There was something rather poetic about Synthetic Division’s recent impromptu performance at Goth Night at The Pit at Cinema Taco on the Downtown Mall. Melancholy cabaret duo Please Don’t Tell was scheduled to perform that night, but vocalist Christina Fleming lost her voice.
Shawn Decker—the musician behind Synthetic Division—stepped in with his keyboard, his synth and nearly 20 years’ worth of songs. “It’s kind of how I started—just me, behind a keyboard,” Decker says. “I was filling in for a friend who was having a sick day…and I’ve had my share of sick days.”
Decker 41, contracted HIV from blood products used to treat his hemophilia. He was 11 years old—a sixth-grader—when he tested positive for HIV in 1987 and was given just a few years to live.
Not long after he tested positive he heard Depeche Mode for the first time, which led Decker to post-punk acts like Echo & the Bunnymen and The Psychedelic Furs, to Joy Division and The Cure. He was drawn to “the dichotomy of a solid beat and a strong emotional message. The music was dance-y, but parts of it made you want to cry. Being an angsty teen with a big secret, I really connected to that music,” Decker says. So he got a synthesizer, jammed with friends and shyly recorded original music and vocals in the privacy of his bedroom.
“Music gave me this distraction, this thing to focus my energy on. In the early days, I wasn’t thinking about how much time I had left. I kept saying, ‘I’ll deal with it when I get sick,’” Decker recalls.
Decker got really sick in 1999, after he moved from Charlottesville back to his hometown of Waynesboro. He had just started speaking publicly about living with HIV, fallen in love with his now-partner, Gwenn Barringer, and began performing as Synthetic Division at The Dawning goth night at Tokyo Rose. He got the flu and couldn’t recover. “Each time I went to the doctor, there was less of me on the scale,” he says. “I lost 30, 35 pounds over the course of a few months. There were fewer T-cells to fight the virus,” Decker says.
Again, music saved him. “I’d be exhausted walking around the Downtown Mall, and then there I was, playing a set, getting equipment set up and being at goth night for three hours and not feeling tired,” Decker says. He savored the adrenaline rush that came with playing a live set, caught up in the emotion of the music and the energy of the crowd. Plus, “Nothing gives you more credibility at goth night than being in the active process of dying,” Decker quips in his memoir, My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure.
At the urging of Dr. Greg Townsend, an infectious disease specialist at UVA’s Ryan White HIV Clinic, Decker started HIV medication (which was still a relatively new thing) that year. After a few months, Decker’s T-cell numbers rose; he put the weight back on. He kept playing shows and releasing albums.
Thirty years later, Decker will release Synthetic Division’s seventh original (eighth overall) record, The Love of Your Life, scheduled for physical release on February 3 at The Southern Café and Music Hall and digital release on Valentine’s Day.
The record, co-written with Alan Siegler, is about love, loss and hope. “It’s about sharing a moment with a partner that you know may not be there for very long,” Decker says. “It’s also about carrying on after the fact, realizing that the physical end might not be the actual end, and that we carry people’s spirits with us.”
The songs were inspired by Sean Strub, an HIV/AIDS and gay rights activist and founder of POZ magazine—Strub and Decker met years ago when Decker wrote a letter to POZ and Strub replied, requesting an interview with Decker and subsequently inviting Decker to write a regular column.
“Sean survived the ’80s with HIV when a lot of his friends [and his partner, Michael Misove, who’s pictured on the album cover along with Strub] didn’t,” Decker says. As he wrote The Love of Your Life, he thought about what that must have been like for Strub. “I wanted to honor him and the other people who fought so hard for a lot of rights that I have, who fought when I was too young to fight for myself,” Decker says. “They fought politicians, tried to destigmatize HIV/AIDS, tried to get medications fast-tracked, all while losing their friends.”
Decker wraps all of this sadly, gratefully into “Chance,” the fifth song on the record about the hope—and the life—that he has, thanks to Strub and so many others.
“The chances are / I’m not safe, the odds are in / A chance so slim / Has ink erased / The odds aren’t in my favor,” Decker sings amid swirling, atmospheric, mid-tempo synthesizer.
It’s Decker’s favorite song on the record, and, at the moment, it feels a bit too raw for live performance: “I’m afraid I’d start crying,” Decker says. But eventually, he’ll work it into the set—it’s too important to leave out.
“I want to say my truth and have the courage to take on other people’s emotions and viewpoints,” he says. “[Music] is just as important to me today as it was when I was at home with my headphones on, quietly singing along with my favorite albums, hoping my parents wouldn’t hear me.”