Adult: Hearts of Darkness
- Words: Vivian Host
Adult. once said they made uncomfortable music. How fitting then, that I have just taken them to the most uncomfortable place on earth: New York's Museum of Sex. And now I'm standing next to Adam Lee Miller, Nicola Kuperus, and their new bandmate–Tamion 12-inch guitarist Sam Consiglio–in a darkened room punctuated by canned male laughter and smacking sex sounds. Nicola and I are paused next to a screen flickering with an image of two men jacking each other off, while I feign interest in the accompanying text about this history of pornography. After what seems like an eternity–but is only really a minute and a half–Sam darts over and breaks the silence. "All I hear over here is shame," he says pointedly, waving his hand toward the video.
I thought this place would have appropriately weird curiosities like shrunken pygmy penises in jars or the world's first dildo, but the overall feel is of a sleazy adult bookstore–the exhibits include a re-creation of a gay man's entertainment center from the '80s (complete with lube and hair remover), a sex chair controllable via the internet, a porn flick called New Wave Hooker, and lots and lots of naked shlongs. I'm half expecting Adam or Nicola–who have written songs bemoaning "touching things touched by others"–to bolt to the bathroom for a bout of obsessive-compulsive handwashing.
Nonetheless, all three gamely proceed through the museum, pausing the longest in front of Real Doll, a life-sized sexual aid designed to look and feel like a real woman. As all four of us take turns feeling on a pair of breasts made out of lifelike silicone, Adam explains that Nicola once considered buying a Real Doll for her photographs–elaborately staged Hitchcockian tableaus that grace the covers of their Ersatz Audio singles–but declined when she found out the nearly $7,000 price tag. "Looking at it up close they have all these seams and stuff," he muses. "It's good we didn't buy one."
Catchers In The Wry
It appears Adult. has loosened up a lot in eight years. In their early days, Adam and Nicola (Sam was added to the line-up last year) came across as two chillingly clinical, at times angry, electro robots, an image reinforced by tense live shows and stark, blank-eyed press photos. When you meet them in person, you realize the photos aren't a shtick–with their penchant for all-black outfits, angular hair, and stop-start sentences, the members of Adult. are like the weird kids at some record store in the late '80s, the kind who used to slip Dead Kennedys records into the Debbie Gibson sleeves. As you'd expect, they are also much nicer and more personable than robots.
Initially, the couple–art school grads who met in Detroit in 1997–served up dystopian takes on Kraftwerk's shiny future on singles like "Dispassionate Furniture" and "Nausea"; these themes that continued through 2001's Resuscitation (a collection of early singles) and 2003's Anxiety Always. Though their April mini-album D.U.M.E. and their new full-length, Gimmie Trouble (to be released on Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey), still find them soundtracking the anomie of the 2000s with wry, dark humor, they've become more outgoing in approach. There's just a lot more to Adult. these days–more band members, more guitars, more angst, and more of Nicola's Siouxsie & The Banshees-inspired caterwauling above analog voodoo beats and angular post-punk rhythms. Those expecting them to save electro again might be sorely disappointed–parts of both records are suited for dancing...in goth clubs–but fans of the band's singular aesthetic will find plenty here that is quintessentially Adult.
"The one thing we've always had across the board is we take our own personal flaws–things like anxiety and social awkwardness–and sing about them," says Adam when we finally duck out of the museum, through the monsoon-like New York rain and into an East Village café. "I think that's why people identify with us. I mean, nobody really gets up on stage and is like (sings) "I'm socially awkward"...but we do. [The difference is that on our previous albums] you had the person who is like 'I'm awkward quiet' and now you have the person who's like 'I'm so nervous. Oh my god. Oh my god.' And you listen to the album–the lyrics are like bah-bah-bah and the bass never stops and it's this nervous energy–it's still the same theme, just released in a different way."
Adult.'s newfound desire to tear down the barrier created by vocoders and monolithic synth lines is no doubt a reflection of the events of the last two years. Following the release of Anxiety Always on their own label, Ersatz Audio, they embarked on a grueling tour (20 shows in 26 days) and, despite actually being from Detroit, found themselves having to fend off the "electroclash" label. Nicola and Adam, who are married, bought a historic old house and built an attic studio in it where they would record Gimmie Trouble. Perhaps most surprisingly, they decided to divide the creative brain of Adult. into threes by working with guitarist Sam, who adds a rogue element of flamboyance to the pair's at times austere framework (what one Russian journalist dubbed "librarian chic"). "I've never worked with anybody whose music was a more direct reflection of their personality than these two, that's for sure," says Sam.
By all accounts, the process of making Gimmie Trouble was intense. "We calculated that we worked every day from January 2nd to April 4th, except for five days," explains Adam of the band's restrictive recording schedule. "The first song we wrote was 'Scare Up the Birds' and it came out immediately. Then we had an 11-day dry spell–you're talking 10-12 hours a day where you're just coming up with like, a sketch, a little doodle."
"And then I drank coffee and it happened," says Nicola, laughing. "I mean, I've never been in any other band so I have no perspective. I assume most people don't just get together [like we do] and go, 'Okay, we have a blank piece of paper here. Let's fill it up.'"
On prior albums, Nicola and Adam would go through and clean the house before recording, giving themselves a sort of pristine mental slate. That became impossible on Gimmie Trouble, as they were living in a place that Adam calls "totally destroyed." Instead, the three worked out tensions by watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and Strangers With Candy and playing endless games of racquetball in an impromptu court they created. ("I would just like to state that I don't like jockiness and when we played racquetball it was not, like, real," Adam is quick to mention. "Yeah," concurs Nicola, "it was actually more like trying to inflict pain on anyone but yourself.")
Somewhere along the line, an album coalesced and was mixed in the two weeks Adult. had scheduled in between US and European tours for their six-track mini-album D.U.M.E.. Nicola says that D.U.M.E.–whose stand out tracks include a Christian Death-ish remix of "Don't Talk" and the catchy death dirge "Hold Your Breath" ("Hold your breath now/for a long time/hold your breath now/for a lifetime")–was intended as a way for audiences to catch up to their new sound. "It had been a long time since we had had a release and it was a way to kind of foreshadow that the times, they were a changin'," she explains. "As for the goth club you hear," adds Adam, "we were very conscious of that, thus the very over-the-top cover art and the name of it–Death Unto My Enemies. It's from a voodoo candle. As soon as we collect all our enemies, we'll light the candle and they'll die." He pauses with a sly smile. "We're still working out the list though."
Though they don't name names, most of the content on both records is a sharp poke in the eye to their outspoken critics; Gimmie Trouble is both a mission statement and a description of what they've endured as they've tried to move away from their electro pigeonhole. "People are sometimes unhappy with change," sighs Nicola. "They forget that as an artist you don't want to repeat yourself–you want to grow and you want to discover what else is in there. 'Gimme Trouble' was written [based] on an email where some guy was like 'You just really need to stay focused on dance music and electronic stuff and your roots. You need to get rid of the guitar and the bass.'"
"I was a punk kid who started in 1985 playing bass, so that would be my roots," says Adam, frowning. "Besides that, there was bass on Resuscitation and guitar on Anxiety Always. You get these people who want you to sound like when they first heard you. What they don't remember is that they liked us because we didn't sound like everything else."
"Adult. was such a good idea when it started," Sam recalls. "It was like, look we're not a rock band. Nicola wasn't going to shout at you like she was in a rock band. But there's a singer, so it was obvious [they] weren't a techno band either. [They] were nothing."
"I think our intent has always been to not be a part of anything," explains Nicola. "We've always worked really hard to kind of not really know what we're doing. And then everybody's always like 'You sound like an '80s band, you sound so retro.' A lot of it is because we're using keyboards from that time, but are you listening to them in the context of now and what we're trying to do with them? We're trying to pick up where it stopped and continue on. I think a lot of times people forget that."
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