Sorrows of a Coddled Rock Band: Jonathan Fire-Eater Burns Out

The five stylin’ guys in Jonathan Fire-Eater wanted to be famous for years, but on their own terms. Two years ago, that looked like it was about to happen. After dropping out of college and moving in together in the junkie wonderland of the Lower East Side, they attracted a major label bidding war and signed a million-dollar three-record deal with Dreamworks SKG. They were barely in their 20’s and already making contractual demands: No videos. No appearances on cheesy compilation albums. No interviews with lame magazines. Oh yeah, and would the label please pay for their manager’s dental work? As their manager would later put it: “I always thought they had the possibility to sort of make history.”

They sort of did–only as one of the fastest rise-and-fall stories in recent pop music. “We wanted to ultimately be a big rock band,” said bassist Tom Frank, 24. He was calling from the apartment he shares with his fiancée on the Upper West Side, and kept having to click over to the other line. He was waiting for word on a job. “I’m out of money,” he explained, “despite the fact that we’re all supposed to be millionaires.”

Jonathan Fire-Eater’s short, fast, overhyped ride through the upper echelons of the culture-production industry came to an end after an early-evening show at the Central Park bandshell on July 28. The boys in the band–Mr. Frank, singer Stewart Lupton, 23, guitarist Paul Maroon, 24, organist Walter Martin, 23, and drummer Matt Barrick, 23–had been playing together since their days at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. Decked out in black thrift-store clothes and short, mod haircuts, the five were known for their “Monster Mash” garage rock, their elite pedigree and their calculated-but-cute Village of the Damned look. That got them anointed as the chosen band in Manhattan’s precincts of hip. But in the abstract world of cool-hunting, expectations are rarely what they seem.

“It would be embarrassing to say what the model would be, given what happened to us,” said Mr. Frank, trying to describe the band’s plan for pop culture domination. So, what was the model? “The kind of rock band that goes on a karaoke machine.”

Those karaoke dreams went up in smoke that night in the park. “After the show, Stewart was hysterical,” said Erin Norris, a professional dominatrix who worked as the band’s publicist. The band was supposed to go back in the studio in October, at which point they would get another blast of money from Dreamworks. The plan was to go to a house they had rented upstate and write more songs. “We were waiting for people to load out,” said their manager, Walter Durkacz, a former deejay at Danceteria who’s a 20-year veteran of the downtown scene. “And they were like, ‘Why don’t we just break up?'”

So much for the plan. Now, everyone but Mr. Lupton is looking for work in New York and thinking about college. They may play together part-time, but without Mr. Lupton. He’s fled back home, to his parents’ house in Washington, lamenting the end of his 10-year friendship with the other four. “I’m never going to play with them again,” he declared.

Jonathan Fire-Eater’s ascent to the heights of alt-rock hypedom had one fatal flaw: No one, not even the record company, knew what they were getting into. “There was this feeling for a long time that it was scripted,” said Mr. Frank of the band’s quick rise. “I think that there was the feeling that if we could just make it to the next record, which the script required, then it would all make sense.”

It never did. “It was unfortunate,” said Bryn Bridenthal, head of media and artist relations at Geffen Records who also oversees Dreamworks’ publicity. “They felt like a band. That sort of ‘us against everyone else’ feeling … like a closed club.”

But in the end, after all the articles in Spin , Details , Jane and Interview , the fawning of the labels, the free dinners and all-expense-paid stays in the Chateau Marmont, they only sold about 12,000 records in all–pretty good for a first novel, but not much for a rock band that was supposed to make history.

“We had a meeting when the band asked, ‘Can we stop the sales at 500,000–what if we don’t want to sell more than that?'” recalled Ms. Bridenthal, who had steered the public image of Guns ‘n’ Roses and other groups that weren’t quite as recalcitrant about their desire for success. “They didn’t quite reach that plateau.” Mr. Durkacz summed it up in his own understated way: “They might have fallen into the trap of ‘We can record whatever we want and it will sell.'”

Elvis Lives!

Not that they didn’t have some reason to be self-assured. “We just started playing a certain way by accident, and an identity sort of crawled up out of the swamp,” said Mr. Lupton.

The whiff of that image–the well-bred, thoughtful, carefully dressed wastrels–had been swamp gas for quite a while. The guys had known each other since elementary school, and had played punk and ska in various groups. An earlier, St. Albans-era incarnation, the Ignobles, regularly opened for acts like Lenny Kravitz and Fugazi at local clubs in D.C. “We’d hear a new band and try to write a song that sounded like it,” said Mr. Maroon. “We’d go from band to band, haircut to haircut. I wore shorts on stage once. That was a low point … what a moron.”

After they graduated, most of them moved on to New York City-area schools: Paul Maroon, Tom Frank and Matt Barrick went to Columbia University, Stewart Lupton to Sarah Lawrence College and Walter Martin to Bard College. It wasn’t long before they’d convinced themselves to break the shackles of their bourgeois collegiate existence and jump into the Lower East Side’s gritty bohemian rock scene … or something like that.

Rechristened Jonathan Fire-Eater by Stewart, they all relocated in 1994 to what would become their fame incubator–a small railroad apartment with a shower in the kitchen at 176 Suffolk Street. “It was truly disgusting,” remembered Mr. Frank, who was laid up for a month with mono in the place. There were bunk beds, and the close quarters didn’t encourage good hygiene. “I hate that neighborhood,” said Mr. Maroon, fondly recalling the band’s year in the slums . “It’s so horrible.”

They weren’t able to drink legally yet, but they started hanging out at Max Fish, on Ludlow Street. Stewart would wear his big white Pee-wee Herman shoes and polka-dotted scarf, and the bartenders would pour them sodas as they networked with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Pretty soon, their boho lives took shape. Paul and Walter got jobs as cashiers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stewart spent his days working at an East Village junk shop, reading The Sorrows of Young Werther . They got a practice space on Stanton Street and started playing the Continental and the Cooler. Things, as they say, picked up. Jonathan Fire-Eater began to attract a sympathetic downtown cult. The New York Press pegged them to be huge; College Music Journal devoted an entire “futures” column to them.

Not long after they put out their first self-titled EP, an artist and repertoire scout from Geffen started circling. This was in 1995, near the end of the indie-rock era, and the majors were still out trolling for the next ostensibly uncommercial band who could hit it big. It was around then, friends say, that Mr. Lupton began to experiment with heroin. Always a bit of a handful, this new development distressed his bandmates. (Mr. Lupton refused to comment on his drug use, except to call the Lower East Side a “narcotic supermarket.”) He often got ripped off by the local dealers, who didn’t take him seriously. One friend recalls the homeboys in the neighborhood taunting the sartorially rigorous Mr. Lupton by calling out, “Elvis, Elvis–we thought you were dead. You want to be dead?”

‘A Big Waste of Time’

By June 1995, the band was being flown out to the West Coast and sucked up to a lot. “It was a big waste of time,” said Mr. Frank. “We were trying to not make the mistakes that other bands made, who sounded good on indie labels and then turned into slick nonsense when they signed. That concerned us. We were interested in keeping artistic control.”

In the end, probably too interested. They wanted to hold out for the right deal, and the courting went on for eight months. “There were so many stock phrases we heard,” he remembered. “‘We want you to grow organically.’ ‘We want you to grow at your own speed.’ … The guy from HiFi/Sire would say things like, ‘I would bicycle through the Gobi Desert to see you guys.’ He kept going on about how he’d keep going to every show, no matter who we signed with.” After they picked Dreamworks, they never saw him again.

“The labels thought, here was a band that was giving them the whole package: the music, the image, the whole game plan,” said Mr. Durkacz, the manager. “I’m not going to argue that the game plan didn’t backfire.”

After Mr. Lupton dismissed Sony Records as “too much of a world power for my taste,” they signed with Dreamworks in May 1996, largely on the basis of how much they liked label execs Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker. But according to a source at Geffen, Dreamworks got them only after Geffen brass told their A-and-R reps to pull back and let David Geffen’s new company win this one. The band’s early arrival was punctuated by a story planted in the New York Post ‘s Page Six by a miffed exec at a rival label who whispered that Dreamworks had paid a million bucks for Jonathan Fire-Eater and weren’t even aware of Mr. Lupton’s heroin problem. Mr. Lupton said he found that item “sort of funny.”

Loud Buzz, Little Bang

Of course, as soon as they were signed, the real problems started. The band was resistant to almost any promotional or marketing idea the label threw their way. From Dreamworks’ standpoint, Jonathan Fire-Eater’s artistic control was shaping up to be an unwise investment. For the band, it was the old indie quandary: How to sell out without selling out ?

“We couldn’t agree on anything,” said Mr. Barrick. “The record cover, the mixes …” Even the new album title kept switching, from They All Go Home to How I Like to Remember to Wolf Songs for Lambs . Then things got tense in the studio. Mr. Lupton would refuse to be in the same room as the band and called them an “idiot committee” in Bikini magazine. Mostly, though, Dreamworks left them alone. “As a matter of fact, we were hoping for more interference,” said Mr. Frank. “We had a feeling that they had thoughts about the record that they weren’t sharing.”

Things got worse when it came time to promote the album. After Spin ran a two-page photo spread just on the buzz of their being signed, they got coy. “We didn’t want to be in certain publications,” Mr. Martin said. “We didn’t want to have our pictures taken in certain ways.”

Ms. Bridenthal, Geffen’s media relations honcho, didn’t understand their prudishness. “It’s your royalties, it’s your success, your records, and you don’t want to be as successful as possible?” she said. “Being a record company executive, I think that the record sale number is important.” She chalked the attitude up to “a whole period of time when artists didn’t want to be too popular–which we are hopefully moving out of.”

Wolf Songs for Lambs came out in October 1997 with no video and a single the band made in about two days because they thought Dreamworks was going to pick another song they didn’t want. Between Dreamworks, their controlling natures and Mr. Lupton’s chaotic persona, the album sold only 6,396 copies, according to Soundscan. In fact, there was a bit of a backlash, beginning with a December 1997 review in the Los Angeles Times , which said Jonathan Fire-Eater “clinched its role as the band with the loudest buzz but little real-life bang.”

Soon the finger-pointing began. Ms. Norris, the dominatrix-cum-publicist, blamed start-up problems at Dreamworks. “It’s like, why can’t you sell a fucking record?” she said. There was another little problem: Despite a stay at a rehab facility, Mr. Lupton wasn’t staying clean. “Whenever you have someone with something that people perceive as a drug problem, it creates strain, delays and mood swings,” said Mr. Durkacz, choosing his words carefully. “But the drugs were just the tip of the iceberg.”

The rest of the band was feeling the strain, too. As Mr. Maroon put it, “It came to the point where we were completely stagnant.” They were scheduled to play the Reading Festival in England on Aug. 28, but after Mr. Lupton almost didn’t show for an Irving Plaza date in March, and a disastrous show at the Bowery Ballroom on July 1, they began to get restless. “When the train is moving fast, you don’t jump off,” said Mr. Frank. “But now it’s sort of at a standstill, so there’s no reason not to bolt.”

Nonetheless, even though they’ve disbanded, they still have a contract to close out with Dreamworks. No one at Dreamworks would comment about the contractual denouement, but Mr. Lupton told the Rocktropolis on-line news site that the label was considering re-releasing the group’s three EP’s and calling it a day.

With the rest planning to go back to school, Mr. Lupton doesn’t quite know what he’s going to do. “I don’t have any skills, man,” he said. “I can dance, I can write poetry and stuff. Everything else is entry-level.” As for a lesson learned, he said he now knew to “trust no one.” Looking back, he said, “It was all so screwed, so totally screwed.”

Still, it wasn’t all bad. “If nothing else, we managed to get Walter a new jaw,” said Mr. Frank, referring to their manager’s desperate need for dental surgery, necessitated by a hard punch in the mouth during a poker game long ago.

Mr. Durkacz took it one step further. “Tell them they fixed my teeth and broke my will.”

Sorrows of a Coddled Rock Band: Jonathan Fire-Eater Burns Out