It's less than 15 minutes into a conversation with Drew Andrews, frontman of Bit Maps, before the chat takes kind of a dark turn.
"Apocalypse is always on my mind," he says with a laugh.
Andrews' quiet, idyllic Lemon Grove backyard isn't the most natural setting for a talk about the end times. It's downright pleasant outside on a Sunday afternoon in October, a 30-foot-tall tree covering the patio in a soothing shade as a hammock gently sways in the breeze. Still, it's hard not to entertain the possibility that the earth is teetering precariously on the precipice of disaster. The concept of a President Trump, for instance, is terrifying enough. But Scripps Institution of Oceanography also announced that the earth's atmosphere has passed the carbon threshold of 400 parts per million, which is likely to make the planet inhospitable to humans much sooner than anyone is prepared for.
For the usually upbeat and gregarious Andrews, however, the concept of the end of the world—if not necessarily a belief in the inevitability of it—has always been a fascination.
"Growing up as a kid in Evangelical Christianity, especially in a strain that was fixated on apocalypse, as I made my way through that and out of that, I realized all cultures have apocalypse narratives," he says. "It seems more frightening now because we have more knowledge in our hands, but regardless it's always been a thread through humanity."
You and Me and Dystopia, Bit Maps' second album, reflects that fascination with impending doom, albeit rendered in abstract, emotional snapshots. The songs are melodic and pretty, subtle in the way that they allow Andrews to deliver his dark, albeit catchy prophecies without beating the listener over the head. Blink and you might miss that he sings "Nuclear fallout won't tear us apart" on "I Keep Bringing It Up." It's less easy to overlook the carnage that opens "Don't Stop Summer," which begins with a car accident, prompting Andrews to croon, "Everything black and blue/Tie up the tourniquet, if you want."
The prevailing theme on You and Me and Dystopia isn't explicitly, "We're fucked," but rather that we all deal with a changing world very differently, and each song is like a piece in an anthology, with different characters observing different situations, many of them quite dark.
"You and Me and Dystopia," he says, meditating on the title of the record, briefly. "It's a larger world pressing in. You can approach that in different ways. You can cave in or go with the flow or savage each other, or choose to make a coexistence that is for better things, or hopeful. Not all the lyrics are hopeful, but just trying to capture that, the inter-relational aspect in a kind of frightening world."
Andrews, who also explored an apocalypse narrative in his 2014 debut novel The Shepherd's Journal, says that in writing You and Me and Dystopia, the concept actually ended up being secondary to the musical performances. The album—the band's second full-length since coalescing out of Andrews' solo work three years ago—is a richly arranged work that was made with the sole purpose of capturing the band's live dynamic. Andrews, guitarists Josh Carlson and James Zzyzzyx, bassist Erik Norgaard and drummer Matt Bennett balance a soulful approach to songwriting with the energy of a well-seasoned rock band. There's a dense juxtaposition of electronic beats and atmospheric guitars on "The Séance," while closing track "Guadalajara" has the most badass groove of the bunch.
For Andrews, a veteran musician and songwriter who has previously played in San Diego bands Via Satellite and The Album Leaf, it was important to showcase the group's instrumental abilities as strongly as possible, especially in an age when it's often easier to simply program them.
"For me, it's a language, and youíre always learning new vocabulary," he says of playing music. "The goal is to learn more words—more techniques and more tricks. And to always be challenging yourself. But there's this trend to always be making it easy, and technology's been like that for a long time. I love electronic music—it's part of my lifeblood. But...one thing I appreciate about Jimmy [LaValle] from Album Leaf, the mantra was 'as much live as possible.' Don't let this stuff do it for you. You as the artist control the machine. Don't let it control you."
True to Andrews' mantra of keeping Bit Maps' music reflective of the people that make it, instead of an algorithm, he has a garage full of analog instruments, some of them more than 100 years old. His standard instrument is the Rhodes piano, which has a prominent presence on You and Me and Dystopia, and surrounding it are vintage synthesizers and organs, the newest of which is a pump organ that dates back to the 1880s, formerly belonging to a friend's father. "This pump organ was just going to go to Goodwill," he says. "It just doesn't seem right. That shouldn't go away, to maybe never being really appreciated."
Andrews' approach to preserving a musical history is not unlike the ideas of decay that keep him preoccupied. It's about saving something that deserves care and protection. So here's the punchline: Andrews is an optimist. Apocalypse may be on the horizon, but we have the ability to fend it off.
"I think all this is in our control," he says. "But it feels lonely. Sometimes, I can see how people don't have much hope. Or just cave in to the will that everything's going to go to shit, so why should we fight? So that's something we're trying to put out there: It's important to stand together and be connected when everything's so disconnected."
Bit Maps play October 14 at Bar Pink