If you were an actor on Netflix’s biggest smash hit sci-fi show how would you spend your downtime between shooting scenes? Well if you’re anything like Joe Keery, it’d be to write and record a full-length psych-rock album.
For the past three years Joe Keery has become a recognisable face as the bouffant-haired, high school jock-cum-mother hen Steve Harrington in Netflix’s smash hit sci-fi show Stranger Things. But while he was becoming a breakout star in of one of the world’s most hyped telly shows, he’s been using his downtime to work on his musical project, Djo. When he wasn’t needed on set, Keery would return to his apartment in Atlanta, where he’d set up a home studio.
The results of these recording sessions are a full-length album, ‘Twenty Twenty’. The 12-track record, which dropped a month ago, is stuffed full of psychedelic rock tunes, with woozy Tame Impala-influenced production and earworm melodies. There’s ‘Personal Lies’, which opens with a jangling guitar riff, before dissolving into a psychedelia-flecked soundscape, and the laidback ‘Roddy’, which starts with trickling synth blips and grows into a stonking, sing-a-long moment with a squelching bass line. Basically, this isn’t just your average actor-decides-to-be-a-musician-and-cranks-out-a-god-awful-album; ‘Twenty Twenty’ is actually pretty damn good.
If you were hoping for a guest spot from any of his acting co-stars, however, don’t get your hopes up. While working on Stranger Things he kept the project to himself. He relished the opportunity to work on something solo, and despite many of his colleagues also being accomplished musicians, Keery wrote and recorded the entirety of ‘Twenty Twenty’ alone. “It’s nice to see something all the way through,” he tells us down the phone from his holiday in Italy, “the acting part of the job, you’re just a small piece of the puzzle.” Later on he recruited pal Adam Thein to help with the mixing of ‘Twenty Twenty’ (“he really helped me put a fine toothed comb through it, and it kind of elevated what I had”), but he remained super involved in that process too.
On other filming jobs he’s also kept the project quiet, although plans to keep it secret while shooting his new film Free Guy went awry, with his co-star Utkarsh Ambudkar becoming Keery’s biggest hypeman. “I don’t want to necessarily to talk about it [his music] too much, as sometimes I feel like it’s best to keep it separate, but by the end of the project [Free Guy] Utkarsh was talking about my music more than I was!”
But although the recording process was a solitary one, he did reach out to pals to ask for advise on the project, namely his old bandmates in Post Animal.
Keery first joined six-piece psychedelic rock band Post Animal at college after he met the band’s guitarist Matt at the restaurant they both worked at. He remained in the band through the first season of Stranger Things, but then the timings didn’t line-up, and his new public persona caused a spike in people turning up to Post Animal’s live shows just to see Keery.
“That whole situation is kind of difficult, as you want to separate the band from the TV show, as that is just bad for the band,” he explains, “And it can help initially with exposure, but those guys don’t have any connection to the show and they don’t want to be labelled as, like, Stranger Things band, and I think we sort of realised that right out the gate, so, I think separating the band from that, is good in the long run… I kind of had to wean out of the group and focus on filming that second season of the show and stuff” He’s remained close mates with Post Animal though, and they offered constructive criticism and advice on his new project.
His time in Post Animal and the influence his fellow band mates had on him are clear. Although the music Keery creates as Djo is more laidback and dreamy than that of Post Animal, they both contain dizzy moments of psychedelia. “I think after having played with those guys for so long I think certain tendencies and certain traits of their writing styles has inherently rubbed off on me,” explains Keery.
Other influences come from his all-time favourites like Jeff Lynne’s ELO (“he’s a master arranger”), band’s he’s recently discovered and is delving into the back catalogue of (’60s American jazz group Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass is the latest) and the music his parents played in the house growing up like Eric Clapton and The Beatles. Although, to start with, Keery turned his nose up at the latter: “My older sister Caroline had a big Beatles anthology, so I remember that, but I also remember being like, ‘Ugh, The Beatles, whatever,’ as a little kid!”
Take a peek of his Apple music playlist and you’d find a complete mix of these older classics and acts like Parcels, Todd Terje, Justice and Twin Peaks. The last of these he’s pals with, hooking Twin Peaks’ vocalist and guitarist Cadien Lake James up with his Stranger Things’ co-star Finn Wolfhard’s (who plays Mike Wheeler in the show) band Calpurnia. James ended up producing their debut EP ‘Scout’, and Keery popped in on them when they were recording. “I was able to go and visit them while they were recording that first group of songs that they did, so I kind of got a little live, personal, show.”
Looking to the future, musically Keery wants to continue to tour Djo, and to start cracking on with new music. “I had just recorded all this stuff and wanted to finally release it and get it out so I could clear my headspace and start working on new stuff,” he explains of ‘Twenty Twenty’.
Acting wise he remains tight-lipped about his future in Stranger Things. He does, however, dispel any rumours about a Stranger Things spinoff starring his character Steve and Dustin “I’d be hard pressed to dive back in there… you don’t want something to live or outlast people’s interest, so for me and my perspective, I’d rather leave people wanting more, than continue making a show, and have people sort of say I think that show…you know I’ve lost interest in it.”
Keery’s main aim, however, is to keep putting out music and be able to act. “I think if the show [Stranger Things] hadn’t worked out I would still be probably trying to do both,” he explains. And if he keeps charming the nation in roles like Steve Harrington and producing stellar records like ‘Twenty Twenty’, this feels like an easily achievable goal.
Djo’s album ‘Twenty Twenty’ is out now