Disaffected Duo

Adult. tried to buck the system, and now it's found an audience. Misanthropy, it seems, sells.

If San Francisco electronic music, circa 1994, hadn't been so sunny and lovey-dovey, the work of Detroit twosome Adult. might not be so gloomy and alienated today. It's partly house's fault that the husband-and-wife team of Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus turned toward the discomforting embrace of dance music's harder-line siblings, techno and electro. You see, Miller moved here that year, spent a month desperately trying to find one party that wasn't throbbing with the happy-go-trippy fuzz of house, couldn't, and shipped his still-taped-up boxes back to Michigan.

"There was just something too friendly about the place then," he chuckles via cell phone while navigating Adult.'s tour van into a parking place in Montreal, where the group has booked a gig.

Miller had lived in Detroit, the birthplace and international capital of techno, for years without really caring for the music. He had always been a punk rock and new wave guy, but San Francisco in the early '90s was so overwhelmingly positive that he began to find respite in his home city's bizarre postindustrial clang-and-bang culture. In 1996, he started the Ersatz Audio label to put out twitchy, '80s-music-gone-evil records at a time when such sounds were ahead of the curve. Now they're huge, and Adult., the band he formed with Kuperus in 1997, is arguably even bigger, popular among such odd bedfellows as recovering indie rockers, burned-out ravers, and savvy goths.

Adult. is a band that should never have made a ripple beyond its Midwestern backwater. Miller and Kuperus' Spartan adherence to DIY business principles, total lack of hummable melodies and choruses, and shared introverted streak are all the hallmarks of a best-kept-secret for geeks. In an odd reversal of fortune, however, Adult. has managed to endear itself to a whole lot of people through the moans of lonely sounding music machines and atonal, standoffish vocals in praise of disconnectedness. Adult.'s brand of mutant pop -- laptop-reconfigured funk meets ironic, angst-infused girl punk -- is a variant that mass culture's process of natural selection should have weeded out as too esoteric and inaccessible. But the Prozac Nation's prescription is running out, and the rise of a disaffected duo like Adult. suggests that some Americans are electing to embrace their idiosyncrasies instead of refilling.

Adult.'s music is rife with resentment of cheery people and forced social niceties. From Miller's angular synthesizer and drum-machine knife fights to Kuperus' jaded-sounding vocals, Adult. is at root about dis-ease and uncomfortable situations. The group's recent release, Anxiety Always -- its first original full-length album, although many fans gained entry to the band through 2001's Resuscitation, a remix compilation CD of work from previous four-song, vinyl-only EPs -- is sort of a prom for all the misfits who missed their actual proms the first time around. On the song "Blank Eyed, Nose Bleed," for example, Kuperus shouts, "Wouldn't it be nice/ To go to a party/ And be the only one there?"

For Adult., misanthropy is to be encouraged. On the same track, Kuperus declares, "I've been working on my anxiety/ It's something I can do for free." That's pretty much the Adult. ethos in a nutshell: Don't get socialized, don't take meds to make it easy, and don't buy into the system. While steering away from overtly political lyrics, Kuperus and Miller are thoroughly anti-corporate. They run Ersatz Audio themselves and present their products with disarming photographs, taken by Kuperus, of businesspeople getting kicked or laid out on the tarmac of an airstrip.

Adult. is the kind of group that's supposed to languish in abject obscurity for years: Its music is weird-sounding and primarily about unpleasant feelings, and Kuperus and Miller have been reluctant to sign with a label that can promote them better. Instead, they do things like spend a lot of money on full-color jackets for a small-run vinyl EP (New-Phonies, 2000) and release records only through indie distributors. As Vice magazine put it in a profile of the band, "So why aren't they rich? Unfortunately, in the midst of all this popularity and kudos, Adam has decided to keep their bank account at zero by sitting on his ass all day making bad business decisions."

As hard as its members have tried to fail in the business sense, Adult. has managed to find an audience. Disaffection and isolation sell.

"We seem to be getting people who say they identify with the lyrical content," Miller says, "which has been mostly about social anxiety. So many people say, 'I feel the same way -- sometimes I don't want to go out, but I have to go to work.' So I think that somehow by us writing lyrics that we never thought other people would identify with, we actually ended up reaching people. It's like, 'Here's my problem,' and then all these other people are like, 'Yeah, we have the same one.'

"And then, because we weren't trying to identify with anyone, it's honest lyrical content -- people know you aren't feigning this."

When Miller began collaborating with Kuperus in 1997, he had already been producing drumbeat-centered retro-futurist tracks as Artificial Material and with Ian Clark as Le Car, which made a significant splash in the then-small international electro scene. But Miller found purely instrumental music insufficient for expressing his uneasiness with modern living, so he enlisted Kuperus as a guest vocalist. The collaboration soon grew into another beast altogether, and the two began writing songs about such comforting ideas as couches that intentionally cause pain in the humans who sit on them (released in 1999 as the Dispassionate Furniture EP).

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