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Disaffected Duo 

Adult. tried to buck the system, and now it's found an audience. Misanthropy, it seems, sells.

Wednesday, May 7 2003
If San Francisco electronic music, circa 1994, hadn't been so sunny and lovey-dovey, the work of Detroit twosome Adult. might not be so gloomy and alienated today. It's partly house's fault that the husband-and-wife team of Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus turned toward the discomforting embrace of dance music's harder-line siblings, techno and electro. You see, Miller moved here that year, spent a month desperately trying to find one party that wasn't throbbing with the happy-go-trippy fuzz of house, couldn't, and shipped his still-taped-up boxes back to Michigan.

"There was just something too friendly about the place then," he chuckles via cell phone while navigating Adult.'s tour van into a parking place in Montreal, where the group has booked a gig.

Miller had lived in Detroit, the birthplace and international capital of techno, for years without really caring for the music. He had always been a punk rock and new wave guy, but San Francisco in the early '90s was so overwhelmingly positive that he began to find respite in his home city's bizarre postindustrial clang-and-bang culture. In 1996, he started the Ersatz Audio label to put out twitchy, '80s-music-gone-evil records at a time when such sounds were ahead of the curve. Now they're huge, and Adult., the band he formed with Kuperus in 1997, is arguably even bigger, popular among such odd bedfellows as recovering indie rockers, burned-out ravers, and savvy goths.

Adult. is a band that should never have made a ripple beyond its Midwestern backwater. Miller and Kuperus' Spartan adherence to DIY business principles, total lack of hummable melodies and choruses, and shared introverted streak are all the hallmarks of a best-kept-secret for geeks. In an odd reversal of fortune, however, Adult. has managed to endear itself to a whole lot of people through the moans of lonely sounding music machines and atonal, standoffish vocals in praise of disconnectedness. Adult.'s brand of mutant pop -- laptop-reconfigured funk meets ironic, angst-infused girl punk -- is a variant that mass culture's process of natural selection should have weeded out as too esoteric and inaccessible. But the Prozac Nation's prescription is running out, and the rise of a disaffected duo like Adult. suggests that some Americans are electing to embrace their idiosyncrasies instead of refilling.

Adult.'s music is rife with resentment of cheery people and forced social niceties. From Miller's angular synthesizer and drum-machine knife fights to Kuperus' jaded-sounding vocals, Adult. is at root about dis-ease and uncomfortable situations. The group's recent release, Anxiety Always -- its first original full-length album, although many fans gained entry to the band through 2001's Resuscitation, a remix compilation CD of work from previous four-song, vinyl-only EPs -- is sort of a prom for all the misfits who missed their actual proms the first time around. On the song "Blank Eyed, Nose Bleed," for example, Kuperus shouts, "Wouldn't it be nice/ To go to a party/ And be the only one there?"

For Adult., misanthropy is to be encouraged. On the same track, Kuperus declares, "I've been working on my anxiety/ It's something I can do for free." That's pretty much the Adult. ethos in a nutshell: Don't get socialized, don't take meds to make it easy, and don't buy into the system. While steering away from overtly political lyrics, Kuperus and Miller are thoroughly anti-corporate. They run Ersatz Audio themselves and present their products with disarming photographs, taken by Kuperus, of businesspeople getting kicked or laid out on the tarmac of an airstrip.

Adult. is the kind of group that's supposed to languish in abject obscurity for years: Its music is weird-sounding and primarily about unpleasant feelings, and Kuperus and Miller have been reluctant to sign with a label that can promote them better. Instead, they do things like spend a lot of money on full-color jackets for a small-run vinyl EP (New-Phonies, 2000) and release records only through indie distributors. As Vice magazine put it in a profile of the band, "So why aren't they rich? Unfortunately, in the midst of all this popularity and kudos, Adam has decided to keep their bank account at zero by sitting on his ass all day making bad business decisions."

As hard as its members have tried to fail in the business sense, Adult. has managed to find an audience. Disaffection and isolation sell.

"We seem to be getting people who say they identify with the lyrical content," Miller says, "which has been mostly about social anxiety. So many people say, 'I feel the same way -- sometimes I don't want to go out, but I have to go to work.' So I think that somehow by us writing lyrics that we never thought other people would identify with, we actually ended up reaching people. It's like, 'Here's my problem,' and then all these other people are like, 'Yeah, we have the same one.'

"And then, because we weren't trying to identify with anyone, it's honest lyrical content -- people know you aren't feigning this."

When Miller began collaborating with Kuperus in 1997, he had already been producing drumbeat-centered retro-futurist tracks as Artificial Material and with Ian Clark as Le Car, which made a significant splash in the then-small international electro scene. But Miller found purely instrumental music insufficient for expressing his uneasiness with modern living, so he enlisted Kuperus as a guest vocalist. The collaboration soon grew into another beast altogether, and the two began writing songs about such comforting ideas as couches that intentionally cause pain in the humans who sit on them (released in 1999 as the Dispassionate Furniture EP).

The fact that lyrics are central to Adult.'s project, and that they're angst-ridden, means that Miller and Kuperus have become heroes not only to the techno-savvy electroclash minimovement, which they founded unintentionally, but also to the studded-belt-and-thrift-store-sweater nerd rockers.

"Like the club where we played last night, it was a total mixed crowd -- 100 percent gothers to hip hop kids to punkers," Miller says. "That's what sets us apart: So many people can hear something in it that they identify with."

Detroit essentially created techno as a musical genre, but few if any of its artists have gone on to any glory, at least in the United States. So when a local act came along and created buzz -- and the murmur about Adult. has spread with the rapidity and vigor of SARS -- the Motor City Old Guard might have been expected to turn green with envy and pooh-pooh the newcomers in the press. That didn't happen with Adult.

"Basically, we've run our business 100 percent honest, and we've never tried to step on anyone's toes in the city," says Miller. "We kind of do our own thing, so we really are separate from all those kinds of bullshit."

Another kind of bullshit Miller and Kuperus hope to keep separate from is all the flap over electroclash. Adult. was the first on the scene, but now every blank-voiced frontwoman with a bone to pick wants to talk mean over a drum machine. The backlash is already under way, and many reviewers of Anxiety Always have read it as an electroclash antithesis album. The intricate beat programming of Adult.'s early, Resuscitation-era work is now muddied up with fuzzy synths that squawk like punk rock guitars, and the group's dance-floor aesthetic threatens to yield to the mosh pit. Kuperus often takes to barking, and ruminates on aggressive behavior like kicking shins and gluing eyelids shut.

But Miller explains that while he and Kuperus cringe at the "electroclash" rubric, they aren't intentionally defining themselves in opposition to anything. "It's not like we're that smart with marketing. Basically, what happened is that we had spent so much time with rhythm, then we did a lot of synth stuff, that we just decided to challenge ourselves and focus on live instrumentation and notation." Adult., the one-time studio shut-in, is looking more like a band because of that, even though its members would enjoy the anonymity of their former lives better.

But when another quirky female singer/male programmer team, then San Francisco-based duo Memory Systems (Phoenix Perry and Brian Jackson), met Adult. recently, Miller told them, according to Perry, "It's good to know you, so we'll have someone to hang out with when we're old and weird." That seems to be the goal -- to keep self-releasing albums about not wanting to play the game so that they don't have to play the game.

"After the show last night in Toronto, we were talking about how every band in the back room was in its 30s," Miller says. "It's really funny -- the whole 'go to college, get a good job' thing isn't the norm anymore, and people are sticking with what they've always been interested in a lot longer than they used to."

In other words, being in Adult. is the ideal way to avoid being an adult.

About The Author

Darren Keast


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