A slightly abridged version can be seen on Ryan’s Smashing Life

What do two indie rock bands from New York and Long Beach, a Trappist monk, poet, social activist and mystic, and a furrier’s in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn have in common? Seemingly nothing whatsoever, and yet when they came together early last year, there was an inspirational spark, a perfect storm, and something quite, well, mystical happened.

The musical discovery of French Style Furs began when Nathan Willett and Matt Maust of Cold War Kids met with We Barbarians‘ Nathan Warkentin for brief recording sessions. Willett came to them inspired by the spiritual journey and writings of Thomas Merton. They worked on ideas that became the basic tracks for this debut. Moving between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, they fleshed out the songs with the help of friends. These contributions include vocals from Haley Dekle (Dirty Projectors), Zina and Marika Dahlin; percussion from Stephen Hodges (David Lynch, Tom Waits) and horns from Wyndham Boylan-Garnett and Nick Kinsey (Elvis Perkins in Dearland). They worked with Nick Launay, who produced albums by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Arcade Fire, Talking Heads, David Byrne and PiL.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), writer, Trappist monk, poet, social activist, mystic – and now songwriter in a rock band – penned more than 70 books and many reviews and essays. He traveled the world in search of silence and solitude, and became a student of various cultures and religions traditions which included Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sufism and Taoism. In his dual desire for inner quiet and world peace, he met with important spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, and shared his vision in essays, novels, devotional writings, poetry and autobiographies, while living the cloistered life of a monk. I’ll bet he never would have guessed that his poetry would be sung with such heartfelt conviction in an indie rock song, and that his words would be flashed across the screen in a video on YouTube.

Is Exotic Bait has a more desperate, frantic pace than the usual Cold War Kids fare. This is possibly due to Warkentin’s influence, or perhaps it was the presence of Merton’s spiritual longings that pushed them into new territory. This album can be thought of as “exuberant contemplation,” which is especially evident in songs like the jaunty David Byrne infused “Solitary Life” and the breathless self-realization of “(World In My) Bloodstream,” a contemplation of one’s place in the universe.

“I lie on my hospital bed / Water runs inside the walls
And the musical machinery / All around overhead
Plays upon my metal system / My invented back bone
Lends to the universal tone / A flat impersonal song
All the planes in my mind / Sing to my worried blood
To my jet streams / I swim in the world’s genius
The spring’s plasm / I wonder who the hell I am.”
– (World In My) Bloodstream

What at first seems odd makes perfect sense, really. During Merton’s time as a monk, he moved from looking inward to being deeply concerned with the outer world, participating in the race riots and Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s by writing about issues of peace, social equality and racial tolerance. If he were here today, with so many of the same perplexing issues facing us, would he not have been out on the road, guitar and microphone in hand?

“Turn and Burn” is yes, a slow burner, with passion and desire simmering underneath. This one’s a collaborative effort, based on Merton’s “Aubade: The Annunciation” (1946), part of his poetry honoring the Virgin Mary (“Prayers fly in the mind like larks / Thoughts hide in the height like hawks / And while the country churches tell their blessings to the distance / Her slow words move / Desires glitter in her mind / Like morning stars.”). “All The Way Down” is all fire and brimstone, damnation and salvation matched note for note. There is an awful lot here for those who like to dig deep. “Clairvaux Prison” is both social commentary leveled against bloodthirsty dogs of war and a loving tribute to a French abbey that was wretchedly converted to a high-security prison. (“It is a year of strategy / The bureaucrats, wiping the blood off their fingers / In the gates of the Temple of Reason / have voted to poison the enemy’s well. / They know their danger / They need to throw some dead thing / Into the living waters that were once Clairvaux / and kill the too clean image / in the heart of such a spring.”)

Is Exotic Bait gives a modern voice to a visionary author who melded a sense of social responsibility with the age old search for inner truth. This is some heady stuff for a trio of rock musicians, but it’s clear they’re having a good time. And you will too.

“There were three friends
Discussing life.
One said:
‘Can men live together
And know nothing of it?
Work together
And produce nothing?
Can they fly around in space
And forget to exist
World without end?’
The three friends looked at each other
And burst out laughing.
They had no explanation.
Thus they were better friends than before.”
– Three Friends, from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

French Style Furs Is Exotic Bait is out 7/8 on Frenchkiss. They will be performing at the Mercury Lounge in New York, NY on 7/7 and at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, NY on 7/9.

French Style Furs: Is Exotic Bait

3 Friends
All The Way Down
(World In My) Bloodstream
Solitary Life
Miami U R About 2 B Surprised
Ambassadors Of General Electric
Turn Or Burn
Man The Master
Christmas Card
Clairvaux Prison

Words by Thomas Merton courtesy of New Directions

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

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