Multi-instrumentalist Walter Martin of Jonathan Fire*Eater, the Walkmen, and his own self chatted with me on Wednesday about his bands’ histories and evolutions. It was a pleasure to talk to him, as I have always admired his work.
Martin plays every instrument associated with indie rock, and others that maybe aren’t, such as the organ, which was his primary instrument in Jonathan Fire*Eater. The organ is what made Jonathan Fire*Eater such a unique band, along with singer Stewart Lupton’s lyrics and stage presence. The band wrote incredible garage rock songs that are said to have influenced the alternative music revival in New York City in the early 2000s, featuring bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol. Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of this scene, Meet Me in the Bathroom, begins with the story of Jonathan Fire*Eater, which was mine, and many others’, introduction to the band.
I vividly remember looking up the band on Spotify to find their last album, Wolf Songs for Lambs, which was their only material on Spotify at the time. The first track, “When the Curtain Calls for You,” sparked my love for the band and is still one of my favorite songs. So it was fascinating to hear Martin tell me how Paul Maroon, the band’s guitarist, recorded his guitar part through a broken Echoplex pedal. And how “Inpatient Talent Show,” the album’s closer, had its vocals recorded while the rest of the band tried their hardest to get Lupton to laugh while he was singing. They succeeded. Martin can be heard telling him to try his best to get the words out at the beginning of the song.
Jonathan Fire*Eater broke up after the release of Wolf Songs for Lambs because of the band’s frustration with Lupton and his drug use, and the fact that, being so young, no one knew what to do.
“As a kid, when something happens to your friend, it’s hard to know what to do,” Martin said. “So we were angry, and the band broke up.”
Lupton was Martin’s introduction to the vast world of music, and they learned instruments and played in bands together throughout their most formative years. The breakup of Jonathan Fire*Eater affected their friendship, although they were able to make up before Lupton passed away in 2018 at the age of 43.
“We repaired it, and we were on the outs for many years, but thankfully (we) had these magical last few years where all the bad stuff went out the window and we were able to be kind of like we were when we were kids, and it was really a gift.”
Martin, Maroon, and drummer Matt Barrick were still interested in making music, and they got together with Pete Bauer and Martin’s cousin Hamilton Leithauser of the Recoys to form the band that would become the Walkmen, one of the most critically acclaimed bands to come along since 2000.
“I still don’t like that name,” Martin said. “I don’t think any of us ever liked that name…I always thought it was pretty stupid,” he said, after telling me how the band was “scrambling” for a name so they could be listed in the New Yorker magazine.
Martin spoke of a stylistic shift from Jonathan Fire*Eater to the Walkmen that he says Leithauser’s voice brought to the table.
“When the Walkmen started we wanted to be more modern, but we didn’t want to be so scrappy,” he said.
Martin also described this change as moving towards a “melodic” sound, which I feel the band accomplished from the get-go, with their debut album Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone to their last, 2012’s Heaven. There is a maturity to the sound that likely mirrors their growth as adults that can be seen through their entire discography.
The Walkmen, who Martin says were a “drama-free band,” broke up on good terms in 2013.
“Even though people think we were sort of a biggish band, we struggled the whole time, you know?” Martin said. “It’s an expensive existence, and we were barely surviving… We were approaching 40, and you’re in a van… so we were like ‘let’s just not do this anymore,” he said.
All members of the Walkmen have continued to work on music, and Martin believes that “everybody’s happy doing their own thing.”
Martin’s own thing consists of five solo albums, including a kid’s album and collaborations with artists such as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and work on National singer Matt Berninger’s upcoming solo record.
Martin’s solo work contains humor and lightheartedness, which is a welcome departure from the seriousness of indie rock. His song “Hey Matt” features Berninger giving Martin singing lessons and a conversation about his inability to get Randy Newman to sing on the track. It’s a catchy, self-deprecating poking fun at Martin’s singing voice, and the music world needs more songs like it. My favorite song of Martin’s, “Me and McAlevey,” is a beautiful, swelling track about one of his songwriting friends in Maine. It’s one of those rare tracks that can make you happy or sad, or both at the same time. Out of all the work Martin has done in his long, illustrious career, this song sits near the top.
Walter Martin has provided music and words for bands and artists across the past two decades and looks to be continuing to do so in the upcoming one. I’ll be looking forward to listening, and knowing what an amicable person is behind the music.
Ryan Meyer can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]