- Adult.: "We're just trying to scare away the normal people."
In conversation, Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller of the electro-rock trio Adult. come across as a modular unit, the modern equivalent of the "American Gothic" cliché of catatonic midwestern types. They break away from the daily routine of running their 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 band insists that the period is part of the name) knows the eerie power that's released when a recognizably human element is removed from an artistic endeavor. The contributions of each to the project -- Kuperus' stoic vocal delivery atop antsy, nervous rhythms and sonic oscillations provided by Miller, her partner in life as well as business -- do not organically merge so much as they synthetically fit into each other. And once these pieces come together, the design can either frighten the faint of heart or intrigue the adventurous.
"We're just trying to scare away the normal people," Miller offers in 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; 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."
After Adult. 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), Kuperus and Miller set about reordering techno's metronomic beat around fractured lyrical meditations on communication ("Hand to Phone"), uncomfortable furnishings ("Dispassionate Furniture"), and other elements of life rarely examined by house divas. Their music 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 says. "I like the energy of someone not having a ton of gear and a ton of 'talent,' and by that, I mean musical virtuosity. You go in off of their passion."
Unbeknownst to Adult., this preference would land the group in the center of electroclash when it broke in America in 2002. 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 -- on the U.K. Top 20 hit "Hands Around My Throat" -- and fellow electro-punk act Chicks on Speed. 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, including deadpan female vocals, arpeggiated melody lines, and ancient keyboards. For Miller, the response from major labels has 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."
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 clung to their ideas, releasing their breakthrough LP, 2003's Anxiety Always, on their own, before signing with Chicago indie Thrill Jockey for their latest, Gimme Trouble. The band has also added a third member, Samuel Consiglio, to help flesh out its sound.
Adult. derives its strength from its alienation, which has become part of its identity. Ironically, it also defines Adult.'s role within the larger Detroit techno community. Miller 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; it's as close as it wants 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.