Surrender to win: Musician, producer Steve Drizos embraces the ‘Axiom’ of sobriety

Courtesy of Bill McAlaine
Courtesy of Bill McAlaine

For the bulk of his career, Steve Drizos has used his own musical talents to propel the careers of others, from his role as a drummer of both power and complexity, and his work as a producer at his Portland, Oregon, studio, The Panther.

The Ties That Bind UsOn Friday, however, he’ll release “Axiom,” the debut full-length album under his own name. That’s a pretty special occasion for any artist, but given the seeds from which the record germinated, it’s even more so for Drizos. After all, “Axiom” is a direct result of his sobriety, and when he quit drinking in 2016, he wasn’t sure what effect his new way of life might have on his creativity, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I would say probably three or four months into my sobriety, I picked up a guitar and thought, ‘Let’s see what’s there,’” Drizos said. “I didn’t have any ideas; I just put a guitar in my hand — and it all just came out, almost within the course of an evening. And that was an incredibly emotional moment for me. Here I was, a guy with hard drives filled with half-finished ideas timestamped at 3 in the morning, where I had been drinking and thought I was being brilliant, but I never finished anything.

“I never had the focus or the clarity. But that night, I wrote ‘Juggling Fire,’ and I was like, ‘Holy shit — I finished something after all!’ And second of all, it was pretty good! It was an incredibly powerful and emotional moment for me, and that was the beginning of creating this record. And I remember thinking, ‘If I can write lyrics that came from this really personal place of what I’m going through right now, I think I can make art that’s going to be honest, that’s going to be true and that might be important for somebody else who is going through what I’m going through right now.”

Steve Drizos and the complex beauty of 'Axiom'

Steve Drizos

Courtesy of Bill McAlaine

“However we may labour for our own deception, truth, though unwelcome, will sometimes intrude upon the mind.”

Those are the words of 18th century poet Samuel Johnson, and together they form the opening salvo of “Axiom.” As part of the title track, the song sets the stage for Drizos’ exploration of heart, mind and soul through a prism of sobriety and second chances, and the swirling, ethereal soundscape — constructed by Drizos on guitar, percussion, synthesizer, drums and bass; his wife, Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, on piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes and Mellotron; and musician Kyleen King on strings and vocals — is both complex and beautiful.

The arrangement floats on a gossamer thread of gauzy daydream, and the combination of instrumentation and spoken word poetry build to a crescendo of hope — which is a mirror, Drizos said, of his own sobriety.

“To me, it was this amazing realization of, if you open those pathways to something greater than yourself, that’s a two-way street,” he said. “That conduit is open, because if you’re willing to believe there’s something greater than yourself — a higher power — to help you steer through life, you’re going to get those gifts back, and that’s how I looked at the record.

“This is a gift I’m being given now, and I would never have been open or aware of what I was receiving. when I was clouded by alcohol and drugs.”

On the heels of the title track follows “Juggling Fire,” a somber rumination of an unnamed “she” who lives on the periphery of society, living off of hubcaps, stolen bikes and “five-cent returns” — an outcast whom Drizos recognizes as a fellow traveler of the shadows (“Then again, I know what it feels like to fall”). That he invests himself in her story, in all of these stories, is a sign of the courage that sobriety gave him to put himself out there, he added.

“Truth be told, (“Axiom) has been years, if not decades, in the making,” he said. “All through the ’90s, I was a founding member and toured with Dexter Grove, an acoustic duo out of Upstate New York. We moved to Boulder in the mid-‘90s, and I wrote about 40 percent of that music, but someone else sang it. Most of my career, I’ve always been a songwriter; I just never had the confidence to perform it myself.

“So it’s something that I always wanted to do, because I’ve always been writing songs my entire career, but before this, I never found the strength or courage to release it under my own name.”

Releasing a solo album is an artistic and professional roll of the dice, he acknowledged, but in doing so, he drew on the same strength and courage that he found in his darkest hour. The high-water mark of “Axiom,” if there is such a thing for a record that’s so complex and joyful in equal measure, is “Covering Your Eyes,” a searingly honest portrait of his sobriety journey, he said.

“Especially that line in the song — ‘the hardest part of reaching out is then they come around’ — because I think that goes for people who are addicted, who are depressed, who are suicidal,” he said. “When you’re in that place … that dark, dark place … you don’t want people to come around and help you. You want to wallow in your misery, because it’s familiar.”

The dual discovery of rock and booze

Courtesy of Jason Quigley

To be fair, it wasn’t always miserable. Like most alcoholics, Drizos didn’t take a drink one day and wind up sleeping on a park bench clutching a brown paper bag the next. It was a slow progression that at first felt like the discovery of a favorite jacket, so comfortable was the fit.

“My earliest memories of getting high and getting drunk were just that feeling of being dizzy and laughing,” he said. “It was such a pure joy that was easily accessible, and it was also that thing of never really fitting in any sort of social circles. I was never an athlete, I was never one of the cool kids, and this was something I could do to seem maybe kind of dangerous, to impress people — and I didn’t need any particular training to do it.”

In many ways, he added, there are direct parallels between drinking as a teenager and playing music. He discovered rock ‘n’ roll as a lifechanging element at 10 or 11, when his oldest cousin’s boyfriend found out he was learning to play drums. The older guy gave young Drizos a cassette tape, featuring “Led Zeppelin II” on one side and “Who’s Next” on the other.

“And that was it,” he said. “I listened to them and said, ‘This is what I’m doing. Whatever magic is happening on this recording, I want to find that,’ and there was no going back.”

The more teenage angst tried to set up shop in his young heart, the more he pivoted toward the drums. A girl broke his heart? The cool kids didn’t invite him to a party? He’d show them, he thought. One day, they’d see his name in lights, and they would regret those injustices. And with a father who also played drums and encouraged his son to expand his range and repertoire, making a living as a musician became a natural progression, he added.

“All through junior high, high school and college, I was always auditioning and getting the position in jazz ensembles and the orchestra and all that kind of stuff, and it always seemed to me to make sense that that was what I was doing, and that was the direction I was heading in,” he said. “My sophomore year of college, I dropped out and started touring full-time. There was never this one moment where I thought, ‘I’m going to give up everything to do this’ — I always just did it, and I always knew it was what I was going to do. I was always fortunate, because there was never an other option. It was just something I’ve always done from a very young age.”

And by the time he reached college, the relationship between music and substances was cemented in those pockets of creativity and wonder that so many artists discover. At its zenith, he pointed out, “that marriage of getting high and playing music” can produce some beautiful works of art, and for Drizos, it was no different.

“Those fleeting magical moments where everything’s working together kind of transcends you to this place that’s like, ‘Holy shit — this is heaven,’” he said.

For many artists, however — Drizos among them — that place, as artistically bountiful as it can be, is a mirage that often fades with prolonged exposure. But the memory of its enchantment remains, and those who seek its rewards are drawn to it, even in the face of negative consequences, out of an obsession to recapture the ease and comfort of those electrifying moments.

Steve Drizos: From Dexter Grove to Portland

Steve Drizos

Courtesy of Jason Quigley

With Dexter Grove, Drizos was on the road for a full decade, playing close to 250 shows each year, and along the way, alcohol and drugs became a coping mechanism, he said. He’s not sure when, exactly, they became more than party favors, but looking back, he sees now what they became:

“A way for me to deal with the unpleasantries of being on the road,” he said. “I started being more aware of my anxiety and depression, and they really became a self-medicating tool at that point.”

Leaving Dexter Grove in 2004 and moving to Porland, Oregon, helped for a time. He slowly immersed himself in the local scene and launched The Panther in 2006, about the same time he joined Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons, playing behind a guy whose own recovery has been a frequent topic of rock ’zine interviews. Joseph, a frequent collaborator with Widespread Panic and a well-known rock ‘n’ roll raconteur, helped channel Drizos’ talent in new and exciting ways, and when the latter finally decided to get sober in 2016, he reached out to his bandleader.

“Jerry has been very open about his sobriety and his struggles with substance abuse, so he was obviously one of the first people I called when I made the choice to get clean,” Drizos said. “I told him, ‘I need to change things, and I’ve seen you do it on the road. I want what you have.’”

As a working musician, alcohol and drugs didn’t rob Drizos of opportunity, he added. He didn’t show up to the studio drunk, and even on stage with the Jackmormons, he was never a sloppy on-stage presence. Sure, there might have been a time or two he questioned whether the last shot was affecting his timing, but for the most part, he waited until the show was done, retired to the green room and hit the bottle stashed in his bag.

Even when it was pointed out that he might have a drinking problem, the fact that his life, by all external appearances, seemed good made him question such a diagnosis.

“I had a therapist way before I got sober tell me I had a drinking problem, but I didn’t like that. I told him he was a liar,” Drizos said with a chuckle. “He told me, ‘If you want to figure out why you drink and use drugs, stop doing it for a little while, and you’ll figure out why you do it.’ On a career level, I think I maybe would have made more of my own music earlier, but I was never one of those alcoholics who lost everything or was threatened with losing everything.

“I was a closet drinker, and I hid the extent of my drinking. I cared way too much about what other people thought about me to let the cat out of the bag, so I was able to maintain as a high-functioning alcoholic. My wife would be on tour, so I would lock the door, and I was off to the races. And when I was on tour, I didn’t tell people I was drinking three fingers of bourbon in the  morning in my coffee before I got in the van.”

Steve Drizos: A rebirth in recovery

Steve Drizos

Courtesy of Jason Quigley

Deception took its toll, however, until in September 2016, he was out with an old friend, another musician, who happened to have gotten sober a few months earlier. He was doing alright, it seemed, and his approach to sobriety was something that gave Drizos hope. On the ride home, he opened his mouth, and his long-hidden secret came pouring out.

“I told him, ‘Dude, I’m fucked up, I’ve got a problem. I need to stop, and you’re doing it the way I want to do it,’” Drizos said. “That was it. Just that conversation started me down the path. He called me every day for a week, and he got me a bed at a detox, and that was it.”

That confession, he would come to understand, was what’s known in recovery parlance as the gift of desperation. He had reached a point where the pain of staying the same became greater than the fear of the unknown that a change like sobriety represented. That, he said, was when he knew he was done.

“So many people, I think, look back and think they wasted a bunch of time or wasted a bunch of their life because of drugs and alcohol, but I don’t look at it that way,” Drizos said. “It happened to me the way it was supposed to happen to me. It’s a part of my story … it’s all part of whatever divine plan is meant for me.”

After detox, he enrolled in an intensive outpatient recovery program for several months, and he took suggestions from those who had been sober longer. It’s a simple process, and when he took those suggestions, he said, they worked. More importantly, he trusted that they would work, which is why when he got back on stage with the Jackmormons after getting sober, it was terrifying at first — but he did it anyway, because others in the program told him he could.

“It was like relearning how to do it all again without any chemical assistance, and to just find those transcendental moments in the music,” he said. “And even though it was terrifying, I learned pretty quickly that the amount of focus and playing with intent when you’re sober — nothing compares to that. You’re 100 percent in control of your own ship, and it’s a great ride, man, when you realize that.”

There are moments, especially those 15 minutes after the final song, when that lizard part of his alcoholic brain whispers: “Good job! You deserve something!” And it takes some self-talk and positive affirmation, he added — tools he learned in sobriety — to get him through to the other side.

“I just talk myself through those moments: ‘You did play a great show, but you did your job, and that’s all you did,’” he said. “‘You don’t have to have a couple of double whiskeys after to pat yourself on the back.’”

Fortunately, the support he received from Joseph and his other bandmates was made those first few tours easier, and today, riding the natural high of a show that’s both adventurous and flawless in execution is better than any drug he ever did. And even when there are miscues, missteps and mistakes, it’s still a damn sight better than the place in which he used to exist, he added.

“I lived the First Step for a year before I got sober, basically thinking, ‘I know I have a problem, and that’s just the way it is,’” he said. “I was stuck between that place of, ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and, ‘I can’t imagine not doing this.’ And I lived in that area for years before I got sober. It was the most torturous place I had ever been in.”

The courage to change the things he can ...

Courtesy of Jason Quigley

Today, putting out “Axiom” marks not just the next phase of his musical career, but the next step on his sobriety journey. After all, he pointed out, working on it literally saved his sanity at certain points.

“It gave me something to focus on and really look forward to when I woke up in the morning,” he said. “And between the time it was finished and the release date, I don’t know how many times I had a craving and thought, ‘Dude! You can’t have a relapse and then put out a record about being sober!’”

He laughs — self-deprecating and warm, but also 100% serious, just as his new album is. In the beginning, it was a project of catharsis, he added, but what started out as therapy became a message along the way.

“I didn’t want it to be a ‘I fucked up and put the bottle down’ sort of record,” he said. “I more wanted to address that the drinking and using drugs are a symptom of something else — for me, it was anxiety and depression. I didn’t have childhood trauma; my substance abuse just came from being anxious and trying to control shit all the time.”

If 2020 did anything, it’s teach Drizos — and a whole lot of other people — about finding the serenity to accept the things they cannot change. Fortunately for him, he and his wife have The Panther, a studio that’s hosted hundreds of sessions over the past 15 years by some of the Northwest’s biggest names, and when COVID-19 shut down the industry, it allowed him to pivot to full-time studio maestro.

In that sense, “Axiom” is a calling card for his talents behind the board as much as they are the ones behind the kit.

“This is how I hear music and produce music,” he said. “I’m always trying to direct traffic back to my studio and trying to get people interested: If you want to make cool records, come see me.”

But in one sense, “Axiom” is also directing traffic in another direction: To a better way of life that he hasn’t spoken much about in the past. The songs on this album are so personal, however, that he felt compelled to explain where they come from, he said.

“I think it became clear to me pretty early on that I was going to be brutally honest,” he said. “I’m a pretty private person as far as my relationships with the fans, and I don’t post a lot of personal stuff on social media. I don’t post my sober birthdays on Facebook or take pictures of my (sobriety medallion). I’m not saying that’s right or wrong; I just personally don’t do that.

“But I decided this was going to be my way of letting my guard down completely and letting people know this is what I feel and what I’ve been going through. This was going to be the theme of the record — being extremely vulnerable, because in songs like ‘Covering Your Eyes’ and ‘Liminal Space,’ I phrase the narrative like I’m talking to somebody else, when it reality this is me writing letters to myself.”