The iNHUMANS’ Austin Valley, left, and Kyle McAfee bust some rhymes at the Palace Lounge.
The game of limbo seemed a tough act to follow when iNHUMANS stepped foot on the Palace Lounge stage at close to 1 a.m. last Sunday morning. KBGA’s End-a-Thon had been in full swing for hours. Dancers looked antsy, deprived of a live act since just after midnight.
But the mood change generated by the group’s first hip hop beat erased all memory of the delay. Arms twisted, feet shuffled, hands and token straw hats waved. Suddenly even the most downcast Charlie Brown was toe tapping beneath blue-and-green disco-ball dazzle. It was Missoula-styled hip hop with some serious polish, and rappers Kyle McAfee and Austin Valley had control of the crowd, playing and rhyming with ease.
The next afternoon, McAfee and Valley, along with bassist/sax player Sammy Kaley, nurse post-gig hangovers with coffee in a drafty basement on Brooks. They talk about their upcoming debut album, 97 Lovers, a Valentine’s Day release party and the band’s impending move to Portland, Ore.
“I think we’re just hoping to get a more regular schedule for gigging,” McAfee says. “We feel like we have enough momentum right now that if we stayed in Missoula we’d hit a plateau.”
Valentine’s Day will be iNHUMANS’ last Missoula show. Most of the band’s 10 members are Missoula natives and former University of Montana students. McAfee has worked at Fact & Fiction for nine years. They’ve given the move a lot of thought, they say, and talked to Missoula bands who have made successful transitions, as well as some who’ve stuck around.
“There are a few that are definitely mainstays, like Volumen,” McAfee says. “But those guys all have kids and shit.”
Kaley adds: “They’ve been out there before and we’ve never really even done a tour.”
Since its inception in late 2003, iNHUMANS has literally snowballed. McAfee and Valley added guitarist Dennis Ferriter in 2004, then Kaley and trumpet player Jordan Demander in 2006. Valley’s older brother, Dylan, acts as DJ and James Murphy jumped aboard on drums. Heavy Flow, a female trio, joined in 2007 and provided backup vocals on 97 Lovers.
“We all just crack each other up and have a good time,” Valley says.
Valley points to 97 Lovers as a for-your-stereo example of that “good time.” In summer 2007, he and McAfee discussed album ideas with Matt Larson, a Missoula friend working as an engineer at the Chicago Recording Company. Larson cut iNHUMANS a great deal on recording and mixing. So the band hopped on Amtrak over winter break and rented a Chicago apartment for a month.
“It took recording this album for this band to really focus on itself,” Valley says. “For a long time it’s been a side project for everyone, and that’s why it’s lasted so long.”
97 Lovers opened a lot of eyes to the chemistry at work. iNHUMANS has since taken front-seat in the lives of the core seven members. They’ve invested in rehearsals, gigs and recording sessions at Valley’s father’s house in Potomac. They’ve built a solid Missoula fan base and aren’t, as of yet, getting on each other’s nerves.
“We had only one fight [in Chicago],” Valley says. “And it was over the rules in this board game we were playing.”
There’s a strong sense that McAfee and Valley are the glue that hold iNHUMANS together. The two began rapping together during improv exercises in high school drama and carried the talent to their first band, Neato Bandita Frito. Valley, the filmmaker behind The Bovine Prophecy and other Missoula indie films, has called on McAfee for numerous projects. They share a wavelength on and off stage, they say, even finishing each other’s sentences.
“We’re both writers, because we’ve done movies together,” McAfee says, pausing for Valley’s interjection.
“And I graduated the creative writing department here,” Valley says.
“And I think we’ve always written well together,” McAfee finishes.
iNHUMANS are not your typical hip hop artists. They are a hodgepodge of high school drama and band geeks, theater and media arts majors. And their musical influences are as varied and colorful as any given lineup at Missoula’s Hempfest. McAfee and Valley work their lyrics around a fusion of genres, using the party life spirit of hip hop as merely a base.
“Our songs are consistently moving to different directions, different topics,” Valley says. “We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing, but we’ll rap about different…everything.”
And their songwriting methods are equally diverse. 97 Lovers was nearly a year in the making, with a body of the album’s tracks composed in-studio in Chicago. Back in Missoula, the group continued to generate new material. It was here that “97 Lovers” materialized as the album’s title track, a perfect example of the band’s at-home approach to composition.
“A lot of our songs we think up around a campfire up on Seeley Lake,” Valley says. “And we bring this keyboard you can run off batteries. It has all these great hip hop beats and we just freestyle around it.”
“It’s nice that we got some of our new stuff on this album,” McAfee says. “But we have almost an entire other album of new songs we could release. It’s just good to get those out there.”
iNHUMANS will lose a few faces in the move to Portland. McAfee and Valley plan to serve as a scouting party, with Ferriter, Kaley and Demander to follow soon after. Dylan Valley will make the move eventually, but both Murphy and Heavy Flow are staying put.
McAfee, Valley and Kaley already have rough plans for the band in Portland, including the promise of future returns to Missoula for shows. Valley’s filmmaker mind is also pondering music video concepts, including a possible animation of the Nintendo-themed 97 Lovers track “On a Hook.” With some momentum from the new album and the upcoming move, the band appears inspired by the future.
“We should be an inspiration to nerds everywhere,” Valley says.
The iNHUMANS play their CD release show with TONSOFFUn at the Badlander Saturday, Feb. 14, at 9 PM. $5.