It was a Sunday night benefit show at The Ante Room and dark synth was the call of the evening. Organized to raise funds for Daniel Runion after he suffered a devastating car accident, the lineup featured a slew of Charlottesville electronica bands including Just Sex, Alethea Leventhal of Ships In The Night, and This Hollow Machine. But perhaps the most storied performer of the evening was Shawn Decker, founder of Synthetic Division and survivor of HIV for nearly thirty years.
Living with hemophilia was hard enough for Shawn growing up in Waynesboro. Every nosebleed or banged-up knee could be life-threatening. Injections of a clotting drug made from donated blood saved his life, but something else passed through the needle—HIV, which drug manufacturers weren't testing for in 1987.
At the time, America was in a misinformed panic over HIV. Shawn was in 6th grade when his parents found out and they waited months to tell him. “My mom wanted to let my teacher know what happened,” said Shawn. As soon as school officials learned of his condition, they contacted doctors on how to handle the situation; their advice was to suspend Shawn. “The next day, I'm called to the office and told my mom's going to pick me up,” Shawn remembered. “My mom says I was crying and saying, ‘I didn't do anything wrong.’”
Getting kicked out of school was how Shawn found out that he had HIV. Doctors gave him no more than two years to live. His one hope was that he had HIV, but not AIDS. HIV is a retrovirus that attacks white blood cells, gradually disrupting the body's ability to fight off other infectious diseases. The virus was in his body to stay, but hadn't knocked out enough white blood cells to cause AIDS.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, a very public dispute between HIV-positive 8th grader Ryan White and his local school district was sparking headlines. White had contracted the disease through hemophilia treatments the same as Shawn. Waynesboro had no interest in losing an expensive legal battle, so after much deliberation, they allowed Shawn to rejoin his classmates for the start of 7th grade.
Despite the dire prognosis, Shawn defied expectations that he would die and progressed through school much as any other student would: he had a girlfriend, got his heart broken, and listened to a lot of music. Still, many of his friends were prohibited from playing with him by their misinformed parents. Consequently, Shawn spent a lot of time holed up in his bedroom, headphones on. “I was listening to Belinda Carlisle repeatedly,” admitted Shawn, “I had the biggest crush on her.” He fed himself a steady diet of The Cure, New Order, The Smiths, and above all else, Depeche Mode. He even began picking out synth-pop compositions of his own on a little Casio synthesizer.
In 1990, Ryan White’s death became national news. Elton John was one of his pallbearers. “When he passed, it really affected my mom,” Shawn said. Even though Shawn had made it through high school, there were still no treatments for HIV or AIDS, so he and his family decided to start planning for the end. His mother got in touch with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization created to grant final wishes to children with terminal illnesses. Of course, Shawn's wish was to meet Depeche Mode.
“They were going on tour for Violator,” remembered Shawn. “Their management gave it the green light, so me and my best friend were able to go back and meet them before the show.” The two were in a band together, so of course they brought along a demo tape to pass on to their musical heroes. “I would love to say that it got listened to, but I don't think that it ever got out of that room.”
Nevertheless, the experience was an inspiring one. Shawn recalled, “The first time I thought about a future was thinking that I'm going to get out of Waynesboro and I'm going to be a big rock star.” He began recording electronic music with friends under the name Synthetic Division. There wasn't much of an audience for it in Waynesboro, so in 1998, Shawn moved to Charlottesville. There he met Gopal Meto, bassist for the gothic rock band Bella Morte. Gopal became Shawn's guide into Charlottesville's underground goth scene, eventually helping to book his first live gig. Shawn doesn't consider Synthetic Division's music to be goth per se—“goth-adjacent” as he puts it—but he found an appreciative audience. During this time, his white blood cell counts were dropping. HIV was visibly starting to destroy him. “There's nothing more goth than dying,” he said.
Most people diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s are dead. Shawn probably would have joined them if it wasn't for the antiretroviral medication AZT. Shawn added it to his drug cocktail in 1999, a decision that ultimately saved his life. With his health improving, Shawn kept gigging, even touring sometimes. He married a woman, Gwenn Barringer, and wrote a book entitled My Pet Virus documenting how she has remained HIV-negative throughout their relationship. He also works as an HIV educator, speaker, and contributor to POZ magazine.
Last year, Shawn released a new Synthetic Division album in honor of the 25th anniversary of his Make-A-Wish experience. He thought it only fitting for it be composed of Depeche Mode covers. Entitled Shaking The Disease, it features one song from each of their first seven albums. Proceeds from the record will be donated to the MTV Staying Alive Foundation which funds global HIV prevention programs.
Shawn never expected to live past 20, but last year, he turned 40. Imagining the next 20 years, he seemed hopeful. “It's like the future doesn't scare me,” Shawn reflected. “I've started working on more music. I want to see my goddaughter and my niece grow up. Gwenn and I have a great partnership and she's the love of my life. Nobody ever knows how much time they have. I'm at peace.”
Listen to all of Synthetic Division’s music online at synthetic-division.com.
Photography by Brian Brown