Shawn Decker, singer and songwriter for Synthetic Division, spoke of his love for Depeche Mode and other ’80s electropop bands in the first part of our Blogcritics interview. His latest album, The Love of Your Life, is due out on February 14, 2017. Decker’s contributions as a writer to POZ Magazine and his memoir, My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure, are must-reads about his work in HIV advocacy and awareness. He is also a board member with the MTV Staying Alive Foundation.
You’ve worked with Alan Siegler on writing, recording, and mixing for a few years. How has your collaboration grown?
Alan is somebody I’ve known since we were both 19. There were a lot of long weekend trips down to play video games and work on music in Virginia Beach. I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 11 and I didn’t speak about it until I was 20. Once I did that and got involved with HIV education, Alan and I sort of lost touch. I was going to New York City and that’s where I met Sean Strub, my godfather.
We reconnected ten years later. He did a remix for me and programmed one of The Cure covers that I did. He’s more involved each time. I did a Depeche Mode cover album that I released last year on World AIDS Day. That was the first time 20 years that we’d done music in the same room together. We’d collaborated a lot through e-mail. It was so awesome. We were like, “Man, we gotta do this more!”
On a lot of the new songs on this album, he wrote the music. I got to focus on the vocal melodies. I’d send it to him and he’d alter the sounds. I’m so happy with everything he’s brought to the table.
How did you get involved with HIV advocacy and awareness?
HIV advocacy and awareness is something I’ve spent about half my life on. Being diagnosed as a kid and thinking I’d never want to talk about it – at 20, I had a change of heart and that was the best decision of my life: to not be afraid of what people’s responses would be. Instead, go the opposite way and try to change people’s reactions to people living with HIV. That’s why I started one of the first websites by somebody with HIV. I wanted it to be humorous. I’d have some jokes at my own expense, not at anyone else’s. I wanted to show people then that I’m a 20-year-old first. I’m Shawn first. HIV is just part of who I am.
It’s been cool. That led me to meet the love of my life, Gwenn, a few years after I opened up. She was looking for someone with HIV to go into high schools and educate. She contacted the local AIDS organization and we were introduced through that. I think about how HIV advocacy has shaped my personal life, too. It’s kind of poetic. I don’t want to change who I am, I try to do my best to get people not to be afraid of this.
How do you feel young people have responded to your message?
When Gwenn and I started speaking as a couple – she’s HIV-negative and I’m HIV-positive – we were just a couple years older than these college students. It was interesting. They could look at us and see that we were the same age as their friends. I really got to see a whole room full of strangers processing it.
At first, they were worried about Gwenn. As we talked about condom use and the HIV meds I take, it was great. We only had an hour but we would see people’s hearts and minds open up just because we were there: being honest about our lives and cracking jokes. Somebody comes into a topic that they think is serious and they are afraid to offend you with questions! An icebreaker is a big thing. You make them laugh and they’ll ask you anything. They feel safe. I found young people to be pretty receptive to the message and engaged.