Stewart Lupton, the frontman of the short-lived but widely influential indie rock band Jonathan Fire*Eater, died Monday. He was 43.
Lupton’s cousin, Sarah Lupton, confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone. While a specific cause of death is unknown, Lupton tells Rolling Stone that his family has stated the cause as “his desperate attempt to escape the voices that so tormented him.”
Though they released just two records in the Nineties, Jonathan Fire*Eater set the stage for a generation of New York City indie-rock bands – including the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol – that rose to prominence at the turn of the century. Lupton was a swaggering, theatric frontman with an enveloping bellow, though he also had a penchant for all the trappings of rock & roll excess.
“He was always such an affable, kind person, and a talent I admired,” Ted Leo wrote on Twitter. “And though I rarely saw him, was someone I always felt like was ‘there,’ like I would always see him again. This also breaks my heart.”
Walter Martin, the Jonathan Fire*Eater organist/keyboardist who went on to form the Walkmen, also shared a remembrance with Stereogum in which he called Lupton “a magical guy and one of the closest friends I’ve had in my life.”
He continued, “As always, the poems were brilliant and sad and beautiful. They had a dreamlike quality but spoke very clearly to me. Whatever the hell that thing is that happens when you see the best art or hear the best music or read the best lines – that other-worldly beauty and that feeling that you are in the presence of something that is magical and real – Stew’s poems had that.”
The first incarnation of Jonathan Fire*Eater formed when Lupton, Martin, drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon were still high school students in Washington, D.C. The group was a ska band called the Ignobles and managed to garner some impressive attention, opening for Lenny Kravitz on a local tour stop. When most of the band left D.C. for college, the group reformed in New York under their new name, adding Tom Frank on bass.
Jonathan Fire*Eater lived together in New York, practicing constantly and quickly becoming a live staple at venues around the Lower East Side and the Meatpacking District. In Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me In the Bathroom, an oral history of the 2000s rock scene centered in New York, Lupton recalled the moment Jonathan Fire*Eater discovered their sound – a ragged, sinister brand of garage rock with the gothic tinge of an organ. “It was a really wonderful feeling,” Lupton said. “We had gone from an amalgam of inspirations to an original vibe over a couple of months. We did three-chord punk rock, but we did it in our own way. It was golden.”
Jonathan Fire*Eater released their self-titled debut in 1995 on the Arizona indie label Third World Underground Records, with an EP, Tremble Under Boom Lights, released one year later. Tremble Under Boom Lights was well reviewed and featured several signature tracks, including “Give Me Daughters” and “The Search for Cherry Red.” With their profile rising, a major-label bidding war ensued that ended with David Geffen’s new DreamWorks label signing the band.
Though ostensibly primed for bigger success, Jonathan Fire*Eater’s 1997 follow-up, Wolf Songs for Lambs, was a critical and commercial flop. Tensions between band members were growing as well, exacerbated by Lupton’s constant drug use, and in 1998 they disbanded after a gig in Central Park.
After the break-up, Lupton moved back to Washington, D.C., where he studied poetry at George Washington University. He later formed a new band, Child Ballads, then partnered with Carole Greenwood on a project called the Beatin’s that released one EP, A Little Give and Take. Meanwhile, three of his former bandmates – Maroon, Barrick and Martin – went on to form the Walkmen.
In Meet Me In the Bathroom, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, one of Jonathan Fire*Eater’s biggest acolytes, spoke of the band’s singular appeal, and perhaps defining flaw: “Someone said to me once, ‘It’s great how it always seems like they’re just on the edge of everything falling apart, that’s the exciting thing about watching them.’ And I was like, ‘Yep. That’s it.'”
Jonathan Fire*Eater – “When the Curtain Falls for You”
Jonathan Fire*Eater – “The Beautician”