Voice from underground
LEADFINGER is both Stew's nickname and the name of his band. It derives from a bizarre shooting accident when he was 14.
The maiming of his guitar-picking hand gave him a characteristic heavy-handed style, an attribute which, like his dedication to music, was to stick with him for the rest of his life.
Leadfinger is on tour with their fourth album, No Room At The Inn, supporting ex-Radio Birdman guitar-slinger Deniz Tek across Australia.
While Leadfinger is a cult underground phenomenon, the band is widely regarded around the world, as is Stew himself, who has been on the brink of mainstream success many times.
He was a member of the seminal Proton Energy Pills, which teetered on the edge of international stardom in the '80s.
"We kinda got in the next big thing category, but then we split up. We were so young, it was all so tenuous," he says.
More reverses were to follow.
"Another band I was in, The Yes Men, had a world tour lined up, but the singer OD'd, so it all went down the tubes. Asteroid B612 were on the brink, really going places, but it all fell apart really suddenly, we just didn't get on together."
These disasters failed to deter Stew. Having moved back to his home town of Wollongong, where he mows lawns for a living, he's happy to keep producing his own albums.
"One day I sat down and thought about it and decided I just like playing guitar and writing songs and that's what I've always done.
"Plenty of times I've felt ready to pack it in, but it's never been about success. I need that outlet. I'm not good at expressing emotion in conversation, but put a guitar in my hands and that's when I let it out."
Leadfinger is renowned as a rock band with a fine flair for melody and a distinctive, almost folk-rock sound.
"I listen to a lot of Irish rock - Thin Lizzy, Van Morrison. Those bands were good at blending rock with their own roots. No Room has that ¾ time and I wrote on a 12-string guitar - a very powerful instrument. Harmonies are easy and the simplest chord progression sounds amazing.
"I also love the electric guitar and coming up with kooky riffs."
Equally important is lyrical content.
"I'm very conscientious about the lyrics... if I wasn't a musician I'd probably be a poet. Poetry's a marginalised thing, like original rock'n'roll," Stew says.
The marginalisation of rock'n'roll, hand-in-hand with the closing down of revered venues across Australia, is a theme which crops up in the artwork of No Room.
"We had photos of this place in Western Sydney called El Caballo Blanco, where people used to go to see dancing horses and that connected. They were really interesting photos of a run-down motel. Australian music was built on pubs and clubs that are now struggling," Stew says.
Stew sees this as symptomatic of the state of modern music.
"A lot of songs don't sound real any more. There's no flaws, it's almost hyper-real. I'm kind of revolted by it and also in awe of it.
"I know that to get to that point costs a lot of money. And we don't have a lot of money. So we just put out what's real for us."
Meanwhile, he enjoys the camaraderie of being in a band and staying true to his vision.
"I've got no illusions. I've always had this thing that I'm happy to play to 100 people a night. Some people go fishing or play golf or are into their cars. I love writing songs and playing guitar."
Leadfinger and Deniz Tek play the Lismore Bowlo on Friday, March 8. Tickets are $15.