Many describe the music of Roselit Bone as “cinematic” and reference the work of legendary film score composer Ennio Morricone. That’s not wrong, but it’s not exactly right, either.
“I’ve never quite identified with [that comparison]. I mean, obviously I like spaghetti western music, but it’s never been a primary influence for me,” says Joshua McCaslin, singer, songwriter, and co-founder of the Portland nine-piece.
“I may draw from similar places that [Morricone] did, like the Mexican ranchera horns and the Duane Eddy guitar twang,” McCaslin continues. “Taking all these elements and trying to cram them into one four-minute song is probably going to make it epic no matter what. I try to squeeze as much as I can into every little song.”
For McCaslin, it’s not about creating something cinematic, but about layering powerful sounds, building an unmistakable aesthetic, and evoking human emotions—both positive and negative.
In that sense, Roselit Bone’s new album Blister Steel is a runaway success. Its building blocks include guitars, accordion, pedal steel, horns, violin, oddball percussion, and McCaslin’s versatile voice. And it’s stylistically broad, covering old-school country, western swing, off-kilter jazz, Mexican folk, early rock ’n’ roll, spoken word, snarling post-punk, and even flecks of psychedelic pop. The result: an unnerving set of booze-soaked, blood-curdling hellfire hymns that sound like very few other bands anywhere, much less Portland.
McCaslin grew up in Southern California listening to rootsy punk bands like the Gun Club and X before moving to Oregon in 2007 in search of a lower cost of living. After a bleak spell living in a basement near Coos Bay, he moved to Portland, where he formed Roselit Bone with drummer Ben Dahmes. The duo started out playing fairly straightforward folk songs, then began adding instruments and incorporating musical styles.
“I’m constantly listening to all these different genres of music, and they all kind of just feed into my songwriting,” McCaslin says. “When I started listening to Mexican ranchera music, my songs changed to reflect that.”
The band released its debut, Blacken and Curl, in 2014, and started gaining traction after playing Treefort Music Fest in Boise the following year.
“Once we started playing out of town and impressing people outside Portland, it took off here a little bit more,” McCaslin says. “It feels like we’ve been accepted now.”
One of the people Roselit Bone impressed on the road was Christopher Watson, the founder of Friendship Fever Records in Sacramento, California. The band signed to the label to release Blister Steel, and has since brought on a publicist and a booking agent, who arranged Roselit Bone’s upcoming national tour.
A tour for this band is no small undertaking, logistically or interpersonally. Roselit Bone travels in a school bus, with McCaslin and Dahmes joined by violinist Faith Grossnicklaus, guitarist Victor Franco, horn player Daniel Gruska, flautist Valerie Osterberg, pedal steel guitarist Barry Walker, Jr. and multi-instrumentalists Matt Mayhem and Andy Manla.
“Living with eight other people in a school bus for a month is never easy,” McCaslin says. “We’re all pretty intense people. I think it goes hand in hand with making intense music.”