In conversation, Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller of electro-rock duo Adult. come across as a modular unit, the modern update of American Gothic’s catatonic Midwestern archetypes. They break away from their daily routine of running their own record label, Ersatz Audio, to answer questions succinctly and sparingly. They fulfill their duty. They move on to the next task and allow the outside world to observe them and their work through a seemingly transparent but insurmountable wall.
And in the case of Adult., this should read as a high compliment.
Because, not unlike the urban sound engineers who created the techno tradition in their hometown of Detroit, Adult. (and yes, the two insist that the period is part of the name) recognizes the eerie power that is released when a recognizably human element is removed from an artistic endeavor. The contributions from both to the project — Kuperus’ stoic vocal delivery atop antsy, nervous rhythms and sonic oscillations provided by her both life and business partner Miller — do not organically merge so much as they synthetically fit into each other. And once these pieces are put together, the design can either scare away the cowardly or intrigue the adventurous.
“We’re just trying to scare away the normal people,” Miller finally offers, as an explanation of Adult.’s aesthetic. “When we first started Adult., if we had one mission statement, it was to make music that was somewhat severe in the fact that we hoped that people would have strong reactions to it. Whether they loved it or hated it, we wanted to make music that wasn’t easily accessible.”
Formed in 1998 as one of Miller’s side projects (he had also enjoyed success within the underground IDM community as Le Car, also on Ersatz Audio), the duo set about reordering techno’s metronomic beat around fractured lyrical meditations on communication (“Hand to Phone”), uncomfortable seating (“Dispassionate Furniture”), and other elements of life rarely examined by house divas. The music itself, in the meantime, eschewed the soul and R&B overtones of their Detroit brethren in favor of the darker European atmospheres proffered by industrial forefathers Cabaret Voltaire and obscure death-disco producers of the late ’70s/early ’80s such as N.O.I.A., whose early tracks have been reissued by Ersatz Audio.
“A lot of the stuff that was made, it’s not like it was made in some massive recording studio,” Miller explains. “I like the energy of someone just having not a ton of gear and not a ton of ‘talent,’ and by that, I mean musical virtuosity. You go in off of their passion.”
Unbeknown to Adult., these predilections would situate the duo in the midst of the electroclash fad as soon as it broke in America last year. A compilation of Adult.’s seminal early work, Resuscitation, was included in many lists itemizing the best the movement had to offer, and the group gained an instant underground cachet. (Not to mention the fact that Kuperus’ distinctive style of vocal “enunciation” has won her session work with Death in Vegas — the UK Top 20 hit “Hands Around My Throat” –and fellow electro-punk act Chicks on Speed, with an upcoming cover of the Tom Tom Club’s “Wordy Rappinghood.” Quite an accomplishment for a vocalist who describes herself as tone-deaf.) Nowadays, Miller and Kuperus bemoan the subsequent influx of demos to the label that duplicate all the clichés of the electroclash trend — deadpan female vocals, arpeggiated melody lines, and ancient keyboards being the dead giveaways. For Miller, the response from majors proved the most disturbing for him on an artistic level.
“We had been approached by half a dozen other labels, some majors, some minors,” he says. “Basically, the thing that it’s shown that I think is really sick is how once you have a name that is sellable, they are interested in the name and not the music. Everyone at the majors was ready to sign us without hearing our next record. And we said, ‘Well, we haven’t even written it yet. Don’t you want to hear it?’ And they said, ‘No, it’s not important.’ That was the end of the conversation. … The way we run Ersatz Audio, we don’t sign an artist; we sign songs. Every artist on the label knows we are going to pick the album and not them. … That’s the way that we try to keep our quality control up, so that every song we believe in, and there’s no filler.”
Perhaps for a group that comes from the birthplace of the assembly line, expecting the culture industry to behave otherwise might seem anachronistic. But the two still cling tenaciously enough to their ideas to release their breakthrough LP, this year’s Anxiety Always, on their own. This approach contains many discontents for a group struggling to balance a record label, a marriage, and a now-international audience.
“This album is almost bigger than what we can handle ourselves,” Kuperus says. Yet Adult. cherishes the attendant freedoms inherent in independence. The two grow at their own pace, promote their own artists on their tours, and determine the look and sound of their work on their own.
On Anxiety, the songs focus quite vividly on fear, confusion, and anxiety, resembling the work of fellow art-school alums such as Talking Heads and Devo in their sardonic and paranoid takes on the human condition. Miller, of course, is quick to point out the humor inherent in the lyrics (example: “He was reading a book/With only one page/Asked him his age/He said he was fine/His hearing’s not as good as mine,” from “Glue Your Eyelids Together”). But in an age of orange alerts and global pandemics, one can’t help but take the paranoia and fear present in confessions such as “Kick in the Shin” seriously, and when asked whether the music reflects a political or personal response to the outside world, the two become fairly guarded.
“I think it reflects our personalities,” Kuperus says hesitantly. “There would have to be something in there that is us. I don’t think you can make something and have it not reflect part of you.”
“I do,” Miller counters. “I think some bands purposefully decided that, ‘I’m going to start a band and it’s not going to be who I am. It’s just a project.’ I don’t think that anyone in ‘N Sync says, ‘This is who I am.’ Lyrically, we’re not really relaxed people. We’re not really hang-out, kind of casual people. I think the lyrics on Anxiety have to do with our personality traits.”
Miller and Kuperus choose not to elaborate. After all, Adult. derives its strength from its alienation, and at this point, it has become a part of its identity. Ironically enough, it also defines its role within the larger Detroit techno community. Miller easily acknowledges Ersatz Audio’s reputation as the “weirdo label” within the cottage industry of Detroit electronic imprints. But Adult. is perfectly happy with its distance from the world; the two are as close as they want to get to mainstream notoriety.
“We’re certainly never going to sing songs that are happy Celine Dion love songs,” Kuperus says. “It’s not our personality, and we’re not going to sing about stupid teenage-angst Avril Lavigne things either. There definitely is a certain kind of aesthetic we have, and we try to stick to it.” And that’s as close as you can get to them. Period.