape. The subsconscious was working in some way.

I just felt because I was here and outta of the way that I was on the margins a bit. I kinda took that a step further and decided to do it all myself. A bit of a 'fuck you' attitude was there to the whole idea that you gotta have money to record an album, that you've gotta go to a studio and get an engineer, that you gotta have a label and all that stuff that you typically have to go through to make a record. To the point that you're supposed to have a band too. I wanted to do something different. And obviously the songs were different.

So that complemented it as well.

It got to somewhere halfway through and I just went for it. It's a lo-fi record but it's meant to be something different. I looked at myself and what I liked to listen to. I still like rock and roll and hi-energy stuff but I have a lot of time in my life when I listen to other stuff.

I figured people my age that are into all the other bands that I've done would be in the same boat. So I made an album that reflected that. It had a bit of acoustic stuff that was broken up a bit, with a more reflective tone, so it wasn't as full-on.

There's still a lot of passion in there, in the lyrics and all that.

Q And some literary references too. I notice a dedication to a poet called John Forbes. Tell us about him.

A I read a lot of stuff and my mum bought me a book of his poems years ago. The book always seemed to be sitting around in the studio at hoime, staring at me. With a picture of him in some cafe, smoking a cigarette. He looks like a pretty cool dude. But you read his poems and they refer to the Ramones andf the Thought Criminals, as well as other obscure stuff that make him not your average poet.

I think he was around in the late '70s and '80s. He refers to a lot of Sydney things and underground stuff. Not everyone would see where he's coming from. He doesn't do rhyming poems, I guess he's a post-modern sort of poet.

I really dug where he was coming from. One day I had this great riff and I started reading one of this poems., The two came together. I had that song, "A Floating Life". It's probably the most powerful song on the record. It came together really quickly.

Teenage Leadfinger with the Proton Energy Pills.

Q So the title is from one of this poems?

A Yes. The poem I read that day is called "A Floating Life". I took lines here and there from the poem, almost used it as a starting point. About halfway through the song I just went off on my own tangent. So it's not like I took his poem and said: 'There are the lyrics'. I was genuinely inspired in the moment and went with it. It turned out pretty good. I'm blown out that it was done in a day.

I could easily take that song and polish it and make it heaps nicer but I like it the way it is.

Stewart (right) backing vocalist Bullett in the early Asteroid B612.

Q Sometimes imperfections really add to a song.

A There are plenty of imperfections to this album for sure. I'm not a trained, top flight audio engineer and I didn't have access to a top studio. I just winged it.

Q Lo-fi's the democracy of technology, really.

A Yeah, yeah, I like that idea. It was hard work. There was a lot of learning on the go. I dunno if I'd do it all again like that soon. Eventually, I will and I'll probably do a better job of it for the experience.

Q Tell me about the band you're using live. Did they come in on any of the record?

A Well, they don't play on the record. (Drummer) Steve (O'Brien) plays percussion on one song. Steve has done heaps of things from 60's garage with the Unheard to Stoner rock of Tumbleweed/Monstrous Blues. On bass is Wayne Stokes who use to play in Thumlock. When I started writing these songs, I had four or five and those guys were around but it just wasn't the right time. Then Wayne moved interstate for a while. I suppose I wanted something different and made a decision to do it myself and went with it.

We have another record with the full band, half recorded. I sent you the demos. Songs like "Rich Kids Don't Play Rock and Roll".

Last Brother Brick gig with the original line-up, 1995.

Q Tell me about the other record you have kicking around, the Brother Brick compilation "Lost in the Nineties". That was a couple of years in the making as well?

A It's on Off the Hip. I'm pretty happy to have that out. All our stuff was released here and there and overseas and not available. A lot of it didn't get released on CD or locally. So I had people emailing me a lot asking where they could get this song and that song. I felt kinda embarassed.

Q It would have been a loss not to have them out. The actual album "A Portable Altamont" wasn't around. It was on that little French label Hellfire Club and wasn't around for long.

A The label only did 500 copies. It's like that song "See You Tonight". As Bill Gibson (who did backing vocals on it) said, he couldn't understand why that song wasn't a smash hit or something. I said I should take responsibility because I didn't make the effort to get it released properly, apart from the vinyl 7" on Bang! Records.

Things like that motivated me to speak to Mickster at Off the Hip. He asked if I had any old Brother Brick CDs, he wanted to sell them in his shop. 'Well, how about we put them out on CD then?' It happened from there.

It brought a bit of closure to the band, to end it all. I can move on.

Q Is there a prospect of some shows?

A We've had about three jams with the original line-up and we're hoping to do some shows at the end of the year. Just for the fun of it and to help Mickster. I feel like I owe him for putting it out.

Q Where do Mikey and Kurt live now?

A They're in Sydney. They're still really good players. We've had a few good laughs about things. We feel a bit foolish that we split the band up in the first place.

Q I was going to ask if there was any regret about splitting the band. And not getting overseas.

A Yeah, definitely.

Latter day Brother Brick with Ash Thomson on drums and Jay Curley on bass.

Q It was a fucking tough time for rock and roll, in the early '90s.

A We had made a good start. We'd done all the hard yards. All we had to do was take a step back and record all our live set. We were just, like...I'll put my hand up and say I was in too much of a rush...having now played with the guys again, it brought back a lot of memories. It was good to play in a band with three singers. I didn't have to work as hard. It made me realise that those guys put in the same effort as me when we played.

Bands I've had since, I have had to carry more of the load as regards the writing and the singing. That's something really obvious that struck me. It was really cool to play with them, with three guys carrying the load, a bit of singing here and here.

Q So back onto Leadfinger, any plans to do anything interstate.

A We went to Melbourne in April.

Q That's right!

A I've been trying to get the band up and running and bang it into shape. I thought when we went to Melbourne, we got a bit of a vibe going between us and cracked something good. I'm hoping we can build on that. Go down to Melbourne again in September. And Brisbane actually. It's all tentatively booked.

Bang! are really on my case to give them another album. A more hi-energy thing, which is what I'm working on at the moment. It's been a good time for writing. I wrote probably 20 songs around "The Floating Life" and another 10 since then, with the band. It's been really good after not writing anything for four years. Which is what happened after the final line up of the Brick I got a really bad case of writer's block.

Q One thing I have to mention about the Leadfinger album. I love the dog's vocal, but it was uncredited!

A I love things that creep in like that! Noises and stuff like that. There was a bit more that didn't make it. That was my dog, Peachey is her name - I named her after my favourite League player - David Peachey.

Q So any thoughts about going to Europe?

A Bang! have hooked me up with some people who are interested. They want me to finish this album. We'll try and base it around that. This is provided they like the album. Maybe it'll be a stinker and they'll say: 'No way'! Maybe early May-June next year? We can try and get over there on the back of the next album.

It's hard. I'm a really broke muso who doesn't have much money. Hopefully, I'll have enough!

Leadfinger (the band) live 2007.

Q And you get those 4am phone calls from Juan from Bang!?

A I get those calls too! I wondered who else he calls!

Q I think he goes through his phonebook.

A I get these conversations that go from email to mobile phone to landline. It's like I'm out on some all-night bender with him! There's a credit on the record: "Leadfinger exists courtesy of Bang! Records" and it's true. Those guys (Juan and Gorka) have been so supportive.

Q If everyone had Juan's enthusiasm in Australia, there'd be no problem getting good stuff released.

A If someone sends him a record and it's good enough, he'll release it. There's no bullshit about who you are or what you're going to do for him. In some respects they're the best Australian album that's not Australian!

Hopefully it's building up to the stage where I can go and play some really good shows for them. They've done heaps for me. Brother Brick, then The Yes Men and now my own record.I've said to them that people won't get what I do until they see it live. I really put a lot of energy into what I do. When i get up and sing I really mean it and I don't think anyone could "get" that off a record.

Q Since we're in a bar, what are you drinking?

A At the moment, Boags. I really like it. Tasmanian beer is doing for me now.