Walter Martin has seen a lot, and he’s got stories to tell. These days, he’s an affable, well-adjusted dad whose solo work explores art history, kids’ songs about zoo animals, and a particularly lonely solo Australian tour, which he turned into a barber shop quartet extravaganza at a recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert. But the events that brought him here are a whirlwind three decades’ worth of American rock ‘n’ roll lore.
“We opened for Fugazi,” he says offhand, chatting about the 10th grade ska band he played in with future members of The Walkmen and Jonathan Fire*Eater. They also opened for Lenny Kravitz, when he came through D.C. behind his 1989 debut album, Let Love Rule. Just normal teenage band things.
“They looked like they were 9 or 10 years old,” he remembers. “We were wearing black sunglasses and porkpie hats. We thought it was totally badass and it took me a long time… I think I was 30 when I realized we were a novelty act.”
And that’s just the start of it. The first serious band he played in was Jonathan Fire*Eater, the mercurial New York City garage rockers who readied the city for the rise of groups like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs several years later. One major label A&R thought they were “gonna be like Smash Mouth” and another pledged to “walk across the Gobi Desert” to sign them. After Fire*Eater fizzled out, Martin and his old friends formed The Walkmen, who cranked out rock-solid indie rock LP after rock-solid indie rock LP before going on hiatus four years ago. They also made “The Rat,” straight-up one of the best indie rock songs of all time.
On the hells of his 2018 solo LP Reminisce Bar & Grill, Martin swung by for a chat about his whole life in music. It’s funny and fascinating, and details all of the above and plenty more, like, say the “rock and roll softball team” he played on with future Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner while at Bard: “I was the pitcher, Nick was the catcher… he’d have a camera around his neck and be smoking.”
Listen to the ‘cast below. And if you’re looking for more downtown New York City lore, check out last week’s interview with Albert Hammond, Jr.
#AlternativeFacts is a weekly Billboard podcast devoted to all things alternative music. Click here to subscribe to the #AlternativeFacts Podcast on iTunes. Let us know what you think on Twitter (@cpayneonaplane) and by rating the podcast on iTunes.