When Stevie Knipe’s long-term relationship turned sour, the New York songwriter moved out of their shared home, quit their job, and headed back to their parents’ house in suburbia.
“That space was so liminal. For three years, I was like, ‘Am I allowed to make new friends or get a better job?'" Knipe jokes from their new base in Kingston, New York. “I didn’t feel like I could progress in my life." Ironic, given that Adult Mom, the moniker that Knipe performs under, has evolved massively from the solo project it started as back in the dorm rooms of Purchase College.
The band now falls somewhere between that solo gig and a collaborative project with friends Olivia Battell (drums) and Allegra Eidinger (guitars). Eidinger also dials into our call from Philadelphia, a rack of guitars carefully suspended along the wall behind their camera.
Since forming almost a decade ago, Adult Mom has released five EPs and two full-length albums; Momentary Lapse of Happily (2015) and Soft Spots (2017). The latter notably marked a scaling up of the project, which only continues in forthcoming release, Driver – the first release following Knipe’s lawsuit against Tiny Engines, after they accused the indie label of “stealing” artist royalties.
“When they decided to ignore our lawyer, that's when I was like, ‘You know what? That’s the last straw.' The anger confidence started to come out," they say, recalling the series of tweets documenting their concerns.
While that encounter might have proved difficult to broach on such a public platform, it’s this spirit of driving forward that shapes the new Adult Mom record. Not just the literal time spent driving the car around the neighborhood streets – as that’s about all there is to do in a suburban town – but also through the decision to step up and co-produce the record alongside Kyle Pulley (Diet Cig and Kississippi).
Admitting to “being more intentional with songwriting”, Driver sees Knipe developing the Adult Mom sound and allowing space for the other songwriters to make their mark.
“I wanted to add so many different things that people have never heard in an Adult Mom song before. Our studio rule was, instead of debating if the thing is going to be worth trying, try it and we'll see if it works or not. I'm a Taurus, I'm very strong-willed," they reason with a laugh. “And we love you for it," Eidinger responds, lovingly.
This seamless back-and-forth between the guitarists plays out in the record too, as Knipe welcomed Eidinger into the songwriting process for the first time, despite performing on previous records together.
“Stevie came to me with references of songs that they wanted the tone to be like," Eidinger recalls. “We had discussed that this was the next move from Soft Spots, and we wanted this [record] to be a little more expansive. I went into the guitar writing intending to boost Stevie's vocal melodies. Nothing too flowery."
Knipe picks up, “It comes back to that word 'intentionality'. When I'm writing, I leave a lot of space. You were looking at the song as a building and where you can put certain structures."
Eidinger’s stamp is most pronounced in upbeat indie numbers, like plucky singalongs Sober and Breathing, with nylon-spun guitar strums and palm-muted plucks that flutter past like wild dandelion seeds in the wind.
“I had so much fun writing those parts because of all that space," Eidinger explains. "I heard this one piece of advice about bass writing – I think it's the same for any writing – where they say that you are giving 10%, 90% of the time, and then, for that final 10%, you bring out the extra 90%.
"You're only given this much for most of it,” they continue, gesticulating a pinch between thumb and first finger with their left hand, “and then you find the moments to give up the rest, but only for so much. [On those songs], I’m thinking about bringing out the extra 90."
It’s that idea of purpose again, as Knipe picks up. “We were intentional when it was a guitar that sounded like a guitar, but then there are some in-between moments where it's like, 'Is that a guitar? Is that a synth? Is that a bass?' So Allegra is doing a lot of delay loops that sound arpeggiated, and Kyle was using the space tape echo designer."
It’s a space that Eidinger is more than happy to lean into. “Those lines are very true to my style. I love doing a palm muted rhythm, leaning into a funky zone." Much like another well-known indie giant, Driver is Adult Mom’s brightest, most animated album to date as Knipe fully-embraces their pop sensibilities.
“Your riffs have the base of math-rock. It reminds me a lot too of that Paramore record, After Laughter, which is one of my favorite albums. I feel like when you sent me that riff, I was like, 'Hayley Williams is gonna drop on this track.'"
Building on the familiar Adult Mom mannerisms of acoustic strings and tender lyricism, the trio also welcomed the new sounds of synths and programmed beats. As Knipe explains, “I was so fascinated with trying to make a pop song so once those 808s came in, I felt very inspired."
Likewise, opening track Passenger realized a long-held ambition for the songwriter with a nod to the Old King himself. “The pedal steel's one of the things I'm proud of because that's something I've wanted to bring in for a long time. I love Neil Young. I love folk music, so I'm happy that we have a country-ish-sounding song."
But even though Adult Mom’s third full-length release drives forward with intention, Knipe admits to putting the brakes on a few far-out suggestions. Eidinger begins recalling the Rickenbacker they used on several tracks as Knipe stifles a laugh in the background.
“I giggled because we were trying out all these different pedals for different leads, and Kyle kept trying to bring in this freaking pedal called The Worm [by Electro-Harmonix]. I'm sure it works for other people, but it never worked. Every freaking time we would record a lead, he was like, 'All right… Let's try The Worm,'" they say in unison.
Because what remains at the heart of a band like Adult Mom is, fittingly, the feeling of family. Knipe shares themselves so openly and, through those honest tales and experiences, connects with us in a deeper, more familiar way. We are the angsty teenagers screaming off our youth as we sing, "‘Violet’ by Hole" (Berlin), or the awkward pair knocking our knees together on our parents’ couch and scrutinizing its significance (Wisconsin).
Just like their long-standing rock idol Michael Stipe, who looms behind Knipe on their bedroom wall throughout our call, the New-York songwriter has entered into a place of self-acceptance, admitting they're the most comfortable they’ve ever been – something Eidinger felt overtly in the studio.
“I'll never forget when the time came for Stevie to do vocals. They turned the lights way down, lit a candle with Michael Stipe's face on it (if I remember correctly) and then faced away from the control room. I remember watching and being brought to tears myself watching Stevie bring themselves to tears. I had never seen a studio vocal performance like that."
In Driver, Knipe has found their voice and permitted themselves to sing louder, and prouder. This confidence bleeds into Driver like the boiled sweets stuck together in the glove compartment.
As Eidinger posits, “With Soft Spots, the music is pretty consistent dynamic-wise. With this record, we really built and pulled away." Chipping in knowingly, Knipe reasons, “And that's thanks to R.E.M. Thank you, R.E.M., for teaching me dynamic."
So, next album, pure mandolin then? “Oh hell yeah," Knipe laughs. “Don't think I didn't advocate for that." As Adult Mom knows only too well, though, we’ve all got to leave something to grow into.
Adult Mom’s Driver is out March 5 via Epitaph Records.