Shawn Decker is the founder of the eletropop-inspired band Synthetic Division. He is a contributor to POZ Magazine and a board member for the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. He joined me recently to discuss his upcoming album, The Love of Your Life.
What was the impact of music on your life?
I feel like music saved my life. I was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 at age 11. There weren’t any effective HIV medications out for nearly ten years. The prognosis wasn’t good, but I discovered my love for music. It offered me hope: a distraction. Depeche Mode is my favorite band and I met them through the Make-a-Wish Foundation when I was a freshman in high school. That was important to me. I wanted to do what they did, too! I had my synthesizer and my garage band in high school. I look back now and [say] “Man, if I didn’t have that love for music, I think my life could have turned out a lot differently.”
I’m so happy with how I’ve developed as a songwriter. People dig the music who don’t know the HIV aspect of my life; I like that, too. Sometimes it’s hard to read about Synthetic Division and not learn a little about my work as an educator. I hit the nail pretty hard on the head with some of my releases. As a songwriter, if I was to avoid the medical realities of my life, I would fail immensely in explaining who I am.
You list Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, and other ’80s electropop groups as your inspiration. What do you like about their sound?
I’ve always sort of been drawn to electronic music. I like that it’s dancey on surface. It seems light, but there’s an emotional darkness as well. My favorite type of music is the music that blends that. Bands will have a chord structure that sounds happy but when you’re reading the lyrics, you’re like, “Wait, they’re singing about this?” And you’re bobbing your head to it. I like music that throws a few different emotions at you at once. For me, electronic music is where I get all that from.
Are you influenced by their recent releases, too?
Yeah, like last year, I really got into the Pet Shop Boys. I’ve always liked them but I’ve only known them through their singles like the big hits. It’s a band that I love, but I hadn’t explored. I’d already bought four or five of their older albums. [Super], the new album that came out last year is my favorite album. I feel like it flows better than any of the others. I definitely draw inspiration from that. With any band that’s been around for a long time, it’s always like, “Oh, the new album, I hope it’s good!”
Your new album comes out on February 14. It’s the third time you’ve released music on Valentines Day…
That’s funny! [Laughs] I didn’t realize I’ve already done that a couple times. You know, I think it’s a good time early in the year. You get an album out and it feels new all the way through December. Valentines Day, too, is a fun day. Anytime you can have a release centered on a certain day, it sticks in people’s heads a little bit more. If it was coming out February 21st, you’d have to remind people every time.
How did the album take shape?
I started writing songs at the beginning of  and the first one was “The Love of Your Life,” the title track. I wanted to write a short poppy song. As more songs developed, I realized I want it to be an album about love, to be deeper, and explore the topic of loss. The album is dedicated to one of my godparents, Sean Strub, somebody who’s been instrumental in my life. He helped launch my writing career and shaped my HIV education and activism work. His book, Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, came out a couple years ago. The cover of my album is a variation of the cover of his book: a picture of him and his late partner. It all came together once I realized I wanted to dedicate it to Sean. The rest of the songs became more intense and meaningful to what his experience has been.