BETTER GROOMING THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
Adult. converts neat-freak style into modern-danceable grooves.
Nicola Kuperus is kneeling on the black-painted attic floor of the Detroit duplex she shares with her husband (andAdult. co-conspirator) Adam Lee Miller. Steel straightedge in hand, she’s measuring a square poster with the image of a blond woman in a short, royal-blue dress and blunt, red-heeled sandals, draped stiffly like a knocked-over mannequin, face-down across the expansive hood of a sparkling, classic midnight-blue Chevelle.
She’s checking the dimensions of the artwork — a photograph she took, with a childhood friend posing as the plasticized model — which will accompany the electro-punk duo’s new Limited Edition 7-inch, out March 5 on Ersatz Audio, the label the couple runs. The 7-inch features two new tracks: “Run Run Crying” and “Modern Romantics (MR.miX),” a 2002 version of Adult.’s first track, written in 1997 and released in 1998 on the Köln label’s Electrecord compilation. The release commemorates Ersatz Audio’s seven-year anniversary. But the foldout 14 inch-by-14 inch poster isn’t fitting inside the plastic sleeves, no matter how many measurements Kuperus makes with her shiny ruler.
“Would this bother you?” she asks, her sharp features crumpled with confusion wrinkles, the 7-inch disc in hand, with half an inch of poster sticking out through the clear plastic pocket.
It appears to bother Kuperus immensely. And the glitch immediately takes over the focus of our discussion. As Miller sifts through impeccably neat files and piles for the catalog they ordered the sleeves from — to confirm that the dimensions were specified to fit a poster folded to 7 inches-by-7 inches — my attention strays. I notice the geometrically modern, yet elegantly tufted black-leather sofa on which I’m seated.
“Sitting in a dispassionate furniture / Not knowing what for / The chair is black / The walls are white / There is no door / Just one large floor / One two three four / Just sit and see / Nothing around / Nothing but me.”
Behind Miller and Kuperus are shelves upon shelves of gray, black and white: technology stored proficiently, maybe more than a dozen synthesizers, both archaic and futuristic, straight wires connecting a computer to recording and sampling equipment, sequencers, speakers, amps, a bass guitar. The attic doubles as a studio. To my right are records — hundreds of them, organized alphabetically and chronologically in record store bins with labels marking Adam and the Ants, Art of Noise, David Bowie, etc. “It’s got grip tape down here so they don’t slide,” Miller points out with pride. “And it’s even got the new arrivals, right here.”
Outside, the dwelling resembles most of the others in its historic Detroit neighborhood. Stunning architecture that can’t help but show its age with a crumbling brick here, cracked paint there. Litter that seems to magically reappear, no matter how many times you tidy up on your way from the car to the front door — a stray paper mailer glued by rain to a snow-frosted, struggling front lawn. A discarded coffee cup shoved halfway through the grate, rust on stuff that you never knew rusted, mud puddles in the middle of February.
But inside, there’s not so much as a speck of dust. And this mutually perfectionist attitude shines through nearly every invigorating aspect of the duo’s art, sound and style. Luckily, the one sleeve turns out to be a misfit and, to Adult.’s delight, the rest are the perfect size. Otherwise, we might never have gotten past the talk of inches and into the real dirt.
“I’m kind of a neat freak,” Kuperus says to explain the duo’s simple but engaging stage presence, where often the two will stand behind sound equipment in matching uniforms that usually involve skinny ties and Adult. arm patches. Staring blankly at the crowd, their appearance is a bit zombielike, whether from deer-in-the-headlights shock, bitter complacency or deep concentration. At the release party for Resuscitation, behind the catatonic couple, a screen displayed slow-motion red, bloodlike liquid dripping to reveal the band’s name in white through the red. “I think I tend to like clean things. I think it’s also because Detroit’s pretty dirty. It’s kind of a rebellion against messes.”
This tidy-up mentality shows in their visual art as well.
“I know that’s where it came from for me,” Miller adds. “When I moved here (from Indianapolis in 1989 to attend the Center for Creative Studies), everyone was doing these, you know, nailing a muffler to their burnt-wood paintings — stapling on some newsprint. I remember being at the second student show and everything was brown and gray. That’s when I started getting super-bright. I started using fluorescents and hard-edge and really clean paint. But I really think it’s just who we are.
“People always ask, ‘Why are you into electronic music?’ It’s like, I don’t know. I heard Gary Numan’s “Cars” when I was 13 and I went to the store and bought it, and ever since then everything’s been like that. It checks off one of those things in your brain. That kind of music is sterile. I would not at any point say I was influenced by Gary Numan or anything as much as to say that I was predisposed to be that personality. That music filled the gap. When I started writing music, it would make sense that it would sound like that, because I was buying that, because that’s who I was. It’s the chicken and the egg.”
While their art might shriek in reaction to Detroit’s grime, they’re just as quick to give reasons as to why they’re here in the Motor City. Besides Miller and Kuperus’ thematic obsession with cars as image, they say they simply just couldn’t do what they do if they had to pay rent in New York or another large city that might provide better resources to a recording artist. Adult. keeps tight control over its entire package — how it sounds, how the two look in promotional photos, how the CDs themselves look. Miller and Kuperus might not be able to afford that control elsewhere. They’ve both quit their day jobs to work on Ersatz Audio full time: Miller used to work at the DIA; Kuperus worked for Henry Ford Hospital.
“The timing’s right,” Miller explains. “We’ve been doing this for seven years without much interest. We couldn’t sell a record in the U.K. until Resuscitation. We’d sell a hundred records in the U.K. before this and now our name is on the cover of Sleaze Nation and in the Face, and NME put us in as one of the artists to watch for 2002. It said, ‘Adult. are to the electronic world what the White Stripes are to the rock world.’
“So this isn’t just total, in-the-dark crazy, quit your job, let’s go nuts. We feel like the climate’s right. We’ve crossed genres so well, which surprised the hell out of us. The indie scene is almost buying more now than the dance scene. It’s so bizarre, but because we crossed that genre, we can now sell enough, rather than when it was just the dance stuff — because we were too weird for the dance market and too electronic for the indie market. And finally, the indie market said, ‘Hey, we like electronic music.’ There’s Stereolab. Plus Thrill Jockey has helped us to no end.”
Bettina Richards, the owner of Thrill Jockey Records, is an Adult. superfan. The label distributedResuscitation, Miller’s former project Le Car’s Auto-Biography and the Ersatz Audio compilation, The Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow. Through that connection, the label asked the duo to do a Bobby Conn remix and they’ve just finished a remix for Death in Vegas.
“That just shows how much the scene has changed in the last year,” Miller points out. “A year ago, would Adult. have done a Bobby Conn remix? We like Bobby Conn, but maybe he would’ve said, ‘Why would I have an electronic band remix me?’
Plus, Kuperus adds about her hometown, “There’s nothing else to do other than work and make stuff. There are no distractions, really. If you live in New York, there’s so much stuff to do. I would think it would become difficult for some people.”
And the support of the Detroit music community keeps everyone “inspired and working hard to always improve,” Miller says. He looks to Carl Craig as inspirational in terms of his work ethic. Planet E (Craig’s label) “has never sold out. It’s always growing, but he’s never making deals with the devil.”
And there are plenty more distributors and labels in the area fighting the DIY fight in the realm of electronic music. One newer record label of note is Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International, a project that shares with Ersatz Audio a similar consciousness toward image control and the complete package. Ghostly releases its much-anticipated Disco Nouveau compilation March 5, featuring “Nite Life,” a new, bouncy, drone drizzle-pop track from Adult.
Miller enjoys the chance to share the trials and tribulations of independence with friends he respects who are also going through the same headaches that he is — such as Brendan M. Gillen with his Interdimensional Transmissions label or Rita Sayegh with Constructure, her independent design studio. Miller will stress out about how he’s had to push back the release date on his next big release, the Misinterpreted 12-inch, for the third time because of technical difficulties, and his friends will respond with, “Oh, yeah. The same thing happened to me and now I’m out of toilet paper.”
Miller recently shared the podium with Craig and Sayegh for a lecture at Cranbrook Art Museum. The three presented interactive talks, giving an overview of Detroit’s role in the rise of electronic music. Artistic control and integrity were consistent themes. Many recent interviews with DJs and electronic artists have brought up the issue of how to deal with mainstream attention toward a previously underground endeavor.
While musicians are speaking at intellectual institutions and grade schools about the long road to success, especially in terms of music and how that success is achieved, these same performers are portrayed in a different light with the stigma of drug use at parties. The negativity lightened a bit and the attention grew exponentially with the arrival of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2000. Adult. felt extremely proud and fortunate to be chosen by Carl Craig to perform at the inaugural fest. At the end of the planning for the second festival, when Craig was fired as the festival’s artistic director by Pop Culture Media, the duo was understandably upset.
“It’s typical,” Miller says defeatedly. “Anytime you have anything that’s pure and actually of an artistic endeavor that gets over a certain level, it’s just swallowed up. It’s hard, because you’re always told, ‘Oh, you’re from Detroit.’ You go over to Belgium and it’s like, ‘Oh, Detroit, Detroit techno. I’m gonna take my holiday there, in Detroit.’ But I’m thinking, ‘What the hell are you going to do here?’ And finally, we had something — something where you were proud to call someone in Amsterdam and say, ‘You should really fly over. It’s gonna be great.’ And then it’s gone as quick as it came.”
Although the festival continued, it lost some of the spark that Craig’s innovative ideas had brought to it. Craig explained at the lecture that you do what you can to get by. Like actors who alternate between big-budget productions and indie films, Craig has taken assignments that he wasn’t incredibly excited about so that he could afford to put out the stuff that mattered deeply to him. And to help keep their fridge stocked, Miller and Kuperus do remixes.
With their feverish up-and-coming status, unique sound and indie cred, Adult. is a wanted band when it comes to remixing.
“We’re tired of it,” Miller says. “But it’s tricky because you can make a little money at it. There are two things that make it tempting. When we first started doing a lot of remixes, it was really fun because you were always challenging yourself. It started out really fun because it challenged us to use elements we would never use before. Somebody would use a keyboard line we would never think to write, but we like it so then we can keep that and it helps us grow artistically or musically.”
Plus it would get the duo’s name on different labels, in different distribution channels and into different genres.
“But now it’s gotten to the point where I think it’s within one or two tracks of being equal — that we’ve written as many songs as Adult. that we’ve done remixes. I think we’ve done 20 remixes now and we still have four to do by the end of February. But you get kind of caught up in it. You decide, ‘OK, we’re going to put our foot down. We’re not going to do another remix,’ but then ...”
Kuperus finishes Miller’s sentence: “Somebody you like asks you to do it, or you just flat-out say ‘no,’ and they make an offer that’s just so good.”
“They think you’re playing hardball business,” Miller jokes.
But now, Adult. is at a curious point.
“We have a compilation coming out April 9 called Misery Loves Company that’s all rough or electronic songs,” Miller says. “And we kept sitting down to write the song for it and we kept getting completely stuck because we had done so many remixes and it had been a while since we had written anything new, that we were like, ‘What do we start with? We don’t have any parts.’ So we actually had quite a writer’s block on the last song we wrote. We got it, but it took two weeks.”
Their next big release, the Misinterpreted 12-inch that comes out March 5 on Ersatz Audio, pokes conceptual fun at the remix dilemma. It’s a complete concept package, which includes one new Adult. track, “Don’t You Stop.” Then they play a high-tech form of the telephone game with a few friends. The second track is a remix of “Don’t You Stop” produced by Solvent. Then Phoenecia remixes Solvent’s remix. Then Alder & Elius remix Phoenecia’s remix. The song changes drastically enough with each mix that you pretty much have four separate tracks.
The original has Kuperus shouting instructions with a square-dance-teacher’s tone over stuffy fuzz, creepy synth and syncopated beats: “Fast fast / You move too slow / Go go / Don’t you know / Drive drive / To keep alive / Why why / Why don’t you stop?”
Adult. chose the remixers and the order stylistically.
“We put Solvent first because they’re the most similar to us and we wanted the first remix to be kind of similar,” Miller explains. “Then we picked Phoenecia because they’re known for destroying things. Then we picked Alder & Elius because we thought they could pick up the destroyed pieces and kind of start over. Like that telephone game when you were a kid and you sat in a circle and whispered a sentence. We came up with the idea, and when we started telling people they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, the so-and-so label did that.’”
“We thought we were all original,” Kuperus adds. “Not so.”
Massage scalp to ends
Adult.’s larval stage occurred in the late ’90s when Miller was writing solo material under the name Artificial Material. He had two songs licensed to a STUD!O K7 compilation called CD2000. The label asked him to come over to Europe and tour. At the time, he had recently started dating Kuperus and he remembers saying to her, “‘Hey, maybe we could work together and maybe we could try to start incorporating vocals.’ But it really was just kind of a free trip for her and we could both go together. And so it kind of was just a joke.”
Although it might have started as an innocent scam, Kuperus points out that, “At that time, the genre of music we were in, it wasn’t like indie where you have a band with vocals and all that. It was electronic music. It was pure electro with vocals. And nobody was doing it at that time. I mean Kit Builders were doing it, but we met them on the tour. They were doing vocals and they felt the same way we did, and they were having all kinds of feedback problems. We weren’t playing in rock venues. A lot of the places we were playing weren’t set up for performances. They were set up for DJs. A lot of the clubs we first played in didn’t have stages or anything like that. It was like, ‘Here’s your table.’”
It was Terry Cox, a sound technician for the Magic Stick, who taught the duo how to deal with feedback.
“We played a show in Pontiac in ’99 with Andrea Parker,” Miller remembers. “Terry taught us what we were doing wrong on the mixer with our EQ-ing, because he had dealt with rock bands. It was the first show we ever had where a guy came up and was like, ‘Well here’s your problem — digital effects have all this high end.’ And he just started doing stuff and we had no feedback.”
Once past the technical difficulties, it became clear to Adult. that they also were kind of reacting to “the guy behind a laptop” and pure techno, which had become somewhat faceless. “I think it has just progressed and hopefully it will continue to progress into more electronic with more vocals, only because our backgrounds are more into vocal-structured music … punk,” Miller continues. “Very rarely will I go over and throw on an R&S compilation, but today it was the Go-Go’s and Magazine.”
It’s hard to separate the art, music and style of Miller and Kuperus into head, thorax and abdomen. Both went to CCS. Miller has a painting degree, Kuperus one in photography. In the same breath, Miller shares, “I started my first punk band when I was 15.”
Kuperus adds, “When (Adam) got to CCS, he was writing a lot of industrial, kind of techno-ey kind of music. I think before he knew what techno was, he was writing stuff that could be classified as techno.”
“I thought I was writing industrial music,” Miller confirms, “and then (in 1990) I played my demo for this band called Final Cut. They were like, ‘Well, that’s cool, but it’s not industrial.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah it is. Listen to Severed Heads.’ Then they said, ‘This is techno.’ And I started listening to the radio here in Detroit.”
While their roots lie in early electronic forms from Kraftwerk to New Wave to Detroit techno, more recently Miller and Kuperus have found themselves in pretty diverse company: from performing between Peaches and Chicks on Speed at the Electroclash festival in New York to opening up for a brief run of dates with neo-New Wavers the Faint and I Am Spoonbender, a trio that takes a textural electronic spin on avant-rock and dream-pop. The tour begins today, Feb. 27, with a high-profile spot at the San Francisco Noise Pop 2002 festival.
Then of course, there are the expected art-space performances — Adult. has one coming up in May at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh — or one-off space parties, such as their first London date, which was a part of the Haywire Sessions put on by Andrew Weatherall and sold out two weeks prior to their arrival. But if you throw in a few wild cards, like the image of a bunch of indie-rock and goth kids dancing at recent Magic Stick and Labyrinth performances, it’s not hard to lump the duo with any number of scenes, from futurist electro to electroclash to New Wave redux to noise punk to politicized pop.
And while Adult.’s nonsensical message is less direct, clouded by miscommunication and maybe even communicating the ills of miscommunication in doing so, it’s been a long time since a band has so easily glided between genres into something hard to categorize that people are left simply liking or not.
Rinse and repeat if necessary
Since the contemporary scene and influences are a bit of a mess — no matter what category you place them in, they’re gonna stick out — it might be easier to explain Adult.’s sound with visual imagery.
They’re kind of like a bowl of breakfast cereal — with a tall, cold pitcher of milk representing the organic life force of dance music splattered over punk-puffed rice. The amplified synth pops and speaker crackles make way for exaggerated lyrics bubbling with the mix’s liquid elasticity.
Kuperus’ photographs are all about clean violence and lifeless bodies with a glossy, professional fetishization of color. In another cultural form — minus the awkward crops and subtle politicized messages — these pictures might inspire consumer envy in a slick fashion magazine. As art, they spell out everything that’s disturbing about capitalism in the language of guilty pleasure.
“Do you like my handbag / It’s filled with lots of money / I want to spend my money on entertainment.”
This desire to situate sound in a fuller sensory context is part of what drives Adult.’s dedication to independence. And it channels their obsessive compulsion into a giddy dance explosion.