When Joe Keery performs as his musical solo project, Djo, he looks nothing like the character that millions of TV watchers have come to know — and that’s the point.
If not for an all-caps sign in the Lollapalooza crowd that read “Listening To Djo All Day Keeps Vecna Away,” for instance, festivalgoers likely wouldn’t have been quick to associate the artist with a shaggy wig, glasses and stark-white painter’s jumpsuit onstage with Steve Harrington, the bully turned beloved chaperone from Netflix’s Stranger Things.
In addition to his prominent role in the worldwide phenomenon, Keery, 30, has recently starred in Free Guy and Spree as he has simultaneously reached new heights in his acting career. Currently, he’s working on a project in Italy, ahead of a few others coming in the fall. But that’s Joe Keery, the actor. Joe Keery, the musician — Djo — is its own separate entity. There’s hardly a trace of the everyday Keery, and no mention of characters associated with a film career, on Djo’s social media accounts or digital service provider profiles.
“There’s a level of comfort being in this alternate look, where I feel more free to do what I want,” he says. “I think about David Bowie or Marc Bolan dressing up. Devo is another great example. Something that started off with that intention has opened this door to make me realize that it can be more than just that.”
Being able to take the stage at festivals like Lollapalooza, in any attire, is a culmination for Keery, who spent part of his 20s living in Chicago and cutting his teeth in its indie scene as part of psych-rock band Post Animal. (He departed toward the end of the last decade as Stranger Things took off, citing time constraints and, again, not wanting his character to overshadow the group.) Such gigs are also important opportunities for him to put in face time with Djo’s growing fan base, says his manager, Nick Stern.
“Of course we wish Joe had more time for touring and recording, but the roles he has been getting will only benefit the music side of things,” says Stern. “Our goal is for the team to demonstrate that he is a uniquely talented musician, not just an actor with a side project, in a way that will lead to Djo and Joe’s acting roles getting equal billing.”
At the moment, Keery is gearing up for the release of his synth-drenched new album, Decide, out Sept. 16, which Stern thinks will take a “giant leap” toward such aims. He started demoing the project with producer Adam Thein in 2019 while playing live shows in support of his solo debut, Twenty Twenty, and the two frequently screen-shared Ableton sessions throughout the pandemic. With 75% of the record done, a pair of 10-day recording stints at Los Angeles’ Sound Factory in late 2021 polished off the project. “It shifted my entire idea of how I want to go about making music in the future,” says Keery. “It’s leading me down this road of getting back to how recording used to be done. The songs and albums that we grew up loving were done in a way where they were capturing things live.”
The result is a “grander, bolder” record than his last, one that takes full-throttle swings in its midsong production changes and leans into inspirations aplenty. Its sprawling opener, “Runner,” could fit in seamlessly with Tame Impala’s Currents; Chicago nostalgia ode “End of Beginning” channels new wave groups like INXS and Crowded House; and introductory synths on “Go For It” could easily be mistaken for those on Kanye West’s “Hell of a Life.” Thein notes the two imposed a rule at Sound Factory to spurn no ideas, which led to unexpected gems such as the outro of “Slither,” where Keery tracked drums from the studio’s bathroom to achieve a desired echo effect. “Joe has so many ideas, and it’s me frantically trying to keep up and execute them quickly. He’s not afraid to try 10 things to get the right thing.”
But as far-ranging as Decide can be sonically, its lyrics run an even wider gamut, with Keery using his voice “as a pocketknife multitool” from song to song. He grapples with fame in “Half Life” (“You think these people really care for you?/You really think they will be there for you?”) and confronts what’s to come in “Climax” (“It terrifies me there is no plan/The future breaking right on top of me”), but just as quickly, he softens the mood in “Gloom” with a mention of needing to let his dog outside. “That is my life,” he says with a laugh. “I do need to go walk my dog.”
The deeply personal lyrics and pet owner musings alike that run throughout Decide are perhaps the greatest point of overlap between the different trades of the multihyphenate. He’s fully aware that the disguise shtick won’t obscure his identity forever, if even for the length of a set. But if he can surprise listeners long enough to immerse them in his show, then that’s the goal. And even when he’s winking at them with a bit of humor, it’s intentional — he’s interested in being succinct, citing Charli XCX’s newest album, Crash, as a shining example. “She does this smart thing where there’s a very clear message of each song,” he says. “She wrote this song ‘Yuck,’ and it’s interesting, catchy, simple and packaged up really nice. Those are the things that stick with people the most. Moving forward, I’d like to try to get to what the core of the idea is.”
He has no plans to retire the getup anytime soon, either: While upcoming roles preclude him from locking in an official tour just yet — he adds that when “writing all of this music, the intent was to play it live” — he’s already kicking around the idea for a “Barney purple”-themed outfit and a more distinguished racer look, à la Formula 1.
Fortunately for Keery, the musician, the career of Keery, the actor, affords him the luxury to steer Djo in whatever direction he wants, whenever he wants. He self-releases all of his music under exclusive license to AWAL, noting that “coming from the indie music scene, ownership is the biggest thing.” Still, he remains demure about Djo’s next step, despite Thein mentioning that Keery has already reached out about finding time to work on new music. Plus, Stern has hopes of Keery pulling double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
“I say that [music] is a hobby because it’s a freeing way to think about it,” says Keery. “The second I start to get too precious with something, I inhibit myself. If you’re less worried about making mistakes, you might make something crazy or exciting. That’s what I’m focused on doing.”