It’s a roasting hot July day at Lollapalooza festival, Chicago, and Joe Keery is strutting confidently about the Bud Light Seltzer stage, electric guitar in hand. “What’s going on?!” he shouts to the sweaty crowd, “Y’all staying cool?” Some replying screams suggest they are, but Keery must be boiling. He’s sporting head-to-toe white overalls (as are the other touring members of his psych-rock outfit Djo), blocky sunglasses and a shoulder-length brown wig. He looks like Kevin Parker crossed with Weird Al Yankovic.
Fast forward two weeks, and Keery is telling NME how much fun he had that day. The quirky get-up is gone, but his big grin isn’t. “My God, it was unbelievable!” he says, chatting via video call. Today he’s wearing a simple white vest and sits in front of a virtual beach background, looking very content with his recent life choices.
“The main thing with Djo is to have fun”
“The stage persona started as a way to disassociate the music from the character that everybody knew me as on Stranger Things,” he says of his musical alter-ego, which he debuted in 2019, “but I ended up loving the camaraderie that it creates. My goal is to surprise people and to have a really fun show that’s infectious!
“It’s not lost on me that [Stranger Things fans] are going to come and see Djo – and that’s cool. If they like the music that’s great and if they only like it because of the show, that’s also fine. The main thing is to have fun.”
Speaking of Netflix’s internet-consuming telly behemoth, the latest season of Stranger Things was the biggest and darkest yet. Even though the finale aired in July, fans are still pouring over the most viral scenes now – including an unexpected topless shot of Steve, the high-school jock turned nice guy played by Keery. It was also a huge season for music. Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ shot up the charts after being used in the show – and Keery’s co-star Joseph Quinn jammed backstage with Metallica after performing their 1986 classic ‘Master Of Puppets’ during an episode.
For a music head like Keery, it made being a part of the show even more special: “Every year it’s like another insane thing happens and the show just gets bigger and bigger. I don’t think I’m going to be able to have any perspective about it until the experience is all over. Like Joseph and Metallica, man! It was insanity!”
Keery’s own Stranger Things journey has mirrored that of his character. While Steve “the hair” Harrington started out as an alpha high-school king who got dumped by it girl Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and now works in a local video shop, Keery was waiting tables when he snagged the part that would make him a megastar. In the latest episodes, he took on more of a lead role, fighting evil forces in the supernatural world of The Upside Down, and displaying a bolder, braver side to his personality. This was a new Steve, and a very different one.
It could also have been the last Steve. Ahead of the new series being aired, a Stranger Things billboard campaign appeared in the US based around the words ‘Protect Steve’. Obviously, keyboard warriors assumed the worst.
“Not being on social media has been good for me”
“That was some very funny Netflix marketing,” laughs Keery today. “It’s pretty funny because they just freaked everybody out, but they knew how it ended! It was like: ‘why are they saying this?’ Why are they doing this to everyone!”
The frenetic discussion each billboard caused was intense, but bypassed Keery for the most part. He is a committed anti-social. “I haven’t been on social media for a while which I think has been good for me,” he says. “Social media is a very subtle poison that seeps into your self-esteem day-to-day. You have a sense of dread and you don’t know why. Getting rid of it for me really helped.”
Keery’s not the only one from the show who’s struggled with fame. Charlie Heaton has been open about his struggles with the paparazzi previously and Millie Bobby Brown bravely spoke of being sexualised in the public eye while still a teenager. Keery says together, they provide each other with a support network to fall back on.
“We listen to a lot of music together in our downtime,” he says. “Maya [Hawke] and I just swapped links for our records, which was fun, and actually Finn [Wolfhard] came into the studio when I was recording. We were hanging out and working and he gave me his thoughts on the new record… The Stranger Things family band!”
While that makes for a tantalising glimpse into Keery’s post-Hawkins future, he first has his own music to promote. ‘Decide’, Djo’s aforementioned second album, comes out next month. After that there’s a tour to plan and rehearsals to be nailed. This isn’t Keery’s first rodeo of course. He cut his teeth in Chicago psych-pop outfit Post Animal for five years prior to Djo, and has recorded garage-y guitar tunes most of his adult life.
His new songs are a marked evolution however. ‘Decide’ makes for a more confident, trippy affair – dreamy psych-pop in places, soaring cinematics in others. Think Todd Terje crossed with Vangelis. Spaced-out opener ‘Runner’ showcases a more personal approach to songwriting, just like the futuristic-sounding ‘Half Life’, which explores those difficulties Keery had being online. It’s taken him three years to make – Stranger Things and the pandemic have caused delays – but the result is an accomplished and honest work he can be proud of.
Keery says he suffered from periods of “self-doubt” creating the album in ways that recall those of his character Steve. He was helped through some of his lower moments by watching Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary about The Beatles, which came out last year on Disney+ and showed the Fab Four creating their final LP, ‘Let It Be’. They were shown as ordinary blokes: laughing, chatting, occasionally falling out – and not afraid to make mistakes along the way.
“Watching those four guys who have been an inspiration to the entire world was a lesson in creativity and authenticity,” says Keery. “They were just four guys joking around, making music, having fun. I found that idea really freeing. You just have to follow your gut like they did.”
‘Decide’ is, Keery says, “an oral history of his twenties”, in which he tries to make sense of the crazy journey he’s been on – from part time actor to Hollywood stalwart on one of the biggest shows on the planet.
“I was trying not to edit myself on this album,” he says. “On the last one, I had some lyrics that I made more general or vague. [But on the new album], I listened to a lot of Kendrick Lamar, and what he does really well is focus on specific, personal lyrics. That makes them so much more powerful – and so I tried to embrace that even if it was showing an ugly side of me.
“I think Julian Casablancas is a genius”
“At the beginning of ‘Half Life’, the first lyric is about me trying to resist the urge to search my name. It’s about googling yourself on the internet. That’s a really embarrassing thing to admit [to doing], but I think it’s humanising too. We all do it.”
Another realisation that Keery had during recording sessions was about his favourite artists. When he was growing up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, he loved Kurt Cobain and internalised the idea that good art could only come from a place of suffering.
“I’ve really idolised the tortured artist and I’ve come to realise that art doesn’t need pain,” he says. “It’s another reason why I love Paul McCartney. He’s obviously had terrible things happen in his life, but he seems to like to operate and create from a place of joy.”
He continues: “For me, humour is a really big thing, so that’s something I’ve tried to incorporate on the record – a little wink at the camera, a little cheekiness, because that’s part of me. I’m a pretty happy person and it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. I just want to try and include as much of my pure self as possible in there.”
He says he wants to “make people dance” too, like his heroes Daft Punk and Charli XCX. “Charli was a big influence,” he says. “She’s just incredible at blending hyper art-pop with more sugar-coated pop. It’s so cool to have this combination of art and commerce meeting in the middle.” He has many other touchstones too. “I love The Strokes, I love Julian Casablancas. I think he’s a genius and I grew up loving his music. There’s a massive list of influences. Justice – there’s another!”
After the album cycle and tour, Keery will start work as the newest cast member of crime anthology series Fargo. He’s also got two more, top secret projects in the pipeline. He’s working on one right now (hence the virtual Zoom background, blocking our view of the set) and another shoots in the fall. “I’ve been really fortunate to get a couple of jobs that I’m just kind of pinching myself over,” he says of the castings.
And of course after all that, it’s back to Hawkins to film the final episodes of Stranger Things. He can’t talk about the upcoming season (spoilers), but there’s much speculation that more deaths are on the cards following the dramatic conclusion of season four.
“I count my lucky stars to have been part of it,” he says. “It’s not something I ever expected to happen. It’s a once in a lifetime chance. I’m really trying to enjoy it, to soak it in while it’s going on.
“Stranger Things is a once in a lifetime chance”
“One day I know I’m going to look back at this time with such joy and nostalgia. I want to make sure I’m living in the present and enjoying it. I’m having a blast.”
He sees a future where music and acting will always run alongside one another: “If I’m lucky enough to be able to do them both, I will… The acting stuff is still just me auditioning and trying to get jobs. The music is for when I’m unemployed,” he jokes. “But I definitely plan on doing them both.”
For now though, Joe Keery is firmly focused on getting his tour on the road. “I wrote all these songs with the intent of creating something that we can really take and transfer to the live environment. It was always the plan to write something that’ll really crush live.” Based on how well his set went down at Lollapalooza, he’ll surely have no problem doing that.
Djo’s new album ‘Decide’ is released on September 16