- Will Adult. give up music for organic grain farming?
The title of Adult.'s latest album, Why Bother?, seems as portentous as the electro-goth-industrial dance punk contained within. Despite the Detroit duo's penchant for twisted humor, are Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller suggesting that they're hoisting the white flag after a decade of sonic insurgency?
"For us, it's [also] the whole phenomenon of free downloading and that there's so much music out there now and that everything's about 'What's hot for this week? What's the latest and greatest?' And you start to think: Does anybody really care anymore about anything? Or is it quantity over quality all across the board, in every aspect of our existence?" Kuperus says of the title via crackly cell phone. She's sitting in the passenger seat of the couple's tour van, heading to Portland, Oregon. "So for us, we ask ourselves that question -- 'Why bother? Is any of this worth it anymore?'"
Kuperus begins to laugh, something the singer does often. It's the kind of involuntary cackle you emit (to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald) when you realize things are absurd and hopeless -- and yet, in the face of that, you're determined to make them otherwise (i.e., you bother to make an album and tour the country).
There's a term for such an outlook: totally fucking crazy, which is how Adult. has been portrayed for years. Allusions to straitjackets and padded rooms are common when discussing the duo's music and overall visual aesthetic, both of which have become more unhinged, abrasive, and anarchist with every release. Kuperus, an accomplished photographer, graces Adult. album covers with unsettling shots of hyperstylized figures, usually female, posed in seemingly lethal scenarios -- their heads typically cropped or obscured to preserve a creepy anonymity. The artwork for Why Bother? features a woman sitting at a table, her head buried inside a vintage black case (head, case . . . get it?).
The disc's innards, which lean toward discordant no-wave and Throbbing Gristle-like industrial noise, will further solidify those perceptions. Beats rattle and clang like bones in a trash can. Bass lines -- sometimes flanged, sometimes distorted -- puncture and propel tracks with sinister precision. Synthesizers pulse, grind, hiss, and whoosh in a manner that's horror-soundtrack eerie, and when they grow louder and more frantic, you can feel the cold sweat forming on your brow and the contents of your stomach start to churn. Those feelings are only heightened by Kuperus' gripping shrieks and wails, applied to Adult.'s tried-and-true themes: anxiety, apprehension, violence, corruption, and apathy.
It's tempting to tag this stuff "aural psychosis," but that suggests a disconnect with reality. Adult., on the other hand, certainly knows what it's doing. The group is serious about its art, but Kuperus and Miller don't take themselves that seriously. Regardless, many critics find Adult. either baffling or detestable -- or both. Recent write-ups have called Why Bother? an "unlistenable racket," "cuddly as a migraine," and "paranoia-inducing, vomit-stained stuff that you're likely never to play for fun."
"That's the way Adam and I have always felt about our music: Either you love it or you hate it, and there's no in-between," says Kuperus. "And if you don't have a strong opinion about it, then I feel like we haven't succeeded in what we were after."
Emotionally, the band has always been all-consuming and equally satisfying and maddening, she says. "I think back to when we wrote this one: It felt like we were in The Shining. We were so isolated. It's just so weird what your mind goes through, and you turn yourself inside out to make this thing, and you're in a really weird place. And then, when you're touring, it's like you're some kind of fucked-up preacher going around the country, playing your music for people, to hopefully inspire them in some way."
Indeed, the following evening, when Adult. hits the stage of the packed Seattle club called Chop Suey, the duo's intensity and charisma quickly captivate their congregation. Adult. -- with its noise more clamorous and its beats and sequences even more danceable -- has a lot in common with Skinny Puppy, minus the bloody props. Still, there's plenty of psychic gore in Kuperus' fierce delivery and arresting persona: Prowling the stage -- black-clad and raven-haired, with mic in hand -- her caterwauls, scowls, and dark, piercing eyes are arresting. When her face is bathed in the blood-red of the band's MIDI-controlled lighting rig, she looks positively demonic.
Miller, meanwhile, maintains total cool as he works the Moogs and banks of vintage electronic gear, his poker face half illuminated by white lights that make him look like a film-noir detective -- or killer.
The set is dominated by newer material, and Adult. ignores requests for 2000's "Hand to Phone," perhaps the duo's most widely known single. "I never feel obligated to play anything," Kuperus insists. "I have a girlfriend who completely disagrees with me. She thinks it's your duty as a musician, like, 'When I go see Beck play, I wanna hear the hits.' And I'm like, 'Well, that's fucking Beck.' That's just not us. That's not the way we roll. And that's probably why we'll never be a mainstream, popular band."
And then she adds, quite ominously, "I have no idea how much longer this will last, but it's been a really great life experience, for sure."
But after the gig is over, and the club has emptied of nearly everyone save a handful of people grooving on the dance floor to the post-show DJ, Miller leans against a pole, drink in hand, and says that as much as he's enjoying the shows on this tour, he can't wait to get back home to Detroit. "I love to write," he tells me, "and I wanna get to work on the next album."
Apparently, Adult. plans to bother for just a little bit longer.