Adult.’s Life Kills

The 20-year partnership between Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller yielded its most haunting record yet in 2018’s This Behavior.

PHOTO by @thriftybitch

To take a synesthesiac approach, the music of Detroit electropunk duo Adult. might be described as an extremely shiny black, a color that looks infinitely deep until it inevitably draws your attention to its surface, with the two always in tension. It’s a seductive void. Two decades after the artistic partnership began between Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller — who are also married — their caustic, paranoid humor has never left. But on their most recent record, This Behavior, the intense anxiety present on early albums like 2001’s Resuscitation has given way to distance and a touch of dark eroticism. It’s probably no surprise that they’re popular in Germany.

They are nothing if not committed to what they do. Earlier this year, Adult. spent some time on a video shoot on the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, within sight of Canada. The five-degree weather was daunting, especially when the trek from the cabin to the site was 1,500 yards long, with 55 steps down.

“The first day was so cold, the coldest of all the days, and we could only work about 15 minutes,” Miller says. “Nicola said, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then we went back to the cabin and spent a long time making sure we knew all the gear worked perfectly, which we never really figured out.”

But they must have, becaise the resulting video — for “Silent Exchange” — combines fire, water, ice, and fishnets in a way that suggests a pagan rite of rebirth thrown off because of a late-season snowstorm. If, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird,” then for Adult. it might be “On the entire shore of Lake Michigan / The only color / Was Nicola’s lips and Japanese fan.”

Such inclement weather suits Adult., although not as much as the darkness of night. What doesn’t suit them it broad daylight, like their late-afternoon set at Treasure Island Music Festival in 2015.

“There’s only a few instances of” them playing outdoors by day, Kuperus says, among them that show and a performance at the Folsom Street Fair. Another time “was in Glasgow at a festival, and halfway through the set I had crawled under the stage and was playing there.”

It’s appropriate, then, that Adult. will play a former mortuary this Sunday, Feb. 17, when they open for Cold Cave at The Chapel. A support slot on a tour is unusual for Adult., and they confirm that it hasn’t happened in more than 15 years. In that time, they’ve sharpened their live act. By her own admission, Kuperus is a poor multi-tasker, so once she gave up playing instruments on stage in favor of concentrating on vocals, the situation improved.

“I felt like Steve Martin in the beginning of The Jerk, when he’s trying to get his groove to soul music and he just can’t catch it,” she says. “I think I am a little tone-deaf or something.”

Discomfort with the “proper” way to play in favor of rule-breaking is almost the very definition of a punk aesthetic. Agreeing that perfect pitch can be a useful skill, Miller observes that the opposite is also true: “I’m jealous of those people, except I think when you’re legitimately counterculture, that can be a curse.”

Referring to Philadelphia electronic musician Void Vision, he adds that after complimenting her on a show they’d played together, she drily mentioned that she’d deleted her entire drum pattern midway through, and had to reprogram it on the fly.

“I said, ‘While you were playing?’ ” Miller continues. “And she said she’s jealous of our song ‘Inclined to Vomit’ because she knows she could never write it because when you listen to it, it’s very abrasive and dissonant.”

However methodical Adult. might be with its electronic eeriness, it functions well with other classically trained collaborators like the Austrian theremin player Dorit Chrysler. And Adult. has worked in some other nontraditional ways, too. For their previous album, Detroit House Guests, they submitted a grant proposal and won funding simply for the act of working with various creative partners and not necessarily to produce any final work. (A forward-thinking grant committee, that.) In a sort of two-by-two Noah’s Ark approach, they worked with artists such as Chrysler, Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess, and Nitzer Ebb vocalist Douglas J. McCarthy to produce 12 songs in all.

“It was very deliberate,” Miller says. “We had to know ahead of time what the protocol was.”

“It was always to be six artists,” Kuperus adds. “We didn’t know if it would work, but it sounded good on paper that we would write two songs together.”

Not having to produce a polished product at the end was liberating, they both agree, expressing admiration in particular for Chrysler’s skills.

“What’s amazing about her theremin-playing is sometimes you can’t differentiate if she’s playing the theremin or if she’s singing,” Kuperus says. “The machine and herself are one complete unit.”

“A new level of woman-machine,” Miller says.

As Kuperus’ stage presence is formidable and impossibly distant, it’s easy to see why that hybrid of musician and instrument would appeal to them. Still, she has described the stalkerish, lovelorn-cyborg song “Hand to Phone” as her “nemesis.” While audiences might clamor to hear it, she says that if you want to move forward as an artist — and Adult. took a “hard left turn into no-wave” at one point — the early club hits might no longer fit the tenor of the set.

“It’s taken 20 years to come back to it and say it’s kind of fun to play now,” she confesses.

Undoubtedly, no performer wants to walk off a stage and hear an audience member express disappointment that they didn’t get to hear Song X. (It’s really rude.) But while entertainers working within the confines of pop can be expected to come back out for a greatest-hits-studded encore, that’s less true with artists like Adult. At the same time, they’re clearly delighted for this tour and the chance to perform cuts from This Behavior for wider audiences. At the New York show, Miller and Kuperus are even sharing a bill with Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV, who they became friends with after inviting her to a performance of the soundtrack to a horror film they’d scored.

“We said, ‘We think you’ll like it, and we’ll put you on the list if you want,’ and she wrote back, ‘Yes, please!’” Miller recalls. “After the show, I said, ‘I really can’t believe you came,’ and she said, ‘You really can’t believe how little people offer things to me because they’re afraid of me.’ ”

So after Detroit House Guest, Kuperus nad Miller resolved not to be wary of telling people out of the blue that they respect their work or inviting other musicians to see theirs.

“There are so many wonderful people in the industry who have no ego whatsoever,” Miller says, “and even though we look austere and severe, we don’t, either.”

Adult., supporting Cold Cave with VOWWS, Sunday, Feb. 17, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $25-$28, thechapelsf.com

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