Disaster ballads are nothing new — they've been a part of folk and popular music for as long as there's been both music and disasters. But disaster ballads with electronic beats and riffs that sometimes verge on metal? That's the province of Action Camp, and not too many others.
"It all started when [bandmate Bengt Alexsander] read this book about modern ghost towns," explains singer and multi-instrumentalist Maura Jacob. "And he read about Centralia," the town in eastern Pennsylvania where an underground mine fire has been burning for more than 50 years. "That started an interest in looking at these disasters. As someone who grew up in Pittsburgh, I feel like you're just aware of all this history related to unions and steel, but also lots of disasters — both man-made and natural, but usually man-made. It's part of growing up here." That was the impetus for PA, the duo's new album, which focuses on historic disasters set in Pennsylvania.
Jacob grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from CAPA High School; she moved to Boston in 2003, and started Action Camp with Alexsander, who hailed from the Boston area. In 2008, they moved to Pittsburgh.
"We kind of wanted to incorporate our own experiences here, too — mine from growing up here, his from moving here," Jacob explains. "I left in 2003 and came back in 2008, and even in that small window, things were immensely different."
The stories of the fire in Centralia, the Johnstown flood, the Donora smog, the "Picnic Train Disaster" (which occurred near Camp Hill, Pa., in 1856), and the general lifestyle of the coal-mining families of Pennsylvania all serve as jumping-off points for songs on the new album.
The tunes aren't all transparently about disasters — "Turn of the Blade," for example, was written from the point of view of a boy who watched his home being destroyed in the Johnstown flood, but there's little that indicates that directly. The song deals more with his psychological state later on, wanting to move on from the disaster.
Where Action Camp once walked a line between electronic pop and surf-rock with a somewhat dour disposition, PA finds the pair branching out, still making pop sounds on tracks like "Come Clean," but also exploring something like stoner metal on "Turn of the Blade." (Jacob and Alexsander recognize everything from Portishead to Kyuss as influences.)
In many cases, sounds follow ideas on the album. In "Thirst," about the Donora smog, "the song has this big explosion at the end, where my vocal has this feedback loop on it that builds up and just stops dead," mimicking a death by suffocation, explains Alexsander.
It's not all doom and gloom, though.
"We didn't plan to write a really morbid record," says Jacob, with a laugh. "In our minds, it's impossible to write about these things and have it be happy, obviously, but part of what I was hoping to accomplish was finding beauty and humanity in these dark experiences. Not emphasizing strictly the dark — I think you can't avoid it — but the main thing I wanted to communicate more is, I think there's beauty in clarity, and beautiful moments in these insane experiences."