Walter Martin had spent his life being the cool guy in the cool rock band, but by 2013, the ride was over. It had been a good one: His first band, The Ignobles, opened for Fugazi when he was just 14. His second, Jonathan Fire*Eater, spearheaded New York City’s indie scene in the 1990s, giving rise to bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, The Strokes, and LCD Soundsystem. His third, The Walkmen, made seven successful, critically acclaimed albums and toured around the world for more than a decade. But when The Walkmen broke up, Martin found himself adrift, unsure of what to do now that, for the first time in almost 30 years, there was no new band to be a part of.
He never thought he could make music on his own. Sure, he'd helped write countless songs over the years, but he couldn’t sing. His voice was pitchy, and croaky, and altogether just goofy. Besides, he was no frontman. He had always been the stone-faced, silent keyboard player on the side of the stage, holding it down while the lead singer put on a show.
Still, he couldn’t keep himself from dreaming up songs. Snatches of lyrics, titles, choruses, and guitar riffs swirled around inside his head, all the time. He wound up recording a handful of demos, just for kicks. The songs were strange, and imperfect, and littered with jokes, a far cry from the kind of music he was used to making. But that’s what he liked about them. They didn’t sound like The Walkmen, or Jonathan Fire*Eater—they sounded like him.
"I realized that a lot of my favorite singers are bad singers. Like Randy Newman, or Jonathan Richman, or Michael Hurley," Martin told VICE. "I was like, 'You know that the people that you like the most, you like them because of their personalities. You like them. And the fact that they can't sing like Pavarotti, you don't think about that when you listen to the music.' Part of it was convincing myself that I could make something like that, that was true to me. And the fact that I'm not a great singer—it doesn't fucking matter."
Eventually, he worked up the nerve to start showing his friends and family these funny little songs of his. Ever since he was a kid, his mom had been supportive of his music, but when he played her what he’d written, she cried; for the first time, she was hearing the sound of her son. His wife felt the same way. "You have to do this," she told him. "That's you."
He had written more than a dozen songs, and now he just had to figure out what to do with them. If he was going to release an album, he wanted to signal that it was going to be different from his other work; that this music was earnest and lighthearted, not some self-serious, slickly produced indie project; that, at 39 years old, he was done trying to be the cool guy in the cool rock band.
He decided to do the least cool, most self-effacing thing he could think of: He'd make a kids' record.
He released We're All Young Together in 2014, and critics loved it. Yes, it’s a kids’ record—complete with songs about zoos and rattlesnakes, "I-M-A-G-I-N-A-T-I-O-N" and dreams—but it’s a joy to listen to no matter how old you are. It's full of pretty, tender songs arranged simply and almost whimsically, intentionally ramshackle, full of life. One minute you’re laughing at some joke Martin made about a moray eel; the next, you’re listening to him nail what it feels like to fall in love on "Sing to Me," a gorgeous, crooning duet with Karen O.
We’re All Young Together
took Martin on a tour of about 50 cities across the country, from a children’s music festival in Philly called "Kidchella" to a gig in West Hollywood at the Troubadour. It also performed well enough to allow him to make another album—then another, and another, and another.
Martin has stopped making kids’ music, but he's stuck to his impulse to write songs that sound like him. They’re often funny, and always disarmingly conversational, thanks in part to the fact that most of what he writes is autobiographical. On a song off 2016's Arts and Leisure called "Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous," he literally describes just that. All the stories he tells in "I Went Alone on a Solo Australian Tour," off 2018's Reminisce Bar and Grill, are about the time he actually went alone on a solo Australian tour.
If you listen to his entire body of work, you end up feeling like you know him. And that’s exactly what he's going for.
"I'm trying to be as approachable and as friendly sounding as possible. To sort of let my guard down," Martin said. "I was in bands for so long where the emphasis was on cool, and on sort of a separation between you and the crowd. With the artists that I really love, so much of it has that very approachable sort of humor, and friendliness. It's really about the person. And so I try to do that as much as I can."
Martin’s latest record, The World at Night, out Friday, is still very much in line with that ethos, but it’s sadder and more subdued than any of his other albums. He started writing it after the lead singer of Jonathan Fire*Eater, Stewart Lupton, died in 2018. They were childhood best friends. Lupton was the one who got Martin into making music, when they were in fourth grade. They played in bands together for the next 15 years, until Lupton developed a heroin addiction that led Jonathan Fire*Eater to break up. He and Martin drifted apart, only seeing each other once a year or so—usually over the holidays, when their families would get together for Christmas. And then, in 2015, Lupton tried to kill himself.
"I went to see him in the hospital right after it happened, and he somehow survived. And we just locked in together. All the bad stuff disappeared, and we became like we were in high school," Martin said. "It was just like, ‘You're somebody who has come back from the dead.’ Having your old friend back is an amazing thing, something I never imagined would happen."
Once Lupton got out of the hospital, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia—a condition that had likely gone undetected for decades, masked by his substance abuse. He quit doing drugs, and he and Martin kept in touch. Martin would send Lupton his songs, and Lupton would send back poetry. They talked on the phone about their work, about their lives, about their families. They stayed close for about three years, but Lupton was "totally, absolutely tormented" by his mental illness, Martin said. At the age of 43, Lupton killed himself.
"I just couldn't ignore that when I was writing the record," Martin said. "So as I was working on stuff, that's what I was thinking about a lot. We've done so much together, and creatively we really grew up together, became musicians together. It was just something that I felt, directly and indirectly, made its way into a lot of the songs."
"The World at Night (for Stew)," the album’s second song, is its most melancholy moment. It’s also the most beautiful one. Over a sleepy, meandering piano part, Martin sings about a donkey drinking moonlight from a pond, fireflies blinking in the darkness, seeing a ghost in a flicker of starlight. He pulled a lot of those images from a collage Lupton made in high school, which was given to him by Lupton’s parents just after his death. Martin keeps it propped on a windowsill in his recording studio.
"When somebody dies, you become—at least I do—more aware of what you're doing. You want to make sure you're doing stuff that they approve of, and you want to be a good person for them," Martin said. "In Stew's case, growing up as music snobs together, I was like, ‘I want to make good music for him.’"
And Martin has. The World at Night is a shockingly good record. It will give you goosebumps; it will make you gasp; it might make you cry. The album feels, above all else, real—an authentic document of what Martin’s life looks like. That feeling hits you particularly hard on "The Soldier," a six-and-a-half minute ballad written, in blank verse, from the perspective of an aging World War II veteran. Martin describes the trajectory of the man’s life in astoundingly specific detail. You hear about how he was shipped from Staten Island to Honolulu to Iwo Jima, where he saw his first dead body; you hear about how he married his friend from the Army’s sister, and the child they had, who died young, leaving behind her own child; you hear about how they adopted that girl and raised her as their own, and the time she dyed her hair pink in the eighth grade, and how they made her dye it back the next day, and so on, and so on—all the while, marveling at this intricate story Martin has woven together. And then you hear this line: "And the fella singin’ this song is her husband now, and he idolizes me for some reason." You find yourself stunned. The soldier Martin is singing about is his actual grandfather-in-law. These details are all real.
It’s songwriting like that—borne of an almost religious commitment to honesty, rendered in casual, conversational language—that makes Martin’s music so affecting. And that’s on full display throughout The World at Night. The album, like all of his work, is a direct extension of the person who made it—a true representation of who Martin really is.
"I'm very glad to be where I am now, because I'm doing exactly what I want to do, and making stuff that I really like. And somehow, miraculously, making a living," he said. "All I really care about is being able to keep doing it."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.