Just over a year ago, Joe Keery hopped on Instagram with a surprise, announcing to his seven million strong fanbase his solo project Djo’s first full-length release ‘Twenty Twenty’.
Twelve tracks of inventive psych-pop gems, pulling influence from the links of Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, The Beatles, Tame Impala and more, the luscious debut showed Joe flexing his creative muscles outside of the role of the expertly-quiffed monster-fighting Steve Harrington that he plays on Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Now gearing up to release Album Two, we caught up with Joe to chat where his love of music started and what he’s planning next.
“I saw the movie School Of Rock and I was like, ‘Man, this is righteous, I’ve got to get into this!’”
Hey Joe, how are you?
I’m good, I’m shooting the next season of Stranger Things. We just got back to work so we’re working under the new confinements. It’s a little bit more slow going but we’re knocking it out! It’s a little bizarre, there are some more challenges, but I’m excited, we’re doing some really cool stuff.
Is it nice to be back at work?
Yeah! I’ve been pretty busy to be honest, I’ve been doing loads of music stuff, that’s pretty much where I’ve shifted my focus to. I feel pretty lucky to have this other hobby and interest that I can do at home. There was a fair amount of stuff that I could sink my teeth into.
So when did your love of music start?
Off the top of my head right now, I remember there was this record shop in my town and they had guitars and records and a bunch of stuff; I got $20 for my birthday and I went down and bought an AC/DC sampler CD. I remember listening to that and thinking that the tone of the guitar had such a righteous and satisfying tone to listen to. I guess that’s the first thing I went out and purchased, brought home and listened to a million times. That was in my CD alarm clock for about four years, I think I finally changed it in high school.
My parents are both big fans of Bruce Springsteen so he was playing all the time, and they love Eric Clapton, and my mum loves James Taylor, so I was surrounded by a fair amount of music. My older sister has an amazing voice, so it was something I dabbled with. But, to be honest, I saw the movie School Of Rock and I think I was in 6th or 7th grade and I was like, “Man, this is righteous, I’ve got to get into this!”.
And it was in college that you first got involved with [psych-band] Post Animal, right?
Yeah! They were looking for someone to play drums. We met at a show, enjoyed it, and started hanging out and they’re like my best buds. I wasn’t there for the conception of the band, but I played a little part. I always feel like I’m the worst person in the room at writing and playing instruments, so I’ve just learned from them. The Post Animal guys are such amazing songwriters and really experimental. It’s good to surround yourself with people who are really great at what they do.
Did you always want to be in a band? How did the idea to branch off into a solo project come about?
When I found out about The Strokes, that was like the be all, end all. That was what I first geeked out over. I always wanted to be in a band and after I graduated from college I shifted from doing a lot of theatre stuff to pretty much just playing live shows with the band.
When you’re writing, so much of it is about collaboration, and it’s all about being a team player and working with the group. I’ve always enjoyed the recording process and I had a bunch of stuff that was completely recorded that I wasn’t gonna bring into the band like “Hey, can you guys just copy this?” That’s not so fun.
So when I was shooting the second season of the show, there’s so much down time because it’s such a huge ensemble, I brought all my gear down here and wrote and recorded the whole first album down here. Once I’d done it I didn’t really know what to do with it, I didn’t just want to be a dumb actor who releases an album, so I took it to my friend who helped me piece it together and then I ended up quietly releasing it.
“When I found out about The Strokes, that was like the be all, end all.”
How do you get people to take the music seriously and not just be like, “Oh, it’s Steve from Stranger Things’ album”?
You know, I’m up for suggestions! If you have any bright or genius ideas please email them! The way that I look at it is the reason I’m doing it is because I really enjoy doing it. I love making music and I love listening to music and I love dance and I love the whole mythology around bands and music. I’m lucky where acting is my day job and I’m getting paid to do it, so with music I can just do what I want to do. That’s sort of my plan: write when I want to write and record when I want to record.
It’s kind of hard, but I knew that I was coming from a kinda difficult spot so I had to make sure that the music was something I was really proud of and that could withstand some criticism. I mean, [debut album ‘Twenty Twenty’] was released a while ago and I’m still really proud of the last record. The sound’s definitely different to the stuff I’m working on now, but I think it’s just about being proud of the stuff you’re doing and if someone criticises it, that’s totally cool. I’m just doing it because I want to do it. If people are going to listen to this a little then it’ll either sink or swim on its own accord. The hope was that I could just put it out and people liked it and would listen to it.
Were a lot of people like, “Holy shit, didn’t know you did this?”
The people that I’m really close to know what I’m doing but it’s mostly people who I have no connection to that are surprised by it. But you know, I’m not Jimi Hendrix, I’m not changing music. I’m doing it because I like it and it’s really fun, and hopefully I can make some songs that people like too. That’s truly the goal. It’s a fun little side thing. It’s nice to bounce between this and acting so they can kind of motivate each other.
Acting and music are both such creative outputs, how do you balance between them?
I guess being a musician, I equate a little more to being a director where you’re in control of the whole thing, whereas if you’re in an orchestra or in a group, that’s more similar to being an actor. You’ve got this role to play and your job, at the end of the day, is to take what the director’s vision is and bring it to life. I love to do that, and I love to collaborate, so this is just flexing a different muscle. It’s nice to have creative control and to be able to see something through from start to finish.
I’m beginning to really realise that there are different ways to make an album and I think making an album is such a beautiful art form and is something that’ll live on indefinitely. It’s like a little time capsule. When I listen to the other record it puts me right back to where I was when I was recording it. I’m keen to do it again! I’m ready to make something new, and hopefully play live sometime too.
What was the mindset you were in creating ‘Twenty Twenty’?
I started writing a lot of the songs in 2015 and basically I got Stranger Things in the summer of 2015 and 2016 it came out, and I started recording 2016/2017. A lot was really changing. I was in this limbo of still living in Chicago but working on this show. It was this place in my life where everything was shifting beneath me. I was trying to find some solid ground and work it all out in my head, and writing those songs ended up being really helpful. It was tricky but hopefully that’s what people can relate to, that time of change. That’s really what it’s about. “Hindsight is 20/20” is the reason why I named the album that. Looking back, things were a lot simpler; I was getting out of school, working at this restaurant, having big dreams, and then things kind of unfolded and I was like, “man, things are changing really fast”. The record is really about me trying to cope with that and understand the new path that I’m on.
“I guess the ultimate goal is to make some music that really resonates with people and make songs that people can go back to again and again.”
What can you tell us about Album Two?
Working that out right now! It’s fun to see stuff coming together. We did some shows last Fall and we wanted to write something that people can really dance to at shows. I think there’s a real trend right now of people writing more disco-y stuff. So it’s following along those lines in the way. But I have no idea what the rest is really going to sound like!
Is it all ready to go?
We’re getting there, slowly but surely. This is really the only second time I’ve done it, so I’m trying to figure out what I’m trying to say, I guess.
How is this time different to first time around?
There’s a lot more collaboration on this one, but I’m still the “executor“ of the project. There’s also a scary element, I’d had some of those songs for four years by the time they were actually released. It’s liberating because I’m starting from scratch. I remember when [Tame Impala’s] ‘Currents’ was released and there was a big uproar about him shifting his sound so much and now the album is a classic. I remember missing all the guitars from the first album, but now, not to put myself at all on that same level, but I can kind of sympathise and imagine what was going through his head. He just didn’t want to do the same thing again. I’m kind of opening my mind and trying to be inspired by new things and hoping that some cool songs come out of it.
What are some of the things inspiring you at the moment?
Something that keeps coming back to me is early 8-bit music, like the soundtrack to Donkey Kong. I spent my childhood playing a fair amount of gameboy, it was an early Christmas present one year, so I’ve been revising that stuff. Who knows how that’ll influence me at all! It’s all over the map really.
When are you hoping to get it out?
I’m still working out the kinks at the moment and trying to get something together that resembles something, so I don’t necessarily have a game plan. Hopefully in the next ten years! I promise it’ll be some time in the next 10 years!
Maybe you could call the next one ‘Twenty Thirty’?
Overall, what do you hope to achieve with the Djo project?
If I can just use that as a tool to collaborate with other artists. That would be one thing I’d love to do. I like to be the dumbest person in the room so then I can learn from all these other people, so if it gets me in the room with other musicians that would be super cool. There’s a huge list of people I’d love to work with. Kendrick Lamar is a huge inspiration, Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney - you name the person, I’m probably a fan of them. It’s also just a real excuse to get my friends together, and play some shows, and hang out and have a good time.
I guess the ultimate goal is to make some music that really resonates with people and make songs that people can go back to again and again and not get too sick of. Everyone has those albums. Like ‘Abbey Road’, I’ll never get sick of it. If I can do something 1/68th of that, that would be the goal.
‘Twenty Twenty’ is out now via DJO.
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Best known as the floppy-haired heartthrob of Stranger Things, Joe Keery’s not-so-secret musical side project has now established him as psych-pop’s most intriguing new talent.