Stranger Things actor and DJO songwriter Joe Keery secluded himself in solo artistry to find positivity in uncertain times...
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If there’s one thing that’s unified us in the last year, it’s the conundrum of what to do with a sudden influx of downtime. For artist DJO, it’s meant more than baking banana bread or planning a weekly Zoom quiz. It’s offered an opportunity to further evolve his passion for music. DJO is the stage name of Joe Keery, also known as an actor and star of Stranger Things. With solo music project DJO, he achieved much notoriety with ‘Twenty Twenty’ - described as a “full length psych odyssey” in some quarters - which was released quietly in 2019 and achieved exceptionally positive word of mouth praise. The global events that followed offered a window to work on new material with a quieter schedule.
“It's been nice to have kind of more of a definite workflow you know, organising days, and stuff like that,” he says down the phoneline from California, where most film and TV production has halted. While there’s been more time to set aside from music, inspiration runs on its own schedule. “I guess that's the the amazing thing and the hard thing about music is that you can't really force it,” he muses. “The ideas kind of come when they come and there's not much really you can do about it but just sort of try to just focus on making something that you think is good”.
Something good did come along in the form of glorious single ‘Keep Your Head Up’, his first artist release since ‘Twenty Twenty’ and a timely message for the current moment. A hugely uplifting, positive song influenced by the likes of Prince and Funkadelic guru George Clinton, Keery wrote it prior to the pandemic, and acknowledges the timing is somewhat “serendipitous”. “Once March rolled around, it was just one of the more finished tracks and something that we both felt pretty positive about. But, you know, there's a lot of turmoil going on right now and if this helps some people in some small ways then that would make me very happy. That's great”.
While he has balanced it with acting, his passion for music started with a young age, crediting his parents with forming his taste in music. “I didn't really take it super seriously until I was in my late teens” he says of performing, which led to being part of cult psychedelic rock outlaws Post Animal for a mind-bending five year span. Going solo in 2019, however, brought a new challenge. “The joy is that you are the executor of the project,” he says. “You get the final say, but that can also be the tough side. Because if you're stumped or if you feel like you're in some sort of rut, you know, you're the guy, you got to figure it out”.
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The key question is the role of collaborative art, however: does he prefer it to being in a band? “I really love both, to be honest with you,” he replies. “I just kind of wanted to see what I could do on my own. Even now I have tricks and stuff that I've learned from those guys that I still use all the time”.
There’s also the balance between music and acting, which can often compliment each other, but also have a knack of pulling an artist in two different direction. “I think they are definitely flexing creative muscles differently,” he explains. “Looking at the process of what I've experienced thus far… working on the show is more like being in a proper band where you're one piece of this kind of giant puzzle and you're playing your role in service of this greater entity. Whereas I would imagine that the kind of solo project thing is more similar to being like a director, where you're seeing this thing through, from start to finish.”
Chewing over this point, Joe takes his time before adding: “So, it's nice to kind of you know, do both of those things. At the end of the day, I've kind of been interested in both acting and music since I was a kid. And I'm just incredibly fortunate enough to be in a place where I can make a living from it”.
As we all emerge into some kind of normalcy – however that is defined - Joe Keery will be looking to continue balancing those two worlds. In acting, that means working on a new series of Stranger Things and “auditioning for stuff like everybody else”. For music, there is a new album on the horizon, which Keery is hesitant to discuss before its completion, other than to say “I have my sights just set on trying to be as truthful as possible. And so, I can look back on this record and know that it’s something that I can be really proud of. That would be my goal for this current project, I guess.”
For this multi-disciplinarian, however, the only project that matters are what’s on the horizon. “For the future, I think would just be to continue to like collaborate with other amazing artists and learn from other people as much as I can”.
When asked about specific artists, he lets out an enthusiastic chuckle. “The list is growing every day!” Joe exclaims. “One of the bands that my Dad loved, that I kind of grew up on, was ELO. So not even working with, if one day I could just say to Jeff Lynne… you know, even just ask him one question about one song, he's got a brilliant musical mind. So, yeah, that would probably make me pretty weak at the knees!”
For now, he’ll be making viewers weak at the knees on screen, and getting them on their feet with future DJO releases. In a world that seems to have ventured through its own version of Stranger Things’ Upside Down, Joe Keery appears to be an artist keeping his head up.
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'Twenty Twenty' is out now.
Words: James Luxford
Photo Credit: Kellie Miller
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