Groucho Marx once remarked he'd never want to belong to a club that would accept him as a member. Detroit-based brittle-beat artists Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus a duo married not just in the creative sense have adopted a similar dictum while recording under the name Adult. since 1998. They have subtly and consistently retooled their sound while exhibiting an almost adolescent uneasiness of being labeled. Their organically evolved DIY ethos and heavily calculated sound a very cerebral, detached twitch increasingly injected with physicality touches upon elements of electro and postpunk yet refuses to adhere to any of the illusionary boundaries implicit in those genres.
The recordings of Adult. have additionally been saddled at times with the labels "electroclash" and "dance-punk." However, while Miller and Kuperus like the words dance and punk separately valuing a synchronized-performer sensibility onstage while maintaining a punk ideology of recording their albums independently and hitting 40 cities in a Chevy van dance-punk represents a derisive catchall for plasticine hipster pop.
"We don't have a distinct agenda or didactic rules," admits Miller. "When we started, we simply decided to write what we wanted to hear. We would think about what in our collections we go to and wish we had more of the mood, not the sound."
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Yet far from being a maddening milieu of disparate sounds and random ideas, the music of Adult. is so cohesive it's almost impossible to see Miller and Kuperus the group's unofficial brain trust as anything other than a completely synergized, singular entity. For Gimmie Trouble, the group's first album on Chicago label Thrill Jockey and its sophomore full-length, the duo of convivial control freaks, augmented by guitarist Sam Consiglio, has transitioned further from a caffeinated Kraftwerkian clatter toward punchy, yelping DIY mecho-organic manifestos infused with bleak black humor à la Public Image Ltd. and Devo. And while Gimmie Trouble is not a complete departure for the group, it has a faster, looser sound than Adult.'s previous work.
Miller calls this approach "working-class electronic music." And while his distinction is an aesthetic one, it's also indicative of the bandmates' nearly relentless work ethic. They've released nearly a dozen self-produced Adult. EPs, compilations, and albums leading up to Gimmie Trouble.
The prodigious release schedule has not only served as an outlet for their music but also has helped them mold the group's exploratory and experimental framework. The album art of Adult. is a prime encapsulation of the project's increasingly subjective maxims. "Nearly everything that Adult. ended up being about is open-ended," Miller comments. "From the recording direction to the lyrics, everything is left wide enough that you can personalize them to the artwork."
With photography by Kuperus, Adult. album covers offer just enough information that you're left theorizing what happens outside the edges of the story, because the outcome could be equally damning or redemptive. The inside covers of Gimmie Trouble offer static scenes of a living room, kitchen, and beach. In each frame, however, one of three people is sprawled out in a way that doesn't indicate whether they are dying or lying.
"Sam has this thing on his refrigerator that says, 'Life is Hell but it sure is funny,'" says Miller. "We follow that approach. You'll notice each person dead in one picture is alive in another, so it's a Moebius Strip it's impossible, has no time sequence, logic goes out the window or in the oven."
That lack of formulaic closure has become almost an Adult. hallmark, even to the point you could playfully accuse Miller of hypocrisy. In an early 2003 interview given to promote the last Adult. full-length, Anxiety Always, Miller commented that most Detroit art of the Nineties could be described as "dirty brown" and was imbued with a sense of Detroit's own dilapidation. Miller claimed his own art musical as well as visual countered that by taking on "clean, hard-edged aspects." Now, however, he admits he has increasingly allowed some "rust" into the room.
"I've always kind of liked taking a definitive stance, even when I know things will change," laughs Miller. "I was listening to old Cabaret Voltaire tracks where they would run sounds through amps to get the air of the room, and realized I wanted a fleshier sound. I guess I'll just go with the Walt Whitman quote, a little lofty and probably mangled: I am human, I contain multiples so I contain contradictions."
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The healthiest dose of "rust" in the latest Adult. material now comes from Consiglio's steel strings. For their 2005 D.U.M.E. EP, Miller and Kuperus recorded certain parts on bristling bass and strafing guitar. This posed a problem, however, because one of the few permanently etched Adult. tenets is that Miller and Kuperus will not play back live instrumentation from computer. So in order to reproduce the parts on a European tour, additional hands were needed hands supplied by Consiglio, a member of Tamion 12 Inch, a group that records for Miller and Kuperus's label, Ersatz Audio. What grew out of that tour was collaborative songwriting that helped shape Gimmie Trouble into a broader, more barking album of honed postpunk, compared with Anxiety Always's spastic sputter or D.U.M.E. 's similarly harsh trembles.
When performing live, the group has been known to begin shows with the Gimmie Trouble song "Disappoint the Youth," perhaps a pointed statement considering that certain older singles such as "Hand to Phone" no longer are presented with regularity, and if they are, it's with stripped, spare interpretation. Adult. does perform more perversely robotic songs, including "Skinlike" and "Glue Your Eyelids Together" peppered with jarring, compact guitar; atonal synth motifs; and feverish, insistent vocals. The strangulated caterwaul brings to mind Fad Gadget and Magazine meet Einstürzende Neubauten and Bauhaus. Change engrosses the members of Adult. as if they were kids at play, and when live, the threesome are so mutually enraptured they seem almost disassociated.
"I feel now we've crossed over from singles producers into a band," concludes Miller. "Of course, there are those people who will recognize more 'familiar' instrumentation on Gimmie Trouble, and since that supposedly indicates it's not attempting to be more 'challenging,' some might say it's less 'mature.' But it's just some changes in instrumentation. We're not afraid to switch things up, because we'll always be Adult."