How would you write a love song if you were living in apocalyptic times? That’s the idea behind the song “Roselit Bone” on the debut album by the band of the same name, 2014’s Blacken & Curl.
“Love me like you love the ocean/love me like you love the open sea/There are horses on the road and my legs are weak,” sings Joshua McCaslin. Not every song on the record is so obviously about love in the apocalypse, but this backdrop is where McCaslin finds himself when he’s writing music.
“There was a time where I was pretty emotionally affected by global warming and how I saw the future of the planet,” McCaslin says. “When you’re writing a love song or something, the backdrop to that—if you’re looking into the future—is that things are going to be pretty bad outside of that relationship [even] if the relationship is good.”
Musically, it’s a tight fit. The songs are dark, folk-rooted songs, with an ensemble of seemingly random instruments producing what sounds like the soundtrack to a depressing end-of-the-world film where all the characters can do is wait for their imminent deaths.
Clearly, Roselit Bone’s Western-dive-bar-meets-dystopian-future isn’t a gimmick; it’s exactly what McCaslin feels.
“For a while, the way I saw things going was there was going to be some sort of global catastrophe. It’s still happening. Florida is probably going to be half underwater. New Orleans isn’t going to be there anymore in 50 years. That is always in the back of my mind when I’m writing songs,” McCaslin says.
Originally from Orange County, McCaslin moved to Oregon with his then-girlfriend (now wife), living in the unfinished basement of her parents’ cabin in rural coastal Oregon, which was miles away from any city. Unable to find work and barely scraping by, this is where McCaslin started writing the music that would land on Roselit Bone’s debut.
“All there was to do was go to the local library and grab music theory books and jazz albums and sit down and study them. I would spend 10 hours a day studying music theory on my own,” McCaslin says. “That sound came together once we left that place. I feel like you can’t appreciate a place until you move away from it. I was scrambling for money in the middle of the woods, just try to stay alive.”
The band started as a duo with McCaslin on guitar and vocals and Ben Dahme on drums. The songs were dark, but much more folk-oriented in those days.
As they played more, McCaslin thought it would be a good idea to expand into an unexpected instrument: the trumpet.
“The trumpet seemed like a good addition for what we were doing. Eventually I decided that the two-trumpet sound was what I needed, so we added a second,” McCaslin says.
Today they are a nine-piece, including a flute, pedal steel and accordion. The lineup seems like it was assembled by the spin of a roulette wheel—which is sort of true, but it also helped to create a uniquely dark and musically ambiguous sound.
“As I added instruments, I got better at arranging things and would hear space for something else. I wasn’t necessarily looking for these different instruments, but when I saw these members playing I sort of made a place for them in the songwriting,” McCaslin says.
By the time McCaslin wrote their second album, Blister Steel, he found himself interested in how people are affected by mental illness. The world in Blister Steel isn’t exactly a friendly place, but let’s just say that it’s not so completely bleak.
McCaslin feels the improvement in his own living situation has tempered his outlook at bit. He still believes everything is heading toward destruction, but now he sees more people pushing back against the void.
“Everyone I see is losing their minds about what’s going on in politics. Now I feel like the person that’s like, ‘It’s going to be alright. We’ve been living with these things for a while now,’” McCaslin says. “But I still think it’s going to be bad.”
Roselit Bone plays at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.