by Amy Haben
My interview with Stewart Lupton recorded on Venice Beach as a one-legged seagull stood next to us eyeing our donuts…
Before The Walkmen, there was an even better version of the band called Jonathan Fire*Eater. The members of Jonathan Fire*Eater included Paul Maroon, Matt Barrick, Walter Martin, Tom Frank and enigmatic frontman, Stewart Lupton. Lupton’s poetic genius transports listeners to a fantasy land where pleasure reigns supreme, delicacies are feasted upon, and nothing hurts… until your heart starts aching for a past love.
Sometimes I can’t listen to Jonathan Fire*Eater, because the sound is so gorgeous that I feel like my heart is going to explode. I can honestly say that this band is magical. My ex-boyfriend Korri had given me a mixtape that had “Night In The Nursery,” and “A Curtain Calls For You,” on it in 2002 and I coveted it. It reminds me of falling for a man who is so creatively brilliant that he couldn’t even function in normal society.
Jonathan Fire*Eater was a huge success in New York City in the 90’s as well as having a buzz around the globe. Everyone thought they would be hugely famous, (which they should’ve been)–especially if you were to judge by each member’s talent. The Farfisa organ that Walter tapped brought romance into the band as well as Stewart’s beautiful lyrics and breathy vocals. If you’ve never heard them… download Wolf Songs For Lambs from iTunes now or buy the vinyl (if you can find it!) Luckily, Jack White is about to repress Jonathan Fire*Eater on his Third Man Records label which will inevitably spawn a new generation of eager fans. Read my interview with Stewart Lupton recorded on Venice Beach as a one-legged seagull stood next to us eyeing our donuts…
Amy: When you think of beauty, what do you think of?
Stewart: Ex-lovers, art, my father’s eyes, his paintings, stages, foot lights, Florence, Fra Angelico, Mark Rothko, the bedrooms of my life…
Amy: What do you think of the music scene now compared to the nineties?
Stewart: I think there was a little more danger early on. Some things seemed more crafted, but I’m really out of the loop of contemporary culture.
Amy: Tell me about some of your inspirations when writing Jonathan Fire*Eater songs…
Stewart: As far as themes, there is hedonism, destruction, joy, family… The thwarted usually win for awhile in our songs.
Amy: One of my favorites is the song “Give Me Daughters.” Was that an early pursuit of family? Especially because at that time of your life you were living the complete opposite of that?
Stewart: Yes, because of drugs and alcohol I didn’t have the chance to get into that. It was a theme taken from Chuck Berry’s song, “Memphis.” (sings) “My uncle took the number and he wrote it on the wall.“ That was the first time I thought of corridors in songs. (sings) “The train changes tracks.” One of our songs goes, “I know you hoped a train, but you took a cab back,” that’s from the song , “The Shape Of Things That Never Came.”
I cared about these characters and I cared about artifice and I cared about substance. I cared about death and I cared about dissipation.
With “Give Me Daughters“ I wrote, “Every month a brand new letter written from a hotel kitchen/ To send a little hope/ Tell a little joke if you ever get tired of living/ and if you’re hungry or you’ve had too much sugar/ I will raise them/ they will look like me/ I will raise them/ they’ll go to church with me/ In the city surrounded by water/ now give me daughters.”
It’s about how the thwarted win for awhile. Sometimes the underdog has such a bite that you never forget it. It wasn’t a very common theme in rock n’ roll at that time either. PJ Harvey sang a song about it but that was it.
Amy: Have you ever been told by people that your music makes people fall in love?
Stewart: My therapist, yeah…
Amy: Anyone else?
Stewart: I’ve had some amazing accolades over the years. Hell, I even swoon over this stuff. I had a great band. I was one fifth but they were a power house. Walter Martin, Tom Frank, Matt Barrick, and Paul Maroon.
Amy: Tell me about how you met your bandmates back in D.C.
Stewart: We went to high school together. It was based in the National Cathedral and that’s where the incense smelled a thousand years old and the girls with cheeks red, red from kissing and their little stockings and Mary Janes. Little secret passageways, rose bushes, boom lights in the cathedral. That might be where the song, “Tremble Under The Boom Lights,“ came from. I went to St. Albans…. Al Gore went there, Gore Vidal… So prestigious intellects were there. We had to wear coats and ties, that’s were we got some of our style from. It was a great school but I didn’t do very well. I was more focused on music, girls, and LSD.
We were in a rock band called the Ignobles, as teens. That was Brian Cheney, Paul Maroon, Walter Martin, Matt Barrick, and me. We opened for Fugazi and Soulside for our first show at Fort Reno. Fugazi played there every summer. There was a medieval looking turret and it would crash down lightening and thunder usually around their encore. It was pretty mythic.
Amy: What did you originally want to do with your life?
Stewart: I always wanted to be a singer actually. I wanted to write poetry when I was very young. My mother made me memorize a William Blake poem about seals. I was introduced to poetry in high school through Charles Simić. I loved him. and Hotel Insomnia. He won the Pulitzer. His rock & roll corollary would be Tom Waits. I love to read Carl Jung and John Ashbery as well.
Amy: How did all of the band members get to D.C? Did you guys plan that after college?
Stewart: Yeah, we wanted to play music together. I went to Sarah Lawrence and met a beautiful woman. I got addicted to narcotics there.
Amy: Who introduced you to them? A friend?
Stewart: Yeah. We would go down to this corner to cop. It was on Suffolk Street and Houston. We all finished up our year. Walt was at Bard and Tom, Matt and Paul were at Columbia. We played in the boiler room at Columbia. Where t he janitorial staff had locker rooms.
Amy: Did you guys find the Jonathan Fire*Eater sound quickly or was it a hard process?
Stewart: We fell into a trance. Paul started playing right near the bridge and Matt discovered this one drum beat and Walt turned his Fender twin up on his organ. I think we called it “The Frenchmen” and we really liked that sonic space. We christened it and took it home. We worked really hard… at the same time my addiction took off so… it was difficult.
Amy: Where was the first Jonathan Fire*Eater show?
Stewart: At a coffee house near Sarah Lawrence.
Amy: Where did you live and hang out in New York?
Stewart: Well I bought drugs on a street corner with my friends from school but I was ashamed of it so I kept it a secret, because addiction makes you ashamed. I was powerless over it so that forfeits your illicit shame. There is a toxicity there. When the self gets saturated and there is not enough God, you’re in for a rough ride. We went out looking for a place to live and they found a place on Suffolk and Houston and I thought, “Oh great…” It was a marriage made in hell. I had to step over people nodding out and there were drugs on every corner. They were handing them out like Christian pamphlets.
Amy: Did anyone else in your band do heroin?
Stewart: No. They drank, nothing else.
Amy: What other bands did Jonathan Fire*Eater play with back then?
Stewart: There was Cupid Car Club, Slant 6, the Stiffs came later they were fantastic––we went on a U.S. tour with them.
Amy: Did you guys go on a European tour?
Stewart: We made it to six countries. Italy, France, Spain, Japan (twice), England (a bunch).
Amy: What was your favorite country to play in?
Stewart: We had a fantastic show in Paris. It wasn’t about the people but about the performance. A lot of the U.S. tours were fun. We did really well in England. We played with Spiritualized, Suicide, Pulp…
Amy: Did you like Jarvis Cocker?
Stewart: Yeah, he yelled at us for being late.
Amy: Haha. Well, at least he’s a professional.
Stewart: Nick Cave bought us whiskey one night. I stayed over for dinner at Nick’s home in England. He’s a tremendous writer and a great man.
Amy: What was your goal with Jonathan Fire*Eater?
Stewart: My goal was to get deep with my lyrics, to be the best performer that I could be and to feel the way I felt with the bass rattling my thorax. I was a stickler about the lighting. We had a silver curtain at Irving Plaza and we needed everything backlit.
Amy: Did you ever write anything that made you cry?
Stewart: I wrote a lot of “Wolf Songs For Lambs” getting clean. I stayed clean for awhile. It was difficult living in New York so we went to North Carolina where there was no drugs and a safe environment. We recorded with Jim Waters. Pavement had just left. It was at Mitch Easters house.
Amy: Did you think about staying in North Carolina because you were scared to go back to New York and be tempted?
Stewart: No. New York had a Death Star pull.
Stewart: We had a secret show with the Blues Explosion in London were I was sick with food poisoning at the Columbia Hotel. They were throwing mattresses down the stairs. Judah Bauer gave me watermelon seeds which helped me. I was meditating as a beginner and I was picturing water buffalo, yellow squares, yellow mountains as a part of this system which introduced me to a different way of seeing spirituality.
Amy: Do you feel like you were born in the wrong era?
Stewart: I would’ve liked to have been around for the Ramones, Talking Heads, and especially Blondie in the 70’s.
Amy: So were you sober about a year back during the album recording? How did you relapse?
Stewart: A little under a year, yeah. It was a Halloween show at Tramps in New York. Lou Reed was there. I didn’t sleep the night before and I was nervous so I took “Be Up,” which is an over the counter energy supplement. I ended up relapsing and was out for fifteen years. I have ten months clean now.
Amy: What made you decide to get sober this time?
Stewart: A suicide attempt. I jumped off a bridge. I was in the hospital, I punctured a lung, broke twenty-four ribs, and fractured my hip. I don’t want to talk about the circumstances surrounding it, but it’s a miracle that I lived. It was a very tall bridge in D.C. known as “suicide bridge.” People don’t usually walk away from things like that. The doctor said it was a million to one chance of surviving that fall. My poor family has been through a lot.
Amy: You were meant to be here.
I was in other bands as well. The Child Ballads with Hugh MacIntosh, Betsy Wright, and me. I played acoustic guitar and sang, Betsy on keyboard, and Hugh on drums.
Amy: What was the sound of the Beatings? Because I never heard that band.
Stewart: We did four covers. We did “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well,” we did “Cool, Clear Water,” Dylan did that on The Basement Tapes. We also covered, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” by Dean Martin. It came out on vinyl with my poetry, lithograph, and it was limited edition. I’ll get you one.
Amy: The Child Ballads was the band before the Beatings and you were in a relationship with Betsy from that band.
Stewart: Yeah, she is also in the band Ex Hex. I usually play music with my girlfriends. I also dated Carol from the Beatings.
I also wrote a song in the Child Ballads called “Cheekbone Hollows: Operation Half- Life.”
“I keep hearing talk of the doom and they are sending the meek home. But that ain’t half as bad as the shadow that is caught in the hollow of your cheekbone. All day long I keep hearing talk of the doom and they are sending the meek home. But that ain’t half as bad as the shadow that is caught in the hollow of your cheekbone. One day me and my cousin cross town on the city buses laughing and cussing all the live long day. There was a hollow in the woods where we studied other zones. A circle around our fort made of animal bones. But I knew I would never ever be alone with my cousin, Mr. George Jerome but I keep hearing talk off the doom and they’re sending the meek home and that ain’t half as bad as the shadow that is caught in the hollow of your cheek bone. All day long I hear talk off the doom and they’re sending the meek home and that ain’t half as bad as the shadow that’s caught in the hollow of your cheek bone. The next day we were walking downtown, I looked up and saw my old dancing shoes hanging from a telephone wire. I saw two rosacrucians on the bus exchanging secret handshakes without involving touch. I thought about my cousin and the codes that meant so much. We speak a dead language now, our world has turned to dust. I bought a white chocolate tea in the park on my lunch break. I bought a painting off the street of a haunted lake. I tried hard to make my world an exotic place but I keep hearing talk of the doom and they’re sending the meek home and that ain’t half as bad as the shadow that’s caught in the hollow of your cheekbone. Your heart goes boom, my heart goes boom too. When you walk into the room, all the wallpaper comes in bloom. We up and move the garden into the bedroom. Had tea and crumpets like a bride and groom. I had a head full of thoughts of hazy, hazy days, all my thoughts were children with ugly faces. Get on the school bus and go.”
Amy: That was very pretty. What was it inspired by?
Stewart: Dissipation. The weight that I lost from drugs. The underdog can be meek at times and “Wolf Songs For Lambs,” that idea of a black and blue Ferdinand harassed and jailed, psych wards, missing money, cons, hustles, withdrawals, broken hearts, medication, travel, exoticism, best friends, broken dreams…
My best friend was Walter Martin, the organ player in Jonathan Fire*Eater. So all these come to a head and like these waves they punish you and they pummel you. It takes all the strength you have, all the fiber in your being, just to stick your head above water and get the full-throated yelp and tell the world that you still have some love left.
“When my heart was young and green like a brussel sprout/ And the phosphor of wisdom / In all of it’s sadness/ Had yet to light the cosmos between my ears / I held all the balloons. / There were Russian architects/ And Saabs and eclipses/ And keefer and I wouldn’t get laid for a decade. I didn’t need a mantra. People were just starting to let me down.”
– Stewart Lupton