By Richard Skanse
“The first time’s bad but the second time it’s worst
And the third time’s sad and the fourth time it just hurts
But it’s all downhill from there it don’t get no worse …”
— “Epilepsy Blues”
Chris Fullerton was alone the first time it happened. It was seven years ago, when he was 25 years old and still living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the girlfriend who had just broken off their engagement. He came home from his day job one afternoon, took a nap, and woke up with arm dead limp. Thinking he’d slept on it, he tried to manually shake it awake with his opposite hand. That’s when it sprang back to life — and went rogue.
“It started going like this, like coming toward me,” he says, miming a spastic scene out of either a horror movie or an ’80s Steve Martin comedy. “And I was like, ‘Oh, shit! Help!’” But his ex-fiancee was at work, leaving no witness to the incident but Fullerton himself. By the time his ex got home, his arm was back to normal and he might as well have been trying to tell her about a singing and dancing frog.
“I don’t think she believed me or really even cared,” Fullerton offers with a shrug. “Maybe she thought I was trying to … you know, it was just odd timing. She had just broken up with me, and there was already lot of stress with everything going on.”
Indeed, his domestic situation at the time was so untenable that Fullerton was itching to pack up and find a brand new scene, despite the promising traction he’d been getting on the Cambridge bar circuit with his Western swing band, Chris Fullerton and the Chupucabras. “We kind of had the market cornered,” he explains with a wry grin, “because there weren’t exactly a lot of country acts floating around the Boston area.” But like countless other hungry young songwriters before him, the Camden, County, New Jersey native — who’d grown up singing hymnals and soldier songs at summer reunions with his “pretty big family of musicians” and later spent most of his teens playing in punk and hardcore bands — had long had designs on Austin, Texas. And given the freedom — however unpleasantly — of really having nothing left to lose, he figured it was high time to finally drive south for a fresh start.
But Fullerton left New England with more than just his guitar. Two days after that first alarming incident with his arm, he had another episode — again with nobody to see it.
“And then I kept on having them every few days,” he says. “Just these grand mal seizures.” Not that he knew what they were yet, though. After one particularly bad one, he went to the ER, where upon admitting that he didn’t have insurance, he was casually diagnosed with having “mini strokes.” “I was like, oh, cool … I’m pretty sure that’s not what I have — but it’d be real scary if it was! Whatever the fuck a ‘mini stroke’ was.”
His condition only got worse after he made it to Texas. Even when he wasn’t having seizures, there were the dizzying visual auras (“where I start to get very sensitive to light and it almost feels like the you’ve been standing still and the world starts moving in on you”) followed by “immense panic attacks.” Fortunately, the new girlfriend that he’d met shortly after moving to Austin — his now-wife, Lindsay Preston — was far more proactive and promptly dragged him to a neurologist who not only correctly diagnosed the cause of his epilepsy, but remarkably offered to treat Fullerton sans insurance or payment. “He’s awesome,” Fullerton enthuses, but the diagnosis itself was grim. What he had was an especially severe cerebral arteriovenous malformation, or cerebral AVM — where instead of having one main artery feeding blood into his brain, he had an enormous “ticking time bomb” mass of smaller veins riddled with aneurysms and entwined with his motor cortex. It was so big, in fact, that surgery would have killed him — or, “best case scenario,” says his wife, left him a vegetable. Even the Mayo Clinic told them there was nothing they could do.
But Preston was five months pregnant at the time with their son, Townes, and the couple refused to give up hope. Through diligent research, they learned about a new treatment for AVMs utilizing CyberKnife radiation. “Instead of general radiation, it’s a laser, which allows them to more precisely hit the area and reduces the risk for brain tumors,” she explains.
It seems to have worked, too, at least so far. After half a dozen CyberKnife radiation sessions over the course of two years, Fullerton’s AVM has been effectively zapped down to an ostensibly for more operable size. “They still think it’s best to wait another year before going ahead with surgery, just to see if more radiation keeps shrinking it down,” his wife says. “But we’ve been really, really lucky. His prognosis is entirely different now.”
But that angry clump of veins messing with his brain wasn’t the only thing of Fullerton’s to take a hit over the last few years. While many people with epilepsy are able to live active, normal lives with the help of the right anticonvulsant drugs and diligent, healthy lifestyle measures, the severity and frequency of Fullerton’s AVM-induced seizures — not to mention the physically draining radiation treatments — stalled his early attempts to get a performing career going in Texas practically right out of the gate. Although he’d managed to scare up a few local gigs upon moving to Austin, after he started getting seizures following every performance, he had no choice but to give up playing in public pretty much cold turkey — right along with alcohol. Quitting booze was rough enough; but after having spent more than half of his life performing in one band or other, being unable to even take a shot at making it in the so-called “Live Musical of the World” was especially cruel.
Fortuneatley, there was one creative outlet he still had that his condition and treatments couldn’t take away from: songwriting. For some artists, it’s a way to make a living — art, sure, but also work; for Fullerton, it’s always been more of a full-on addiction. “I usually try to write a song a day,” he says, albeit with a look of mild admonishment from his wife that suggests he might actually be lowballing that figure. “He has hundreds of them,” she insists. “I mean, hundreds and hundreds of songs.”
For years, he’d capture those songs on a tape, his phone or through the built-in mic on his computer — just quick and easy enough to document them and move onto the next one. But homebound for months on end with nothing but time on his hands, Fullerton began studying everything he could find about audio recording, all the while building up an arsenal of digital and analog home studio equipment piece by piece. Like songwriting, it quickly became a very productive obsession.
“Deep in the days of my epilepsy being pretty bad, I just really needed something to take my mind off of that,” he says. “So I set up a little detached studio out back, and I could go in there and record for hours and not think about anything except the song that I was working on.”
Sometimes, he’d fiddle about with other diversionary hobbies back there, too, like buying and fixing up old, pre-war hand tools for reselling on eBay, and even, just on a whim, a bit of lutherie. Only he usually ends up hoarding all those lovingly restored tools for himself, and by his own admission, his recently finished first guitar is, at best, “firewood” — an unplayable piece of shit.
His first self-produced album, though? Well … that’s another matter entirely.
Epilepsy Blues, which Fullerton recorded entirely at home and self-released in February, is flat-out arresting from beginning to end — and guaranteed to be unlike any other country record you’re likely to hear this year or any. Back in 2008, during a spell living up in Providence, Rhode Island, Fullerton recorded an EP with some friends called 6 Songs of Labour; on the merit of his strong voice and writing alone, that early effort is certainly good enough to recommend downloading or at least streaming. But nine years’ worth of further maturity, various trials both emotional and physical, and most of all his relatively recent deep dive into experimenting with a myriad of different recording techniques have made a world of difference.
Mind, some audiophiles and staunch perfectionists might not be exceedingly impressed; this is by no means Aja or Graceland, and as home-brew recording projects go, it’s pretty far cry from Tom Scholz’s first Boston album. But therein lies much of Epilepsy Blues’ intrigue, with many of its apparent imperfections being as much by design as they are a mark of Fullerton’s making-it-up-while-learning-on-the-go process. While only the disarmingly peppy title track makes overt reference to the challenges of living with a chronic seizure disorder (both in its blunt lyrics — “I said, Baby, get the valium from the drawer / ‘cause these anti-convulsants just don’t work no more” — and in the warped, tape-unspooling effect at the 26-second mark), there’s a slight wobble and curious off-ness to the whole record that’s tellingly reflective of its maker’s frame of mind and the circumstances of its creation. It’s an album that feels somehow broken but patched back together again, albeit not entirely quite right, like an endearingly misshapen but well-loved misfit toy. And when Fullerton brings some of that artfully woven weirdness all the way to the foreground — as on the haunting closer “Seven Roman Candles,” with its surreally woozy guitar part recorded to to cassette tape and rolled backwards — the effect is mesmerizing.
Stripped to their bare essence of his deep twang and acoustic guitar, most of Fullerton’s songs betray a pronounced Hank Williams influence that he traces back to his late grandfather, who impressed upon him the “now this is a song” weight of Hank’s “Ramblin’ Man” long before the New Jersey kid later fell in love with the Clash, N.W.A., and Slayer. But there’s no mistaking Epilepsy Blues for any kind of traditional honky-tonk music, even when Fullerton flirts with conventional country music tropes. The whiskey-soured remorse of the opening “Bad Winds” (the oldest song on the record, written long before he gave up drinking) is weighted with a profound feeling of existential angst, while “Come to Texas” scans a bit overly familiar at first pass but is ultimately buoyed by a transplanted Yankee’s earnest sense of wide-eyed wonder that deflects any attempt at jaded skepticism. Then there’s the almost supernaturally gorgeous “Float On Up & See,” a lover’s prayer of awed devotion shot through with lines like “I would take her in the evening, foaming at the mouth over God’s own son,” and the bizarrely infectious “El Paso Spacedance,” a happy birthday ditty to American hero Buzz Aldrin dipped in acid.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Fullerton concedes with a laugh. “The Buzz Aldrin thing’s in there just because Buzz Aldrin’s the best — I had to write a birthday song for him! But it’s also totally about extraterrestrials and a bunch of people becoming one. I guess it makes a lot more sense in my mind, but it’s pure fiction. I mean, at the end of the song, they lock the doors and all take off their skin!”
Strange as it may sound, though, that bizarro Aldrin number somehow doesn’t feel out of place a bit on the record. In fact there are no real outliers at all on Epilepsy Blues, given that every song on it feels not just of a piece with the others but perfectly sequenced. “I don’t know if there’s a theme, but I do feel like they belong together,” says Fullerton. “I feel like they all represent the same feeling, and the way I laid them out … I wouldn’t move or cut or replace any of them. I’ve never really felt that way before when listening back to my work after a period of time, but I’m very proud of this.
“There were times where I was in the middle of making it where I was thinking, ‘What if nobody’s ever going to hear this and I’m just going insane?’” he continues. “But now I feel so validated by the fact that it’s already getting some positive feedback from people that have heard it. I’m like, ‘Whoa, maybe I wasn’t just a crazy dude when I was spending all that time sitting on my floor and messing with the belts on my tape machine and going nuts with all those different delay effects!’”
Indeed, the whole experience of making and releasing the album has proven so inspiring that Fullerton is already well on his way to making his next record; or rather, his next next record. Not long after finishing Epilepsy Blues, he quickly knocked another project in a matter of a week: Rotten Cactus, a chilling but oddly beautiful collection of eight songs by the infamously Satanic Swedish black metal band Bathory — all radically re-imagined as skeletal piano dirges. He says he’s now entertaining thoughts of maybe producing other artists in his beloved little home recording studio.
But perhaps most significantly of all, he’s at long last beginning to explore the possibility of slowly but surely returning to performing onstage. Back on March 1, the week of Epilepsy Blues’ release, Fullerton played a solo acoustic in-store at Superfly’s Lone Star Music Emporium in San Marcos, leading in turn to his scheduled half-hour slot at the Lone Star Music and KOKE FM Dillo Jam at Threadgill’s in Austin on Friday, March 17.
He’s reticent to think too far ahead of that just yet, though. While his seizure activity is presently far more manageable than ever, thanks both to his now much smaller cerebral AVM and his current working regiment of anti-convulsants, he’s still taking baby steps on his way back to regular bookings.
“It’s never been … it still scares me, just because I’ve always had terrible stage fright — and not drinking now makes it even a little bit harder,” he admits candidly. “But I definitely feel a lot more confident in myself these days to do a good job.”
His wife Lindsay smiles proudly at him. Having stood by him through thick and thin literally since the day they met — not just witnessing but sharing his journey from his first dire diagnosis and radiation treatments all the way up to their recent happy discovery of an epilepsy support group that meets once a month at the OYOU, the San Marcos-based arts center founded by Texas songwriter (and fellow epileptic) Terri Hendrix — she knows full well the challenges that still lay ahead. But even though she concedes that her husband still can’t really travel anywhere by plane because of his AVM (even moderately high altitudes are dangerous), she’s optimistic that touring at some point down the line isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
“It carries a risk, but it’s an acceptable risk,” she says. “I mean, we know that the epilepsy is something he’s going to have to manage for the rest of his life, but once we can get rid of the AVM, I don’t think he should limit himself. And he’s actually really been chomping at the bit these last couple of months …”