A shock to the System: Chris ‘Syn’ Wright still standing tall atop Blount’s metal scene despite health setbacks
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Standing over a crowd of local metal fans slamming into one another at his feet, Chris “Syn” Wright feels like a god.
His hulking frame may be poised to collapse under the stress, his oversized heart may be struggling to push blood throughout his damaged system, and his field of vision may be blurring around the edges, the encroaching darkness threatening to overtake him. After his band PsychoSystem completes its set, he’ll find a quiet corner of the room and attempt to regain his composure, asking friends and fans alike to give him a few minutes while he labors to keep his damaged brain from springing another of the leaks that have plagued him in recent years.
He may take those minutes to contemplate the dead friends from his youth, the bandmates who have come and gone over the years, the relationships that have broken apart and the opportunities that so often seem tantalizingly out of reach. Perhaps he’ll wrestle with deeper questions — the cruel nature of fate, the meaning of his own existence, the future of the band into which he’s given everything.
But one thing he will not do is regret his time in the spotlight, sweat pouring from his shaved head and hell pulsing from his vocal cords, showering fans with a guttural concoction of brutality that channels every dark cloud in his life into a single set of punishing rock ‘n’ roll. One thing he will never do is give that time up, no matter what the consequences might be.
“After the first stroke, they told me I wouldn’t get out of the wheelchair because it was in the brainstem, and they weren’t sure how much damage was actually done,” Wright told The Daily Times during a recent interview. “As far as performing, they told me I shouldn’t exert myself that much. At the time, the flap in the back of my throat, the one that separates air from liquids, was paralyzed, so I was choking on liquids. Then it would spasm, and I would cough so much that my blood pressure would drop, and I would end up passing out.
“But eight months after the stroke, we played our first show. I was going to therapy every day, and I eventually got my voice back well enough to do a show again. As soon as I got it to where I could actually do something with it and not sound like the teacher on ‘Charlie Brown,’ I decided that I could lay there and stare at the ceiling and be miserable, or I could be miserable doing what I love to do, which is singing. And if it killed me, then at least I would go out doing what I love.
“It’s all in the attitude,” he added. “I’ve conquered so much; really, I should have been 6 feet under a long time ago.”
Death and Wright, it seems, are old friends. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he was the son of two working-class parents who struggled to make ends meet. They lived in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, and during Wright’s childhood, the crack epidemic exploded in D.C. like a nuclear detonation. Gang and drug violence was routine, and he can remember having to sleep on the floor some nights to avoid being hit by a stray bullet.
“I remember one day I was walking to check our post office box, and this kid driving down the road got nailed during a drive-by shooting,” he said. “It was like that 24/7 when I was growing up, and it changes your entire perspective. It’s not like I had bad parents; my dad worked for the fire department, and my step-mom worked, so I was left to my own devices because they didn’t have much of a choice and couldn’t afford a babysitter.”
Growing up in that environment, he discovered both music and drugs. The former engaged his mind, the latter helped calm it; eventually, both would play a role in him leaving D.C. for East Tennessee. His younger self provided much of the template for “Syn,” the gargantuan crazy man who fronts PsychoSystem and, before that, the long-time local metal project Facelock. These days, the man is very different from his creation, but back then, he said, his reputation as insane was well-deserved.
“Chris is a quiet, laid-back guy; Syn is this crazy, big, really psychotic guy who’s messed up in the head,” Wright said. “That scares people, because they think that’s how I am 24/7. But if I was that dude 24/7, I would seriously hate myself. I’m just not a people person; I grew up getting my ass beat and made fun of my entire life, and growing up, I was always told that I shouldn’t feel this way or that way, or that it was wrong to feel a certain way.
“The only way I learned to let my perspective out is to write a song and scream it at the top of my lungs. It’s kind of like aiming an M-16 and pulling the trigger, just absolutely letting loose. And after I started doing that, people started to connect with it.”
The darker side of that scene involved drugs, death and mayhem. He recalls a particular dark moment when a friend overdosed; young and panicked, Wright and his friends placed the body in a Dumpster and made an anonymous call to tip the police. Recalling those days is obviously painful; the memories weigh on his soul like a pallet of bricks, but coming to East Tennessee was a turning point in his life, he said.
“One of the last times I lived there, I had a gun stuck to my head, and it got to a point where I was tired of it,” he said. “Selling guns, selling drugs ... it wore me down, and it was time for a change. I had to get out of there and get to a place where I could grow up and not worry about bullets and cops.”
At the time, he was playing with a well-known regional band called PSI. That band toured up and down the East Coast and was preparing to sign to a local label and record a full-length album when Wright and the PSI drummer had a falling out. With PSI falling apart and his life not far behind, he took the breakup as an opportunity to move to Maryville to marry a local girl who’s now his ex-wife.
In Blount County, he found a decent music scene, but for the metal he loved, he had to drive to Knoxville. Determined to put together a hardcore band, he established Facelock and quickly earned a reputation as a showman as well as a musician, bringing strobe lights, fake blood and a little bit of magic (Wright is an amateur magician on the side) to the stage every time Facelock performed. Wright may not have established the local metal scene, but it certainly took root and flourished after Facelock got off the ground.
“Every time a new band comes around, they’ll usually look us up and say they’d love to play with us because they’ve been seeing our shows for years,” Wright said. “There are people out there who dog me, but that’s how every scene is sometimes. There’s a lot of drama, and I’ve gotten caught up in some of that. But I feel like we get a lot of respect, and that always makes me feel really good, too.”
In 2006, however, he suffered a stroke; during his recuperation, he and his wife went through a divorce. In the weeks and months that followed, life was an agonizing blend of demanding physical therapy, frustrating battles with government over his disability status and the one-step-forward-two-steps-back momentum of Facelock. These days, his health is much improved. It’s not ideal, and there are still long-lasting consequences from the strokes he’s had over the years; however, he doesn’t finish a show and collapse unconscious for 10 or 15 minutes like he did after first returning to the stage.
“Right after the first stroke, I went without medication for about a year and a half, and when I finally got on my disability and went to the doctor, they found three or four dead spots on my brain — secondary strokes that they think were products of the firsts one,” he said. “I’ve dropped some weight, so I’m no longer considered diabetic, but now I’ve got a seizure disorder on top of everything.
“My health is an absolute mess, but I do the best I can with it. When life puts obstacles in front of you, you have to bulldoze through them. Some days I wake up, and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, and I won’t be able to get out of bed. On a good day, I’ll pick up my kid every day after school, spend as much time as I can with him and at night, work on band business.”
His son, Gabriel, and his band (in 2009, Wright changed the name from Facelock to PsychoSystem) are the anchors that keep him from drifting away on a sea of pain, anger and self-pity. With the former, he’s a smiling, loving father who grins sheepishly when he talks of playing Wiggles tunes for his boy; with the latter, he’s Captain Ahab, strapped to the mast and determined to hunt that elusive white whale that is rock ‘n’ roll at all costs. His friends, his burgeoning interest in live-action role-playing ... all of those things pale in comparison to the euphoria he feels during that 60-minute set on a stage, his bandmates churning out enough volume and speed to keep his damaged heart and disagreeable body going for one more night and one more show.
“After we play, I feel like I’m back on an even keel,” he said. “It’s like you’re this pressure cooker, and by playing, it loosens it enough so it’s not going to boil over. There’s enough release so everything feels manageable, and you don’t feel like you’re going to freak out or put a bullet through your head, or somebody else’s head, for that matter.
“Me and the Grim Reaper, we’re standing in that doorway together, and I’m something like 21-0, if you count all my seizures and strokes and everything else in my life. I’m still going, and he’s going to have to write my name on his scythe if he wants me.”