Laugh Lines

Detroit electro outfit Adult. find the right balance of humor and intensity with their latest, Anxiety Always.

NICOLA KUPERUS CRACKS fart jokes and kvetches that she has to sneak out for sushi because her husband hates fish. Adam Lee Miller, her partnerin the creative, business (they run the seven-year-old Ersatz Audio label together), and matrimonial senseslost his wedding band down a heating vent months ago and has yet to retrieve it. Neither can remember their anniversary. Both spend much of our conversation laughing, especially after Miller tips his chair too far back and tumbles into their touring gear.

One expects such interview antics from a smart-ass Orange County punk band, but from ADULT.? (The full stop is mandatorytheir Web site, www.ersatzaudio.com, even includes a section devoted to grammatical tips for using the band name.) Since the release of their 1998 EP, Dispassionate Furniture, a five-track set about uncomfortable chairs, this Detroit duo have built an escalating reputation for their classic new-wave lyrical themes (communication and lack thereof, the failures of human flesh), taut and jerky electronic grooves, and Kuperus' unmistakable vocals, which favor the half-shouted, half-deadpanned delivery most popular with sadistic P.E. teachers.

Record sleeves for ADULT., all shot by Kuperus, depict faceless couples in fussy business attire, lying unconscious on airport runways, bound hand and foot on hotel beds, and getting kicked in the shins. Both band members hold degrees in fine arts. All signs indicate that on the laugh meter, a chat with ADULT. should rank just below suffering a heart attack.

But lend a closer ear to Anxiety Always, the duo's first official full-length (the 2001 CD Resuscitation was a compilation of assorted vinyl single sides), and the humor is audible. "Shake Your Head" makes light of a common plight among entertainers. "It comes across like this serious Nitzer Ebb [song] with Teutonic lyrics," shrugs Miller, "but actually, it's just about how we tour a lot and meet so many people and can't remember anybody's name."

Negotiating exactly how much humor to permit, however, is sticky. "A lot of electronic music right now, especially the stuff coming out of New York, is just too cheesy," he says. "That's why we try to err on the other side." Miller cites a specific example from Anxiety Always. "To us, the funniest lyrics are 'We Know How to Have Fun.' We knew that was going to ride the line of being really cheesy. So we put it to the most depressing music we could come up with . . . because that made it even funnier."

"We have a very dry sense of humor, and some people don't get it," adds Kuperus. "That's fine. We don't make music for the masses."

LIKE THE JOKES of a comic with impeccable timing, the new album doesn't come off as overly calculated, yet the material was nevertheless refined with intense precision. This time last year, the duo elected to devote September through December exclusively to making the disc. They declined all remix offers and interviews and holed up with some of their own favorite full-lengthsSpeak and Spell by Depeche Mode, the Faint's Danse Macabre, and Public Image Ltd.'s Second Editionand scrutinized them. "We went, 'What makes this a great album?'" says Miller. Then they aimed to follow suit, "even down to the fact that we kept the length around 42 minutes."

Although Anxiety Always continues ADULT.'s tradition of having a dominant theme run throughout their records (in this case, the tensions concerning following up Resuscitation, which was treated by the public as their first album proper, although it wasn't assembled in that spirit), the couple also strived to make sure each song could stand alone. "I've heard a lot of records out there where some of the tracks are just too similar," says Kuperus. "While we were writing, we would listen to the first four songs we had finished, and we'd decide, 'OK, now we need to have one that's a little slower and creepier,' and we'd work on that one. And then we'd say, 'Now we want something a little more driving.'"

Another consistent consideration, regardless of tempo or mood of the tracks, was how they might translate into a live setting. "Our main agenda, before we went in to make the album, was we wanted a handful of songs that we were really going to enjoy playing live," she says. "We wrote a lot of our previous stuff in the studio, and suddenly there was a demand for us to play live, and we couldn't, really."

"We did it," Miller clarifies. "We performed them, but we didn't play them. And after a period of time, that became boring. I want to be able to give the crowd energy, and I couldn't before. It was like, 'Hi, I'm checking my e-mail.'" The band still has a computer onstage, "but it's more like Soft Cell playing from a backing tape rather than just sitting down and playing a laptop."

"We want to be sweaty and tired out when we're done playing," Kuperus concludes.

Wow. Slapstick, cracks about passing gas, and perspiration, too? Who knew being ADULT. could be so . . . human?

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