For an artist preoccupied with the dangers of technology and the covert operations of the military, Ian Evans (a.k.a. Napolian) appears relatively calm when speaking about the video for his latest single, the glitchy "DARPA." Featuring human-like robots, launching missiles, and frantic hands slamming out code, the clip has a distinctly paranoid vibe that permeates much of Incursio, his forthcoming debut full-length. The video's imagery is especially fitting when one considers that the hyperactive track shares a name with the agency of the United States Department of Defense tasked with developing technology for the military. "I don't want to say I worry about it a lot," the 21-year-old producer says, "but I think about this a lot—black operations and technologies and other things we can only dream of."
"I didn't mean it to be political," he says. "It's just real." In truth, Evan largely rejects politics, as his understanding of the world instead stems from a deep sense of spirituality; he's even named one of the tracks from his new LP after a Bible passage, 1 Peter 1:3-4. "I have visions," he claims. "I build images of alternative realities and I start to build a track that reminds me of that intensity, the same intensity when I think about those images."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Evans' musical education began at home. His father had a vast CD collection; "his range was incredible," he explains, recalling all the afternoons he spent thumbing through stacks of old R&B and hip-hop records. He was immediately drawn to J Dilla and Massive Attack, but his one true love was Dr. Dre; those CDs never left his mother's car stereo. "Dre is the first producer I really took note of and studied," he says. "When I was a child, I could easy grab on to the structure of his music, even the way he'd mix his records. It was the 'less is more' effect that fascinated me when I was young, and it still does."
Music is in Evans' blood—his grandfather is Puerto Rican-born Jorge Calderon, a Grammy-winning producer and multi-instrumentalist best known for his decades-long collaboration with Warren Zevon. Evans' grandmother, a talented singer named Tessie Coen, provided backing vocals on Calderon's 1976 solo album for Warner Bros., City Music. "We're not that close, though," Evans admits, shying away from citing his grandparents as a major influence in his decision to experiment with music. However, he did learn one important lesson from his grandmother that continues to inform his work today: always stay true to yourself, no matter what, even in the face of great financial rewards. Back in the day, Coen was offered a major-label record deal, but she ended up turning it down because the label boss would have required her to undergo plastic surgery upon signing. "She refused to get the nosejob they tried to force on her," he says, admiring her strong will.
It was during his middle school years that Evans first began to dabble in making music of his own, but before he really dove in, he devoted several years to another creative endeavor—photography. Heavily influenced by films like The Shawshank Redemption, Terminator 2, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Evans describes his photography style as cinematic; his work frequently employed lens flares to maximize visual drama. While in high school, his friends asked him to give commercial photography a try, as they needed help marketing their clothing line. After a while though, Evans—who attended Taft High School, which counts Ice Cube and Eazy-E as alums—decided to put down his SLR and throw himself into music.
He made his first beat at 13 with Apple's GarageBand, playing with the default loops that came with the program. "[GarageBand] helped me grasp the basics of song structure, harmony and melody," he remembers. After a few years, Evans began to produce tracks he was proud of, and eventually formed a production collective called The Renaissance Music Group with Dro Carey and future labelmates Tariq and Garfield. A longtime fan of Oneohtrix Point Never (a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin), Evans plotted to get a demo in the Brooklyn artist's hands. After failing to hand off a tape at a show Lopatin played in LA, Evans then tried to get his attention via SoundCloud—and to his surprise, it worked. "I commented on his SoundCloud one day," Evans recalls. "He put up a song, and I said, 'Hey, you know you have to do another echo jams tape,' and he said, 'Only if you let me release your music.' He doesn't play around! That was wild."
"I listened to 'Art' and 'Hoodbangin 96' for multiple hours the day I came across Napo's SoundCloud," says Lopatin. "It was undeniable and pretty obvious that Ian was extremely talented and making highly seductive, anthemic music, so I messaged him."
As talented as he is, Evans is also lucky; thanks to the generosity and support of his mother, he's been able to focus on music full time. He's moved on from GarageBand to Logic, along with what he describes as "tons of plug-ins," and aside from a course in mixing at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, he's managed to skip out on college and finding a day job; instead, he spends his days refining his craft. "I'm blessed to have a mom that lets me just do music 24/7," Evans admits. "But it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I'm free, but I don't have a constant income, which is kind of crazy. But it'll pay off. Hard work pays off."
So far, he certainly seems to be heading in the right direction. Soon after he turned 19, Evans teamed up with Texas producer Computer Dreams on a split album that was released digitally via Beer on the Rug in 2011, which is when he first appeared on XLR8R's radar. Soon after, Evans dropped the Rejoice EP, a collection of R&B-flavored computer funk. The well-received record was issued via Lopatin's Software label, and set the stage for Incursio, which Software will release next week. Promising "no break record samples, no dust, no crates, no jazz rust, no deconstruction," his label nicknamed it Encursducing…, a nod to DJ Shadow's massively influential 1996 full-length debut. The new record does include a couple of tunes that were initially conceived during the Rejoice sessions, but on the whole, the album represents an artist who has taken the proverbial leap and properly come into his own.
"DARPA" may be Incursio's lead single, but Evans is most proud of "THERM.G," a short, rattling track that features his friend and frequent collaborator Dro Carey. A huge fan of Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series, Evans sought to create a song that felt like something straight out of his videogames. "We've done a lot of work in the past, but I'm very surprised [Dro Carey and I] were able to create something this cinematic," he says. After providing Carey with some synth lines and textures, Evans says that "Dro drove it home with his intense rhythms and percussion."
Apart from his own music, Evans has also been making waves with his production work with other artists, including Airbird (a.k.a. Joel Ford), rising LA vocalist and Fade to Mind affiliate Kelela, and NYC rapper A$AP Ferg, among others. Working with A$AP Ferg on his Trap Lord album was a particularly illuminating experience; at the time, the A$AP Mob rapper didn't even know what stems were, which gave Evans the confidence in the studio that he'd been lacking thus far. He explains, "We went from 'What are stems?' to giving Trap Lord some of my personality, more of a futuristic sound."
"I still don't think i've reached my full potential," Evans says. "I know I have thousands of hours to put in. But I know I can create something special. I just hope that [my music] soothes people and gives them strength."