Updated: Jul 31
Sometimes, it’s during the lowest points that we can seize the biggest opportunities. That’s what the album cycle has taught Portland musician Steve Drizos, who just dropped his debut solo album, Axiom.
Normally a drummer for local rock group Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons, Drizos does far more than just play drums on this solo record. Aside from being the primary songwriter, he also sings, plays guitar, some bass parts and keys, plus a host of other multi-instrumental parts throughout these tracks.
He also self-produced and engineered the tracks from his home studio in Portland, which he dubbed “The Panther” for its black bedecked walls and windows. It’s from this home studio that Drizos has collaborated with musicians from around Portland, the Pacific Northwest, and beyond.
The songs on Axiom are tender rock ballads that document Drizos’ growth as a musician, husband and human being. They are the result of his getting sober, and discovering the strength to seek help.
“A lot of the material on the record ended up just being really honest observations of what I was going through,” Drizos told Curbside Press. “At some point I decided lyrically that I was going to be really open and honest about my experience.”
Many of the songs were written more than seven years ago, pre-dating Drizos’ four-year sobriety. But he says that it took a clearer head -- and extra time he wasn’t spending on tour thanks to COVID-19 -- to finally sit down and finish these tracks.
Despite his many years in Portland, Drizos was actually raised in upstate New York, just outside of Albany. He moved to Boulder, Colorado in the 90’s and started an acoustic duo called Dexter Grove. It’s while touring for that group that he visited Portland for the first time -- he says it was love at first sight.
“The first memory I have is pulling through Portland at night,” he said. “Seeing the reflection of the city off the river, I just thought it was the most beautiful skyline.”
The more he played or went to shows in Portland, the more he came to appreciate its self-supporting arts scene. When he went to shows, other musicians were in the audience and they all seemed to be friends of the people onstage.
“In other music cities like New York, L.A. or Austin, there’s so much competition,” Drizos said. “But in Portland there’s this sense of, ‘We’re all helping each other out.’”
When his Colorado group split up, it felt natural to pack up and head to the city he always knew he’d end up in. It wasn’t long after moving to Portland that he helped record The Jackmormons’ 2006 record, April Nineteenth at Mississippi Studios, and became the full-time drummer of that band.
“For people who are struggling, even though it might not feel like it, you are not alone. Your problems are not unique to you. And it’s OK to reach out and ask for help.” - Steve Drizos
Drizos released the album via Cavity Search Records, the same local record label that produced albums by staple Oregon musicians like Helio Sequence and Elliott Smith. He also released a single called “Color Safe” for Cavity Search’s 2020 Compilation album.
There are five core songs on Axiom that all have similar feels. They’re rock ballads with hooky guitar and drums that beckon us into layered-vocal choruses and big crescendos. The verses on songs like “Juggling Fire” and “You Don’t See That Now” evoke a Wildflowers-era Tom Petty, with simple country-blues guitar and Drizos’ personal crooning cutting through.
The comparison is apt in more ways than just musically. Petty released his 1994 Wildflowers following a divorce and subsequent relapse into heroin use, and the tracks reflect his personal struggles from that time period. The tracks in Axiom evoke the same kind of “Time To Move On” quality as Petty’s multi-platinum best-seller.
Drizos himself wasn’t going through a messy divorce or a split from his old band, however. In fact, he features some of the many musicians he regularly collaborates with on this new album. His wife, Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists (yeah, those Decemberists), helped with keyboard arrangements, and Drizos brought in a range of vocalists and backing instrumentals to craft these eight tracks (full list below).
He drew on the many connections he’s made in the Pacific Northwest music scene to craft Axiom.
Vocalist and session musician Kyleen King makes a triumphant vocal appearance on “You Don’t See That Now,” and she contributed violin and viola to some other tracks, for example.
Axiom has some sonic outliers, too. The title track is a five-minute ambient rock anthem that features text-to-speech spoken verse components, which are actually lines from English poet Samuel Johnson. Drizos said he discovered his poetry while working on the album and felt that it really spoke to what he was going through.
“Truth is scarcely to be heard but by those from whom it can serve no interest to conceal it,” one line goes, which really cuts to the heart of Drizos’ self-reflexive message. In other words, one can’t hear the truth unless they stop finding reasons to hide from it.
In his own words, Drizos described the message of the record: “For people who are struggling, even though it might not feel like it, you are not alone. Your problems are not unique to you. And it’s OK to reach out and ask for help.”
“Static,” the album’s third track, is another one that immediately sets itself apart musically. It’s a driving, plucky punk anthem that Drizos said was an homage to his 90’s rock roots. It was released and promoted ahead of the full album as the main single, and it’s clear to see why, with its heavy builds and catchy chorus of, “I feel it, it’s everywhere. It’s the static in the air.”
The idea for the song came to him so quickly that Drizos said, “Usually when that happens it’s because you’re ripping someone off and just don’t realize it yet.”
For his part, Drizos said he looked and looked but couldn’t find anything that he was directly copying. Instead, he says the song came as he was trying to harness that 90’s hard rock sound and blend it with the sort of electronica he grew up on -- like the British group Massive Attack.
There’s also a music video for “Static” set to be released in a few weeks, which will round out the release schedule for the album.
Despite taking on his solo role for Axiom, Drizos says he has no desires to form a group and really tour these songs around, saying, “The thought of being a band’s front-person scares the crap outta me.”
In fact, while he was mostly finished with the songwriting and recording process before the pandemic closed venues and cancelled tours, the downtime really helped him to finish Axiom. It also meant that there would be no pressure to plan a tour to promote these songs once he did release the album.
While COVID didn’t really affect his ability to produce music, Drizos says that releasing this record now has a special feel of importance, since its themes deal so heavily with isolation. He offered up these parting words, “Anybody who’s really struggling with isolation and the pitfalls of that: it’s going to get better and there are resources out there if (you) need help or connection with other human beings. The first step is just reaching out.”
Jenny Conlee: Keyboard
Kyleen King: Vocals
Troy Stuart: Guitar
Nate Query: Bass
Steve James: Bass
Rebecca Sandborne: Backing vocals
Dave Jones: Backing vocals
Alia Farrah: Backing vocals
Paul Brainerd: Lap steel guitar
Bryan Daste: Pedal steel guitar