Lindsay Hattrick/Nylon; Dana Trippe


With Djo, Joe Keery Is Up For Interpretation

A long lunch with the actor and musician ahead of the release of DECIDE.

When it comes to celebrity profiles, there’s a storied tradition of reporting fastidiously on what the subject — most typically, a young female actress on the rise — eats during the journalist’s allotted time with them. Do they pick nervously at an undressed salad (predictable) or ravenously tear into a burger (relatable)? No detail is left spared from print. Thankfully, this troupe has faded over the years, as we learn that what one person chooses to eat at one meal of their life does not often reveal some great detail into their psyche.

When we meet for a late lunch in mid-August, Joe Keery orders deviled eggs for the table. There’s no thesis statement to be made of this; it just stuck with me long after our lunch was over — when’s the last time you saw someone order deviled eggs at a restaurant? (They were delicious, for the record.) It was a part of a larger spread that, for two people, included fries, tuna tartare, two different salads, and an avocado tartine. There was a lot of food because there was a lot to talk about.

At the time, the actor, who turned 30 earlier this year, released Decide, his second studio album under the stage name Djo (pronounced Joe). It’s a trippy, wide-ranging album with influences that span from Devo to Charli XCX. The project sees Keery leave behind the floppy-haired all-American persona that made him a star as Steve on Stranger Things in favor of a shaggy ‘70s style ‘do and tinted sunglasses — think Miami Vice meets Boogie Nights meets a used car salesman. That’s the point here: Steve is for the internet; Djo is whatever you want it to be.

I know you’re only in town for a few days. How long have you been in LA now?

Man, like five years. Almost six years. Since 2017... It's a nice place to live. It's kind of a really relaxed pace of life. It can be less social, if you're looking for it. If you're not open, it can be difficult, but it's also access to all sorts of nature and easy trips.

I was just in Portland, Oregon, for a wedding. It was up in the mountains, which was gorgeous — weirdly, at the hotel where exteriors of The Shining were filmed.

That’s really cool. There's a documentary, Room 237, that talks about the inconsistencies of the floor plan for the exterior and the interior, and how that's symbolic in some way of what he was trying to say in the movie. Man, what a great movie. It took me a while to watch that movie, to get the courage.

Same. I think I watched it for the first time like five years ago.

Great music. Talk about that music. The opening scene of that movie is so cool.

Have you ever thought about scoring a movie, really combine your two arts?

Yeah. I would love to do it, but I don't know if I have what it takes.

I think people who have listened to the album might disagree.

I'm so excited it’s coming out because it's been done. I'm sure every artist has this, something’s been done for a while and is excited to put it out and move on to the next thing. You work on something for so long, and then there's just so many different steps. And then when it's finally done, you're like, "Great. Now everyone can hear it." And then they're like, "Wait. Let's wait another eight months."

Was there a reason you think it took a while to be released?

Just wanting to put it out in the right way, and get all the visuals and stuff right. I'm not really great with multitasking, funnily enough. So if I'm working on something, I couldn't do the visual at the same time as the music. I just had to finish that. It's hard. Visuals are really hard.

That’s also a newer thing. 10 years ago, you didn’t really see these big visual identities tied to music necessarily.

Some people are great at it, and are visually inclined.

At what point does that come to you in the process? Are you thinking of how you want to present the music when you are writing it?

Sometimes that'll happen, but generally, I'm after the fact like, "Man, I don’t know." Kind of unsure. For the bigger things, like this time, it's been a little more difficult to get the single artwork right, but I'm pretty happy where it's all lining up. But in terms of the cover, I feel like I've known what the cover will be for a long time.

How did you figure that out?

As a fan of music from the late '70s/early '80s, there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek, funny, cheeky, legendary album covers. I always think of Breakfast in America. Kind of funny. Not funny, but just again, it's that word “iconic.” You would only associate this picture with this. So it's just trying to think about something like that. So I'm pretty happy where we landed. I showed the final thing to my buddy, Alan, and his comment was that it gave him sort of a "Yu-Gi-Oh! vibe."

The ultimate compliment.

Which, I was like, "Great. That's kind of great."

When did you first start working on the songs that made it onto this record?

2019 I guess the earliest song is from. So it was as we were playing the shows from releasing the other music last time.

Are you able to write while touring? A lot of people aren't.

Well, not really. I've never done a proper tour. It's like five shows here, five shows here, five shows there, so that makes it pretty easy. And then with the pandemic, there's so much time, so we wrote a bunch of music. But it's funny how much, if I was to do it again, I would like to have the process be a lot shorter. It would be a lot shorter and capture everything we're doing in a live way.

People always ask me, "What is this album about? What is this album about?" If it's a larger swatch of your life, it's a balance of more things. More things have happened in your life. So I'd love to consolidate it to a shorter amount of time, give myself the limitation to be like, "You just need to finish it in this time, and it's going to be done, and then that's it."

My biggest takeaway from this album is that it keeps you on your toes. Song to song, you are kind of surprised. How much of a consideration is that, particularly when making a second album?

[On a second album], you don't want to be redundant, but you don't want to leave the fans that you've gained high and dry. You don't want to screw people over. So I tried to... Well, you can't try too hard to please anybody when you're doing your thing, but you can try to incorporate some of the ideas and maybe the instrumentation of the last album. But I also was really interested in just being like, "I'm just going to do whatever the hell I want to do. If people are still down, they'll still be down. If not..."

You just hope that you lean on your influences and bands that you like. And I feel like when I'm listening back through the album, I'm like, "That idea was from that person. That idea was from that. That idea was that."

Who do you hear when you listen back now?

Charli XCX is big on there. The second song is a lot of Devo.

I hear some Animal Collective, personally.

See, that's funny. That's not even a band I would consider. But I love that. I'm a massive fan. But the ideas are all over the place. This guy named Todd Terje has this album called It's Album Time. That was a big influence. That's a great album for anyone that hasn't listened to it. Also Queen. I really like Queen a lot. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles. All over the place.

All over the place, but even as it keeps you on your toes, as I said, it still feels cohesive.

I think the idea is, albums I enjoy the most you can listen to over and over again. That's really important to me. And other thing is, this is a pretty indulgent album. It's packed, and I think in some ways, that can be a flaw, and in some ways, it can be a strength. And I can realize that in the album now. It's like, "Wow. This is a bit dense." This is not just turn it on and chill.

It commands your attention.

And now it's like I want to do the exact opposite and do something that's simple.

What was the kind of music that made you want to try it for yourself in the first place?

In probably sixth grade, I saw School of Rock. There's so many people in my generation, our generation, who just saw that movie and it's like, "All right, this is cool." I was talking to Henry Stoehr from Slow Pulp about the same thing. He's like, "Yeah, same thing, man. Saw that movie and knew.” I hope Jack Black knows. Do you think he knows that all these people started playing because of him?

I think he does.

That's so cool.

What kind of music were you playing when you first started?

AC/DC, Led Zeppelin. Classic rock is what I was into. And then, my sister really liked Ace of Base. So I secretly really liked Ace of Base, and I thought Ace of Base was cool. My parents liked The Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen, and Eric Clapton, and they really liked Lyle Lovett a lot. I listened to a lot of Lyle Lovett as a kid, and my dad really liked The Cars and Yello.

Oh wow. I feel like most high school guys circa that time were just in shitty pop-punk bands.

Yeah, I missed the boat on that. The guys who were in Post Animal with me [Keery’s band prior to Djo], they were huge into that when they were kids, and that is something that I, for whatever reason — remember that band, New Found Glory?

Of course.

So I got a mixed tape from this girl named Kayla. She burned me a New Found Glory CD. Huge. She gave it to me, I would listen to it, and just never really... But I pretended to like it.

Were you an angsty teenager?

Not super angsty.

Yeah, that’ll do it. Another thing I wanted to say about DECIDE is that whatever music you think of when you hear a popular TV actor is making music, this is not that.

That's cool.

What I mean by that is this doesn’t feel indulgent, or like a vanity project.

That's the goal. It's just a thing that I've done for a long time, and I do it because I really love it. And the first album was... Basically, I was stuck in Atlanta, doing a show, trapped in an Airbnb, and was writing all these songs. Not like, "Screw it. I'm just going to do this and put it out." I wasn't playing with Post Animal anymore. They were touring. I was like, "Oh, man. Fuck." So that's kind of what it came out of. And now, I just love the creative process of making music. It's a joy to make it. And putting it out is fun, and having people listen to it is really rewarding, especially if people enjoy it. That's amazing, but the creation of it and being able to sit back and listen to something that you made that didn't exist, that is so fun. And I think I will continue to do that forever, I think.

Do you see this Djo project, this being what you continue to doc? Or do you think it could go under a different stage name?

No idea. No clue.

Do you think of this band as only making one particular type of music? Or is it really just you and what you are into at the moment?

Just me. Basically, the moniker was just to dissociate from... Because I'm on the internet sort of.

Separate the person from the persona.

Exactly. I kind of wanted to distance myself. I didn't want it to be connected to memes or whatever. I just wanted it to be its own thing, so that was the intention there. I am being truly myself with the music. I am singing from my perspective.

And then you have the on-stage get-up to match.

Yeah, that was connected to that, as well, so that I wouldn't walk out and people would be like, "Yo!" It's cool to think about it as a different character.

Going back to the actors cosplaying as musicians, sometimes you feel like, "This is the role I'm playing. This is me as a musician" while they are trying to come off as really personal. With Djo, you're almost unrecognizable when you're getting on the stage. It's like a completely new persona.

Yeah, it really is. It's good that you say that. Writing the music, I'm singing from my own perspective. I'm singing about stuff that means something to me in my life. When you're going on stage, for sure, especially when I'm in this thing, I feel like I play this part a little bit. It's so fun. It helps me. It allows me to be a little less self-conscious about the choices that I make, because you're like, "I'm doing this for this character. I don't have to be worried about how people are interpreting it."

I was listening to you on the Good Convo podcast, and there was a conversation about how you are kind of getting typecast for this all-American role, and you want to do more weird roles. Is this kind of a way for you to do a weird role in a way?

Sort of. Because once you do something, it's really easy and natural for people to associate you with that one thing. Everybody is multifaceted and has more to their personality than one genre or trait. So it’s just about making opportunities for myself.

Does the word “side-project” piss you off?

No. Not at all. It kind of is a side-project. Really, acting is my main gig. It's the reason I can do other stuff. And I'd be dumb to say that people aren't aware of me because of it, which is totally fine. I get it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.