Your Favorite Band’s Favorite Band.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a tragic story, and when it comes to indie rock, there aren’t many stories more tragic than that of Jonathan Fire* Eater. I first learned about this incredibly exciting but ultimately doomed band while reading 2017’s Meet Me in the Bathroom. The book, written by Lizzy Goodman, gives an oral recount of the early 2000s New York City rock revival.
However, it kicks off with the story of Jonathan Fire* Eater, a band who, for a short time, was rock’s next big thing. Despite their failure to live up to the promise, Jonathan Fire* Eater left an indelible mark on the scene even if they didn’t enjoy much success themselves. Bands like Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs count themselves among their many fans.
“Oh yeah, they had an enormous influence on me,” — Karen O in Meet Me in the Bathroom.
So, who was Jonathan Fire Eater? Let’s take a look back at one of rock music’s most tragic casualties.
The future bandmates first met in the early 90s as students at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. Stewart Lupton, Jonathan Fire* Eater’s future frontman, first met Walter Martin when they were in the fifth grade, and very soon, they began making music together. Not long after, Matt Barrick and Paul Maroon joined them on the drums and guitar, respectively. They adopted the name The Ignobles, and Ryan Cheney joined as their lead singer. Initially, they made ska music before embracing a more punk-oriented sound.
Even as kids, they were incredibly motivated and wound up opening for acts like Fugazi and Lenny Kravitz. The novelty of them being kids no doubt played a role, but it’s hard to deny that these kids had a lot of confidence even to try. Eventually, they moved to New York for college; unfortunately, their singer, Ryan Cheney, didn’t come along. Stewart Lupton became the new singer, and they recruited Tom Frank as the new bassist. They also changed their name to Jonathan Fire* Eater.
College wasn’t in their future, and they all dropped out after the first year. In the fall of 1994, the band members moved into an apartment in the Lower East Side to pursue their dreams of making it. They rehearsed every day and began playing shows.
Being the most outgoing of the bunch, Lupton was the band’s ambassador to the world. He was always out promoting Jonathan Fire* Eater. He got the word out at bars and attracted similarly minded people to the band’s shows.
In 1995, Jonathan Fire* Eater released their first self-titled album on a small label, Third World Underground. Although it didn’t turn the band into stars, it did gain them enough attention and hype that they wound up opening up for Blur on some shows.
Later that year, they released an EP, also self-titled that began to take things to the next level for the band. Songs like The Public Hanging of a Movie Star are among their most recognizable. On the cover of the EP, the guys donned suits and skinny ties. They had found their sound and their look.
The following year, they released another EP, Tremble Under Boom Lights. The collection contains what could be called their “signature song” in Give Me Daughters. It has excellent production, and the band is in top form. It was perhaps, the moment when things seemed the most promising for the guys. They were the coolest, most buzzed-about band in the city. Calvin Klein wanted to give Stewart Lupton a modeling contract, and the record labels started taking notice. After a bidding war, they signed with DreamWorks records.
It seemed like success was all but guaranteed. The band members were so confident of their impending superstardom that they famously asked if the inquiring labels would consider capping the album’s sales at 500,000. They didn’t want to deal with mainstream press or shoot music videos.
Unfortunately, as the band was making a name for themselves, Lupton got hooked on heroin. While the rest of the band was committed to making their dreams a reality, Lupton was busy living the rock-star lifestyle before he ever became a rock star. He began getting high every day and missing band practice and even their shows. This caused a lot of tension between the band members.
“They resented the fuck out of me for it. They still do.” -Lupton in Meet Me in the Bathroom.
Amidst all the chaos, the band managed to record their album Wolf Songs for Lambs, released at the end of 1997. In the end, it seemed like the band shouldn’t have worried about getting too big. The album received a lukewarm reception from critics, some of which had no doubt grown tired of all the hype surrounding the band. It was also a commercial dud, selling about 10,000 copies.
The album, judged on its own merits, is a very enjoyable listen. The band sounds great, and the songs are catchy. A couple of them even sound like they should have been hits. It was certainly a nice departure from all the drenched in distortion rock songs from bands still aping the, by then, tired grunge sound. In a just world, When the Curtain Calls alone would have earned them a place in rock history. That song captures so much of what was great about the band. It’s energetic, fun, the band sounds great, the Organ adds a unique element to their sound without being overpowering, and Lupton delivers an enigmatic, charming performance. It’s like he was able to capture the essence of what it means to be a cool rock star. The rest of the album is solid throughout. The Shape of Things That Never Came, Love Like That, and Station Coffee are some of the other highlights. But it’s hard to believe that it would have satisfied listeners whose expectations were unreasonably raised by all the hype. They didn’t last much longer after that. On July 28, 1998, the band played a show in Central Park and broke up the same day.
“There’s a prefabricated danger some bands cultivate, but ours seemed more like a sentence, “It was a double-edged sword that we wielded for a brief moment and then fell on.” — Lupton, in a 2005 interview with The New York Post.
Although I never saw them live — I don’t think I’d even “discovered” music when they were still around — those who have often describe the band as thrilling.
“They were as exciting to me in a Milwaukee club in 1996 as the Stooges must have seemed to some Ann Arbor kid in 1967.” -Josh Modell, Vice.
The band’s breakup also fractured the lifelong friendships among the band members.
“After Fire*Eater broke up, there was a lot of anger. It was just like, Fuck. This was on the road to being something that we’ve worked on since we were 12.” Walter Martin explained in his tribute to Lupton, published at Talkhouse.
But even though Jonathan Fire* Eater came to an end, not all the band members were ready to give up on their music careers. Paul Maroon, Matt Barrick, Walter Martin moved forward. They recruited Walter Martin’s cousin Hamilton Leithauser and Peter Bauer to form The Walkmen.
Their new band didn’t explode out of the gate but instead, slowly built a following and enjoyed plenty of critical acclaim and success. Over their 14-year career, The Walkmen had hits, appeared on tv shows, soundtracks, and even a car commercial. Their most iconic song, The Rat, was referred to as “one of the greatest songs of the century,” by Rolling Stone. In 2014, the band members amicably split up.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as well for Stewart Lupton.
“He burned out, and he faded away.” -Josh Modell, in a Vice tribute.
Although his future once seemed so promising, in the end, Lupton became yet another cautionary tale. After Jonathan Fire* Eater broke up, he moved back in with his parents. He went back to school and studied poetry at George Washington University.
There was still plenty of interest in his music, and in 2006, he put out a well-received EP with his new band, The Childballads. Lupton and the band toured briefly but never put out any more music. By then, it was clear that the relationship with his former bandmates soured after the breakup. In a 2007 interview with The Stool Pigeon, Lupton comes off undeniably bitter about The Walkmen’s success. In the interview, he claimed that with his solo material, he “already passed [The Walkmen] artistically and that they should just quit.”
In 2009, he came out with another band, a duo called The Beatin’s who released an EP that included some of his written poetry. But it was hardly a comeback, and it seemed that Lupton was no longer the awe-inspiring live performer he once was.
His live performances included pretentious stops between songs for Lupton to read passages from Byron — as well as mid-song pauses for Lupton to simply sit on the edge of the stage smoking a cigarette, visibly fading.
The low point came in 2010 when Lupton played SXSW ostensibly as part of his new band, The Beatin’s, a duo with Carole Wagner Greenwood. Unfortunately for everyone, Greenwood didn’t make it to the fest. It involved playing about two and a half songs, in the span of 30 minutes, and mostly consisted of Lupton telling endless rambling stories, finally prompting members of the sparse crowd to shout, “Shut up!” It was one of the saddest concert experiences I’ve ever had. -Sean O’Neal in his tribute on the AV Club.
By 2012, Lupton began posting cryptic, paranoid posts on Facebook. In 2015, he attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge in Washington DC. He survived but reportedly broke every single rib. He was also diagnosed with schizophrenia that year. On May 27, 2018, Stewart Lupton died at the age of 43, reportedly by suicide.
Jonathan Fire* Eater never became the huge band they seemed destined to become, but their music still lives on, and hopefully, it continues to find the audience it deserves. Their influence continues to be felt in the bands they inspired and the sound they helped shape. The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, LCD Soundsytem are just a few of the bands Jonathan Fire* Eater paved the way for. And Stewart Lupton’s spirit lives on in everyone who dedicates themselves to a dream that isn’t always so kind.