While relatively unknown these days, Jonathan Fire*Eater were arguably the first of the wave of rock bands that burst out of New York in the late 1990s and early ‘00s and helped pave the way for the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, TV on the Radio and others.
Originally from Washington, D.C., the bandmembers moved to New York and released a self-titled EP in 1995; an album and series of singles followed. At the time the New York rock scene — and alternative music in general — were in a recession from the grunge explosion of the early 1990s, and Jonathan Fire*Eater was one of the few signs of life in the late 1990s. A fierce bidding war ensued and the group ended up signing with Dreamworks SKG, the then-new entertainment company formed by Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.
However, the group’s sound, driven by Lupton’s drawling vocals and Walter Martin’s droning keyboards, didn’t really fit in with any genre at the time, and signing with a new label, even one owned by billionaires, is always a gamble; internal troubles compounded the problems. The group released one album on Dreamworks, “Wolf Songs for Lambs,” in 1997 and split the following year. Three of the bandmembers — Martin, Paul Maroon and Matt Barrick — formed The Walkmen, which became another key band of the New York rock scene of the early ‘00s and released several albums before going on hiatus in 2013.
Lupton moved back to Washington D.C. to study poetry at George Washington University, eventually forming a new band, Child Ballads. In 2009, he released an EP called “A Little Give and Take” as part of a project called the Beatin’s, but his post-Fire*Eater work drew marginal attention.
“We had played some small show in D.C., and I went online to find some reviews, and all these people were like, ‘What the f— happened to that guy?’” Lupton told the New York Post in 2005 as he was attempting a comeback. “And there were rumors … it was like reading about a ghost. One said, ‘I heard he died.’” He pauses. “That s — has an impact on a person. All the speculations about my psychological well-being – I reached a point where I had to assert the fact that I breathed! And that I was, in fact, making music again.”
However, Jonathan Fire*Eater received its proper due in Lizzy Goodman’s sprawling 2017 oral history of the early ‘00s New York scene, “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” which essentially begins with a chapter on the group and its lasting influence.