Walter Martin spent most of his music career in a pair of archly cool bands: First it was New York scene spawners Jonathan Fire*Eater, and then The Walkmen. As a solo artist, though, Martin has chosen mostly to leave the idea of “cool” behind and wear his heart on his sleeve, with charmingly plainspoken-sung songs about everyday life. His latest and best album, The World At Night, is dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Fire*Eater singer Stewart Lupton, a dear friend of Martin’s who died by suicide in 2018 after years of battling mental illness. Martin told me about their lifelong friendship — the bad and the good — and how Lupton’s spirit made its way onto The World At Night.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
I met Stewart the summer before fourth grade. He and his parents moved from South Carolina to DC. My parents, both having Southern roots, welcomed the Southerners to town. They sort of set us up, so I was aware that I was going to meet him at a little hangout before fourth grade started. We immediately became very close. We liked the same things. Then we started skateboarding, and I think that was our first way of expressing a slightly rebellious spirit.
Before I met Stew, I was obsessed with baseball. But it was right around the time that Little League ended and baseball became serious at my school that I met him. Stew was not into baseball, he was into cooler sports. When he came up from South Carolina, he had done BMX racing, on dirt tracks, and he had trophies. I never heard of doing that. I didn’t know kids could do that.
He was very different, he just stuck out. He wore red leather high tops, and he had sort of a Southern accent. There was sort of a rebellious spirit in him that I really liked.
Soon after that, we realized we wanted to do music. There was just so much rock & roll, or so much skate-rock, which is pretty bad, attached to being a skateboarder, and we got into that stuff. We didn’t even know the bands that we liked, but we’d write the band names on our shoes, stuff like that. We figured out that music and bands was part of what we were heading towards.
We took guitar lessons together in fifth grade. We wrote our first song when we were in fifth grade. It was called “Bad Attitude.” I wrote the riffs and Stew wrote the words. It was sort of about cops and stuff, and just having a bad attitude about things. We had not yet been hassled by the cops, but it felt great to say, “Yeah, fuck the cops.”
I very vividly remember Stew writing the words at his house about when we were 11 or 12. And then we played it for a birthday party at the end of fifth grade — it was like our first big concert. I have pictures from it, where we have cigarettes — candy cigarettes — rolled up in our shirtsleeves.
We started playing at school dances. And then in seventh grade, Matt Barrick came to our school. Then the three of us did it like that for a few years. We sneaked out and went to American University and opened for this ska band called The Toasters, from New York. We sneaked into their dressing room. We were like two feet tall, and went into their dressing room and introduced ourselves and said that we played ska. I guarantee Stew was the first one to walk through the dressing room door. It was very clear we played ska, by the way that we dressed, so they let us play a couple songs, and it got into the AU newspaper, and then our parents found out through that.
We rehearsed all the time. That’s just what we did: We thought about music and wrote songs and played music. And it just progressed from there. Paul Maroon joined the band in ninth grade, and Stew wasn’t singing at that point, we had a different singer. There was still a lot of ska in what we were doing. And then we got into the bad stuff, like funk. We went through some really bad phases. Luckily we got it all out of our systems.
At the end of high school, Paul had gone off to college. Paul is a year older than me and Matt and Stew. Paul had gone off to college, and when he would come back, we did a few shows where Stew was singing. It wasn’t like our slightly cheesy, funky other band. It was very Velvet Underground-y, and sort of dark and cool. That was the first time that I was like, OK, this is good. This is actually real music. This isn’t just us having the ability to play something that sounds like convincing music. This actually is cool.
And then Paul had the brilliant idea of asking Tom Frank to join us. That all came together right in the middle of our first year of college. And that became Jonathan Fire*Eater.
I went to college in Colorado with my high school girlfriend, thinking that I didn’t want to do the band anymore. I think I just couldn’t bear the thought of not being with my high school girlfriend. It was just stupid. The moment I got out there, I started a band with my girlfriend and with this other guy, and I was writing songs again. That’s all I was doing. I was like, Clearly this is what I’m doing. I should just go back and be with the band. We’ve been working so hard.
So after the semester, I went back. I went to school upstate. I was in school at Bard and Stew was at Sarah Lawrence, and the other three guys were at Columbia. I was not present at Bard, and Stew was not present at Sarah Lawrence — we were in the city all the time. We started rehearsing and writing and recording. We actually recorded in the basement of their dorm, at Columbia, and it was cool. I just remember being like, “This is really good.” It had just a great, magical kind of sound to it.
After that first year of college, we all dropped out and saved up our money for the summer, and then moved all together in August of ’94 into an apartment on the Lower East Side, and really started doing it. We rehearsed every day and we started doing shows.
Stew was very much our spokesperson. He was out there at the bars, getting people interested. Somehow, it slowly spread among musician-y types in lower Manhattan, and we made a CD pretty quickly. I worked at Kim’s Video, which was sort of the hub of cool in lower Manhattan, so we got to put the Fire*Eater CDs on the little shelf at Kim’s, which made us seem like a real band.
The label stuff started happening quickly. We got flown out to Los Angeles, and it was just ridiculous. We couldn’t believe it. We were all hung over, every day, and in the silliest mood, like a bunch of 14-year-olds. It was just total, total silliness. And we had our manager, Walter, and for people who are in the record business in California, Walter was something they could not comprehend. I don’t think we were necessarily very career-driven. We just sort of really liked what we were doing.
In high school, Stew and I very much paired off. But things changed after high school, when we were first in the Lower East Side because he started doing drugs. It was that time in the ’90s when people were doing heroin. That caused a major divide in the band very, very, very early on. Me and Matt and Paul and Tom, we were all so close.
We were also very close with Stew, but there was this strange divide that we were too young to really wrap our heads around. So we were torn between, or at least I was torn between, wanting to ignore it and being really pissed off about it. And just being confused by it. When we would be places where drugs were not accessible, it was really easy to ignore, and just to be five funny dudes having a really fun time. But we were reminded very frequently that there was a major problem going on within the band.
It was impossible to hide. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he got clean, in like 2015. And that stuff develops when you’re in your mid-20s. And looking back, I was just putting together episodes that happened during those years. It’s very much like a chicken and egg situation. He had a very complicated brain, and addiction and mental illness were both playing big parts in what was going on with him for many years. It’s so confusing, and it sucks. It’s like, your best friend, you have this dream you’ve built together, that suddenly feels like it’s slipping away.
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. We’re so proud of the music we’re making, and if people are responding to it, we could actually do this.” And it became clear that it wasn’t in our control. We couldn’t do it because of the personal relationships in the band.
I was sort of the last hold out. I just couldn’t bear the thought of it not happening anymore. There were many discussions with Matt and Paul and Tom like, “Listen, it’s going to be fine. Just hold tight.” But then more stuff happened and I was just like, “This is not going to be fine. I can’t glue this whole thing together.” So the four of us basically just decided that we had to call it quits.
It was bad. Stew and I didn’t see each other for… Well, he was still in New York, so I would see him. And it’s the kind of thing where, on paper we were enemies or whatever, but when you see your friend that you haven’t seen in a year, your best friend, you want to touch him. So I just remember running into him in bars or whatever on the Lower East Side and just having fun. I’d want to talk to him. So we would just talk and laugh and have fun and make fun of each other, talk about music.
But we had a major block between us for many years, and it sucked. It was really hard. And that dragged on for a long time. With time things dissolved a bit, but there were still major friendship blocks that made it sort of impossible to really be friends again. But our parents at that point had been friends for so many years. I would see Stew at the holidays and I would see him when I was in DC, but it wasn’t right. We would have some nice times together, but it was always a little bit weird, because we had this sort of shitty history.
He attempted suicide in 2015. He was in DC, and I went and saw him. And that’s when the drugs stopped. He barely survived. And at the hospital, he couldn’t talk. But we were able to communicate and it was very clear that suddenly things were different. We were back on the same page. And once he recovered, we really got back on the same page.
At that point, we’re older. All the old stuff really felt like a different chapter. It felt like we were kids when all the bad stuff happened. And so as adults, it’s just like, “Come on, this is my great old friend. Let’s forget all this stuff.” So we forgot all this stuff, and it was really great. And we were very in touch, and it was like having your friend back who you thought you’d never have back — just kind of a miracle.
I totally missed talking to him about music and movies and books and whatever. So it was kind of a really amazing gift. A lot of people felt that way, that those last years between 2015 and when he actually died were just such a gift, because even though his mind was tormented by the schizophrenia and the voices, he had so many moments of lucidity where it was just really great. And so many people were very thankful for that.
He was very present in my brain while I was writing The World At Night. I felt sort of in a sad state, and a longing to communicate with somebody. And I was wanting to make something good for somebody who’s not there anymore. And Stew’s parents, I’m still very close with. I actually just saw them this weekend. They gave me a bunch of his art, so I have his visual art all around my studio. I have a lot of references to that in the songs, and I just wanted to put him in there as much as I could. So there are direct and indirect references to Stew throughout. All the images from the title track come from a collage that he made, that his parents gave me.
When we were in high school and during the early Fire*Eater days, and in the last few years of his life, we talked tons about what kind of art we liked, and what kind of music we liked it and why we liked it. We built sort of an artistic philosophy together. And so I think with him gone I wanted to exercise that as much as I possibly could, and to make sure I was being very true to those kinds of ideas.
As told to Josh Modell.
(Photo Credit: Daniel Coston)