Jonathan Fire*Eater was a New York City-based indie rock band from Washington DC. The line-up was Stewart Lupton (vocals), Tom Frank (bass), Paul Maroon (guitar and pedal steel), Matt Barrick (drums) and Walter Martin (organs, keyboards). After the band's break-up, Maroon, Barrick, and Martin went on to form The Walkmen.
Jonathan Fire*Eater was formed from a childhood ska band called The Ignobles. All the members of Jonathan Fire*Eater attended high school at the D.C. private school the St. Albans School, which counts former Vice President Al Gore among its alumni. Lupton, Martin, and Barrick formed the Ignobles in junior high school. Maroon joined as the guitarist and Ryan Cheney signed on as the vocalist. Lupton played bass. The precocious Ignobles showed promise beyond their years and in high school made regular warmly received appearances at local clubs. In 1993, the members went to college, mostly in New York City, and Jonathan Fire*Eater was formed with Cheney departing and Lupton taking over vocal duties. St. Albans alum Tom Frank joined as a new bassist.
In 1994 the boys dropped out of college and moved into a cramped two-bedroom apartment on Suffolk St. in the still rough-and-tumble Lower East Side. They slept in bunk beds, showered in the kitchen, and lived off pizza slices and brown-bagged beer as they hammered out a D.C. post-hardcore spin on early Rolling Stones-meets-Velvet Underground 60s rock. Martin's piercing Farfisa organ, Maroon's crashing reverb-soaked guitar and a convincing rhythm section channeled three decades of underground rock. Up front, Lupton was charismatic and worldly, evoking Nick Cave with his dark lyrics and rakish glamour. These Ivy League students turned Lower East Side wastrels were embraced by critics as a breath of fresh air in a commercialized alternative rock scene.
In 1995, they released their eponymous debut, Jonathan Fire*Eater, on Tucson, Arizona's Third World Underground Records, which featured "The Silver Surfer", "Romans & Barbarians", "Christmas Time, Halloween", and other tracks. Later that year, a self-titled EP on PCP established their reputation with the frenetic tracks "The Public Hanging of a Movie Star" and "When Prince Was a Kid".
In 1996, the five-song mini-album Tremble Under Boomlights was released by the Medicine label, featuring well produced offers like "The Search for Cherry Red" and "Give Me Daughters". By this time, the band was receiving considerable media and industry attention. They were courted by Calvin Klein to model and opened for Brit Pop stars Pulp and Blur. As Lupton said in a 1996 New York Times Magazine profile, "Right now the record companies are sort of circling like vultures."
In early 1997, Jonathan Fire*Eater signed with David Geffen's nascent DreamWorks music label. It was a million dollar contract with unusual clauses including full creative control for the band and a generous dental plan for their nearly toothless manager Walter Durkacz. Behind the scenes, Lupton's drug use was causing a rift between him and the other members. Their major label debut, Wolf Songs for Lambs, was released by Dreamworks in 1997 to tepid critical response. Not long after the album's release, tensions between Lupton and the other members and a general wariness of mainstream success led to the band's breakup.
Jonathan Fire*Eater was called "the most hyped band you never heard," but like that old story about the Velvet Underground many of the few people that did hear them started a band, including later New York acts like The Strokes, who have identified them as a major influence.