It’s just after midnight and Chicago’s Bottom Lounge is packed. Some kids are wearing ‘Hellfire’ merch shirts, referring to the fictional Dungeons and Dragons club from Netflix’s multi-Emmy nominated thriller Stranger Things. It’s the rare occasion where love for a TV show spills into support for a real band — Joe Keery’s psychedelic rock project called DJO (pronounced “Joe.”) At that moment, Keery, who plays heartthrob-with-a-heart of gold Steve Harrington on the series, steps onto the stage looking like the antithesis of his character in wiry glasses and matted brown hair. The room erupts.
Before Stranger Things swept him up to Los Angeles, Keery lived in Chicago until 2018. Before fame, he was somewhat of a fixture in the Chicago DIY scene, performing in the indie band called Post Animal by night while hustling for acting gigs by day. But as much as his life changed over the course of three years, Keery never abandoned his passion for making music.
In 2019, Keery released a standalone track called “Roddy” with keyboardist Adam Thein, under the pseudonym DJO. Their first album, Twenty Twenty arrived that fall, amassing a few hundred thousand monthly listeners. But since Season Four’s return, DJO’s listeners have more than quintupled to a whopping 2.6 million monthly listeners. The boom has led to prime music festival placements at Lollapalooza, Boston Calling, See.Hear.Now and Austin City Limits to tease a highly anticipated sophomore album, DECIDE (out September 16).
The morning after DJO’s first Lolla set, Keery was sitting alone outside the Chicago Athletic Association with the remnants of a Bloody Mary in front of him. As we looked out onto Millennium Park, he sounded nostalgic. “Coming to Chicago is like location memory,” Keery says between sips of an iced coffee. “I remember touring DePaul with my dad, we stayed down here, and we walked through Millennium Park.”
DECIDE is an ode to uncertainty and alienation, which is fitting as Keery just turned 30 and is figuring out what comes next for him after he’s done saving Hawkins, Indiana.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve said in past interviews that you consider music a fun side project. Is that still true? How do you keep music fun instead of stressful?
Well, I definitely am stressed about it, because there’s pressure to make it really good. I’m not depending on it financially; that’s what makes it fun. I think the music industry, to be honest, is so fucked. For your normal touring band to make a living is grueling and hard. We played for maybe two weeks, and it just grinds you down. The reason that I really love [music] is the writing, and the recording and being in the studio. All the shows and stuff are a little stressful, but if it can fuel the writing and the recording, that is completely alright for me.
Your after show must have been nice prep for your set at Lolla the next day.
I mean, I’m glad we had the show before, because I was pretty nervous for Lolla, and we’ve never done a traditional string of dates; the longest we’ve done is maybe seven days.
On the new album, your song “End of the Beginning” talks about returning to Chicago, where you used to live. Did you feel the nostalgia you express in that track during this visit, or if it was different because you were working?
No, every time, coming to Chicago is like location memory. Every place I turn, there’s a memory associated with random street corners, or people that I’ll see or locations. “End of the Beginning” is a turn of phrase that came up sort of accidentally. I think a phrase that is more troubling is “the beginning of the end.” This is where I became an adult, and I just turned 30. “End of the Beginning” is [about] saying goodbye to a certain part of your life, and it being a sad thing, but also looking onward.
I noticed that DECIDE is poppier than [your last album] Twenty Twenty. Do you consider yourself a pop musician now?
I don’t know… I mean, yes, I really do love pop music, and I think there are elements of boy band-ness in there, like NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, especially when I’m doing stuff with falsetto. The Beatles were a pop band, and they’re the greatest band of all time. That’s an influence. I just, I guess, have a love and appreciation for a lot of different music. When I’m listening to an album, I enjoy hearing a bunch of different influences, and that’s what I’m trying to bring in. I like being able to hear Daft Punk and also the Backstreet Boys.
The Daft Street Boys.
Yeah, The Daft Street Boys. That can be our solo project.
We’ll work on it later.
Yeah, we’re workshopping that.
I noticed a lot of people comparing “Gloom,” which you released as a single in July, to something by DEVO or Talking Heads.
Yeah dude, that’s so cool. It was kind of the ethos of that. It was created from the limitations of me being at home–I recorded this guitar part, and then I pitched it down and chopped it up and sampled it out in the way that you can hear it now. It has a frenetic sort of attitude to it, and I ended up trying to play into that character. That actually was also something that helped me in the album, finding the different “characters” for the songs. Lyrically, “Gloom” comes from a place close to my heart. But the performance of that took on its own life.
That’s interesting. You’re an actor, and getting into a character in your music… it sounds like your two careers aren’t totally separate.
No, not at all. It’s super helpful and takes a lot of pressure off trying to make perfect. Being too precious absolutely kills any sort of creativity for me, so it’s all about trying to find the easiest way in and going with my gut. Thinking about that character helped me a lot.
A lot of the lyrics on DECIDE are very anxiety-fueled, but the instrumentation is mostly upbeat. What brought about that dissonance?
Great question. You know who does that so well and is a big influence of mine is The Strokes. Julian Casablancas. I feel like he almost created a style, bringing this kind of angst and turmoil in underneath these jangly, sort of energetic traps. I don’t know. I guess it’s not something that I was really thinking about doing, it’s just what ended up happening for a lot of the record. The record is about taking agency in your own life. I’m a pretty indecisive person, and I’m not the best planner in my life, so that’s kind of a theme.
What are the advantages and disadvantages to being a musician better known as an actor?
I mean there’s a bunch of advantages. It’s not lost on me that a lot of people tune into the music because of Stranger Things, and I’m really appreciative of that. There are so many other artists creating albums that are unbelievable, so the fact that the show was able to get more ears listening to my things is really cool. For a while, I was worried about why people were listening to it. Every artist wants to be taken seriously. These days, I just feel really thankful for that opportunity in my life and everything that it’s allowed me to do.
Is being an independent artist important to you?
It’s very important to me. And it’s something that has allowed me to make the sort of music that I’m making without feeling pressure from anyone.
You worked on the album from a bunch of different places. What was that like?
It was crazy. The majority of the time, I was actually in Zurich, [Switzerland].
I had COVID.
Well, it was cool place to have COVID. But that kind of informs it. One of my strengths is, I have a lot of ideas–it can be also a weakness because I can be scatterbrained. Being able to have these ideas and then see them through, especially with Adam because he’s so savvy, brings me great joy.
You played in Post Animal, as one member of a band, for five years . Do you prefer to work collaboratively or alone?
Well, I’m a pretty big control freak. One of the great challenges of being in a band is that it is a democracy, and that can be a really positive thing. But it can also be a negative thing. When you’re an actor, you’re like the bass or guitar player in a band–I’m just one element of this big thing that’s being put together. I am so grateful to be part of that thing, but I don’t get final say of what takes are chosen or what it looks like, or anything like that. [The DJO project] is satisfying in a different way because I can have control over it and see it through. I am starting to become a lot more interested in collaborating with people, like Charli XCX–we’ve been talking about her all weekend. She is so great at doing features and working with different artists. It’s really inspiring to see somebody do that because it can create really unique stuff. I think it would be cool to do that in the future.