Joe Keery won’t stop talking about Stanley Tucci. We’re 20 minutes into our coffee in the Lower East Side, and because the Tooch is one of my favorite topics of conversation as well, it physically pains me to steer the conversation back on track.
Directing. Let’s talk about directing. We were talking about getting behind the camera when Keery began to gush over Tucci, whose 1996 movie Big Night inspired the young Stranger Things actor to pursue filmmaking. Then, there’s Tucci’s new memoir, Taste, a mix of recipes and autobiography, which has brought Keery to the idea of a cookbook-album concoction—as in maybe one day, somehow, creating a project that blends recipes and his music.
“Well, not a cookbook,” Keery says. “How can you blend genres? What he does there, in a really great way, is: How do you blend a cookbook and a story about your life? Nobody’s done that in the same way, not that I have read.” (As a devoted rom-com lover, I tell him to read Heartburn by Nora Ephron.)
Keery rattles off a long list of movies he’d like to make one day. A moving family affair like Big Night. An original adventure movie. Or even a sizzling thriller like Nightcrawler. I tell him to combine all three for something original—genre-blending like Taste—and he seems eager for the challenge.
Still, as exciting as this all is, and as hyped as I am about Keery’s passion to direct, we’re here to talk about his new album DECIDE—yes, the popular actor makes music, too—and Stranger Things.
Though he’s newly 30, Keery can’t help but unleash his inner child when something thrills him, spinning through conversations with a buzzing energy and a carousel of topics to excitedly discuss. The actor is calm and soft-spoken—except when he’s talking about his idols (Charli XCX and Stanley Tucci, of course) or reminiscing about his days as a college kid in Chicago.
Thrust into fame in his early twenties, thanks to his dopey grin, floppy hair, and crush-worthy charisma on Stranger Things, Keery has now adopted the stage name of “Djo” (pronounced “Joe,” like Django Unchained) for his music career.
“It was a way to put music out under my name without having people know directly that it’s me. It is highly confusing,” Keery admits, siding with all of us who thought Djo might be a DJ named “O.”
So, is Djo different from Joe? The names sound the same. Homophones, actually. He tells me that his most memorable role, Stranger Things’ charming teen Steve Harrington, is similar to his real personality, but Steve isn’t him. “It’s not difficult to get into character,” Keery says. “Because we spent so long working on this show, it feels like a shade of me.”
Unlike his more notable screen roles, like Steve, Kurt in the fast-paced road thriller Spree, or the “dirty stripper cop” in Free Guy, Keery’s music persona isn’t actually a persona, per se. It’s just a name he’s invented for Spotify to make sure those listening aren’t thinking about Steve fighting the Demogorgon everytime they hear him singing odes to his youth.
“It’s not like I’m singing all of this music from the perspective of a character. It’s all me,” Keery says. “It was just a way to disassociate from myself. I feel like, with the show, I’m kind of a character, because of the internet. I didn’t want that character to affect people when they’re listening to the music—so releasing it with its own character is a way to give it its own space.”
But if Djo is his music persona, and Steve/Kurt/Stripper Cop are the screen versions of the star, who is Joe Keery?
He’s certainly more than just our internet boyfriend. In fact, Keery’s getting a little tired of being whittled down to one aspect of his life. Yes, it’s his hair. No, he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“It’s really ridiculous. It’s not something I have control over,” he says, shouting out his Stranger Things stylist. “It’s just internet fodder that’s carried over and is now attached to me. I can’t really knock it. I have a career, so I have to be like, “Who cares? I’ll take it.” But it’s also not something I care about at all. Still, people seem to really care about it and fixate on it, for whatever reason. It’s so stupid, honestly.”
Nearly every interview Keery has done—including this one—contains a few paragraphs dedicated to his hair. Usually, the hair takes the whole first paragraph. He made headlines when he admitted he doesn’t wash his hair. Keery has put up with these interviews and trend pieces over and over again, but clearly, he’s grown tired of his mane taking precedence over his performances and his music.
Throughout the first part of our interview, he leaves his hat on. Only after we’ve gotten over this hair debacle does he take it off to let his moppy tousles breathe. He’s been wearing hats around Manhattan to shield his identity.
In his upcoming album DECIDE, Keery actually riffs on this hair frustration in one of the tracks. His new single “Gloom,” a quick and angry song in which Keery shares frustrations about bad friends, he references the discourse: “Your insults don’t affect me with my favorite coat on / I know my hair looked good in the bathroom at the bar,” he sings.
“It’s just like a cheeky wink at the camera. Everybody asks me about it. It’s sort of a—” he flips the back of his hand under his chin, “moment. That song’s kind of like a stiff-upper-lip attitude track.”
And yet Keery continues to talk about those tufts, because he knows it’s what the people want to hear. He also knows his self-worth is more than just his hair. In the last line of his upcoming album, Keery sings about wanting to be “someone,” but he says he only found notoriety when he sought inner-peace.
“Really what it’s about is that everybody wants to be respected, you know what I mean?” he explains. “But it’s kind of an unending journey, if you’re trying to seek approval from others. Because that ambiguous approval? You will never get it, even if you reach the highest of highs. It has to come from somewhere within.”
The album will launch on Sept. 16 and is the perfect set of funky tunes to listen to on brisk autumnal walks. It isn't exploding with anger, but a lot of the lyrics grapple with the tedious task of getting older. Keery spent the last few months of his twenties developing the album, an ode to his more playful younger years.
“You think about your life in different eras, I guess. It’s easy to define them by location, for me. I think about my time in Boston as a kid. I think about my time in Chicago as a young man. And then I think about my time in Atlanta, starting professional life,” he says. “I feel like the thing that took me a long time to realize is it’s not like you’re a kid and you grow up. You’re always growing up. You’re always changing.”
Keery sees aging more as evolving, and that’s what the album is all about. For example: He’s the internet’s boyfriend now, but after his new role in Fargo, perhaps he’ll become the internet’s husband. In the first song on his new album, “Runner,” Keery sings, “People never change / But I have to try,” a farewell to some of his younger days, but a celebration of his own personal growth.
Keery misses his days in Chicago, where he came up in music with his band Post Animal, alongside alt groups like Twin Peaks and Whitney. He wouldn’t be the performer, the musician, nor the person he is today if he hadn’t spent some of the most important years of his life in the city. But now, when he returns to visit, just like he’s grown and changed, so has the city.
“It does teach you to appreciate that time in your life,” Keery says. “It also is like: Wake up in your everyday life and appreciate what you’re going through right now. That could end at any time. But easier said than done, man! That’s a full life thing that you’ll have to try to do.”
The actor had to venture out to Los Angeles, the most recent “era” of his life, to record this album. He can’t wait for fans to (hopefully) listen over and over again to find new sounds hidden in the nooks and crannies of his psychedelic beats; I certainly have gone back and listened to his Tame Impala-esque tracks after our interview. Listen closely to the last song on the album, “Slither,” and you’ll hear a mug clanging. That’s the sound of it tapping the famed Marvin Gaye urinal in LA’s storied Sound Factory.
“There are some fun sounds in here,” Keery says simply, chuckling. Again, that inner-kid is coming out.
There are a number of pop culture influences on the album: the humor of Tim and Eric, as well as Nathan Fielder; Jacob Emrani’s omnipresent LA billboards; and Severance for its creepy, pale/neon office. ButStranger Things is not one of them. Keery is surrounded by a handful of young musicians on set (Maya Hawke and Finn Wolfhard…even Gaten Matarazzo and Sadie Sink have had their turns on Broadway), but they rarely collaborate. Instead, Keery views his days acting on Stranger Things as an energy drink for the music side of his brain.
“You do the acting stuff and you’re a small piece of a large puzzle. You get to release some control,” he says. “While that bar is being depleted, the music bar is filling up on the other side. It’s like, ‘Okay, I want to do this now, have full control and take this into my own hands and see it through all the way, and figure it out.’ So they do feed off each other.”
Keery is much older than his character Steve, especially since Stranger Things has taken long hiatuses in between seasons. It’s hard for him to act backwards. “I feel kind of disconnected from being that age, because I am 10 years older,” he confesses. “So that’s a little weird.”
The actor has to wind through several eras of his life, all the way back to Chicago, to get into the mindset of a newly-graduated high schooler. It’s not easy. It’s taxing to pretend to be young when you miss your college days. Keery’s new album is all about that—mourning your days of youth, but finding ways to cope with growing up.
“It’s sad to me in a lot of ways, looking back at things that have passed and realizing they’ll never come back,” he says. “It took me a long time, especially thinking about Chicago, to be like, ‘Man, it was amazing being a part of that crew and community. It’s not going to be the same.’ It’s a sad realization. But it’s also the way that life works, and it’s a beautiful thing too.”