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In a small apartment in Mount Pleasant, the members of Jonathan Fire*Eater are very politely turning down an offer of gingersnaps. “My mom made me and Tom chicken teriyaki,” protests guitarist Paul Maroon. “I’m stuffed.” Similar explanations of large meals and full bellies emanate from his bandmates. The gingersnaps go uneaten.
It’s great to be stuffed. The band’s members may spend most of their time in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where starving artists have spun clichés and music for generations, but this month seems to have been an epicurean delight. With several months behind them since their last show and a summer tour ahead, they are back in their native D.C. rehearsing and relaxing—and, apparently, eating. Early tomorrow morning they will leave to play a couple of shows in Providence and New York, where no doubt snickering hipsters will taunt them for insufficient emaciation.
Such is the stuff of fame. Or rather, such is the stuff of demi-fame, that pre-hype stage where the only people who have heard of you are the ones who’d just as soon gun you down. Riding a wave of adulatory buzz, Jonathan Fire*Eater has, after just three tiny-label releases, been heralded as the saviors of urban avant-rock. With neither a major-label album, an MTV video, nor a headlining tour to their name, the band has been the subject not only of a degree of spin that would impress Madonna, but of a much-reported corporate-rock courtship. Fire*Eater recently signed with DreamWorks, the new David Geffen/Steven Spielberg/Jeffrey Katzenberg entertainment goliath.
“Walt and Stew jammed together in fifth grade,” drummer Matt Barrick recounts absent-mindedly. It’s an answer he seems to have given a hundred times. Indeed, Jonathan Fire*Eater’s personal history seems to be a centerpiece of the group’s media hype.
In fact, “the boys’” background makes for a lead that everyone from the New York Times Magazine (which ran a piece profiling their parents’ highbrow occupations) to the New York Post (which waxed amazed at youthful singer Stewart Lupton’s preternaturally early stint in rehab) have jumped at: the rock star as prep-school boy. It’s a cute story. The five bandmates all grew up in the Washington area, meeting each other at St. Albans, the tony Northwest boys school. Beginning in seventh grade, the future Fire*Eaters bounced through several bands (most notably the Ignobles) and several more sounds (the Ignobles began life playing ska).
From high school, Barrick, Maroon, and bassist Tom Frank went on to Columbia University in New York. Lupton and keyboard and lap steel player Walter Martin meanwhile gravitated to Sarah Lawrence and Bard, respectively, schools within striking distance of Manhattan. Jonathan Fire*Eater came together in the fall of 1993, initially taking advantage of Gotham’s D.C.-expatriate community for fan support in the midst of the city’s atomized music scene. (Full disclosure moment: I was part of the D.C.-in-N.Y. scene, too, and got to know the band there.) By the next fall, all five members had left school to pursue the band full-time, sharing a two-bedroom, two-bunk-bed East Village apartment. Though the apartment didn’t last, none of them have gone back to school.
But despite the players’ Washington origins and their D.C.-oriented milieu, there’s very little stereotypically Washingtonian about the Fire*Eater rock experience. They build songs through groovy addition rather than sparse subtraction: With electric organ, clanging guitar chords, and wild swings in tempo and mood, the band integrates allusions to a half-dozen genres. Imagewise, the group wears a look—one part mid-’60s cool, one part school-uniform subversive—that seems to beg for permanent neon illumination. Pomade sales to D.C. scenesters are, of course, not exactly unheard of (cf. Ulysses and subsequent nations), but when Jonathan Fire*Eater goes comic-book, there seems to be a different sort of self-consciousness piled on top. Likewise, Lupton’s lyrics shun straight-ahead impulses like rage or idealism, or even irony. If the stereotypical D.C. band does Moscow 1917, then Fire*Eater plays Paris in the ’20s.
“I’m into phonetics,” says Lupton. “I wanted to pursue writing, so I went to a school that had a really good writing program. It was a disaster. Everything I try to write, I always somehow end up with rhyme, which sort of destroyed the literary ambitions.” Having a talented bunch of musicians who also happen to be your best friends cushions literary heartache quite nicely. But the combination of Lupton’s lyrics (he had previously played bass alongside Maroon, Barrick, and Martin in the Ignobles) and his bandmates’ sound is more than a fallback. It is,
in fact, inspired. On disc, Martin’s cool organ work is most noticeable, joining Maroon’s reverb-heavy guitar and a solid rhythm section in creating a groovy, rocking background to the
stories Lupton spins.
And some cool stories they are. One gets a sense of a certain distance between the band and its songs: In this angst-ridden age, everyone knows 20-year-old white-boy musicians are supposed to sing about honesty, love, alienation, and themselves. Instead, Jonathan Fire*Eater brings fantasy scenarios to real-live stereo, ending up with demented country-adventure ballads for the big city. Lupton has never seen the public hanging of a movie star, but he wrote a song about it. Likewise, he puts us on jets to Hollywood stardom (“The Search for Cherry Red”), shows us cockfights on tenement roofs (“The Beautician”), and takes us to Mexico City marketplaces (“Limes & Skulls”). It’s a performance. Of course, that’s what the current batch of weepers do, too. They just don’t know it.
It wouldn’t work if the music didn’t rock. Onstage, Lupton doesn’t quite abandon the Italian movie-star suavity of his recorded voice, but he does combine it with an alternately frenetic and exhausted stage presence, closing his eyes, gesticulating wildly, and waging war on microphone stands, while his bandmates amusedly charge along behind him.
Jonathan Fire*Eater plays at the Black Cat on Friday night. Sometime next month, the *Eaters will depart on their third tour, which will take them to Europe (“Someone said something about Reading,” said Lupton, echoing his bandmates’ uncertainty about where, literally, they will go from here). With a lucrative three-album contract, they’re hoping to be able to do as they please—which means hopefully not making videos (contractually “we don’t have to,” says Barrick) but doing as much touring as possible. Though they’re likely to split their time off between New York and Washington, it’s playing out, playing frequently, and perfecting a sound, rather than building a scene or leading a movement, that appeals to them. “We’re trying to find a delicate balance of theatrics with sincerity,” Barrick explains. But ultimately, it’s the onstage sweat that is sincere: “I think the very notion of being in this band is a form of idealism.” CP