By Shelby Smoak
When Shawn Decker finally finds some time in his busy life to chat, it is the Monday after the wildly fun 80’s Prom Dance Party event he organizes and performs at in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Not unsurprisingly, this 40-something hemophiliac is suffering from an ankle bleed, the battle wounds of being married to music. “I can deal with this,” he says, because ultimately for Shawn music is beneficial. It heals and “brings you peace of mind and calms you down.”
Shawn is perhaps more widely known through his bizarrely funny memoir My Pet Virus wherein cutting humor he adopts his HIV—a result of tainted plasma products—as a pseudo-pet and narrates how to move forward in life and not dwell on the past. It also is a sort-of love story where his future wife Gwenn plays a central role. Additionally, Shawn is a contributor to POZ magazine where he continues to be a vessel of humorous support to the HIV community.
But Shawn is also a musician. When he was a kid, he fell in love with 80’s synth-pop bands like Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, A-ha, and especially Depeche Mode who Shawn got to meet as part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Since then, Shawn has channeled that passion into cover songs and original music which he files under his band name Synthetic Division.
The humor that infused My Pet Virus is making its way into his music. Take for example the morbidly funny “I Wanna Be Cremated,” Synthetic Division’s spin on a classic Ramones song: “Twenty, twenty-four hours to go / I wanna be cremated / Just put me in the fire / turn me into smoke / you don’t have to worry / for once I will not choke.” Who wouldn’t die laughing at that? (Two can play at this morbid humor game, Shawn)
This kind of humor wasn’t always the case with Synthetic Division, a band that is now approaching its 20-year anniversary. An early track “Borrowed Time” from the album Bleeding Heart Cadaver darkly asks, “Am I on borrowed time, do I have much time left? / Is it not sinking in that I am checking out.” On their debut album, Tainted Goods, Shawn croons in “The Rain,” “Fade away / Fade away / Who’s going to fade just like the rain?” Even Shawn admits his music is taking a turn and is now more optimistic. “I feel I got the dark stuff out early,” he says, “and have started letting the lighter side come in,” adding, “I’m not afraid to sound cheesy.”
In talking with Shawn, he continuously reaffirms the importance of music in his life and its ability to create a continuous “safe space” which contributes to better moods and a general feeling of fulfillment.
He equates writing songs to going back to being a 13-year-old kid in his bedroom, “listening to music, getting my mind back on track, and getting away from HIV.” In contrast to his more lighthearted and less serious approach to music, Shawn is taking his health more seriously. For most of his adulthood, he didn’t have many bleeds, but in the last decade this has changed, and more bleeds equal more treatment center visits for his necessary infusions.
So finally, Shawn “took matters into his own hands” (literally) and began self-infusing. He is also embracing care for his mental health, a thing that he treats, again, with his music—loading old patches on his drum machine, tweaking sounds on his computer synths, and doing 80’s prom gigs. Ultimately Shawn is making the songs he wants to hear and to him, that is the sound of happiness.
Synthetic Division’s entire catalog can be found on Bandcamp: https://synthetic-division.bandcamp.com