10 years after he was diagnosed with HIV and advised to abandon any long term plans, Italian in London Fran is still here and still going strong, as he puts it. Hes also just about to play live at the launch of hotly tipped Soho electro-trash night spot Cuckoo Cuckoo where hell be performing his new single Violent Silence, a Madonna sampling house track created to raise awareness of AIDS.
Timely in general terms (recent data just published shows record rates of new infections in both the UK and the world), the records release marks a turning point for Fran himself.
I couldnt have done it before, because my life was too chaotic and I was taking far too many drugs, he admits.
I dont think I would have had the strength and the motivation to do it before now to be honest. I had a couple of years where I was really ill, I became depressed, I had a lot of things going wrong from my medication, my HIV diagnosis (he tails off).
I had a lot of problems and spent a lot of time staying at home being completely isolated and I didnt see my story mirrored anywhere, not on the TV nor in the papers. I just think it is a far too important story to have disappeared from the media.
What turned it around for Fran was falling in love and finding a purpose through his music which he pursued as he could, playing in experimental rock bands Frozen Ghost and Kerran tipped club band Zelig. However, his latest project as himself fits firmly into club culture musically (and has also been remixed by Pharoah Roche. And his long term friend Marc Almond, before the Soft Cell stars tragic accident).
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How did you first find out you were infected with HIV?
Fran: I was actually diagnosed with hepatitis C initially after feeling unwell for a while because at the time I didnt really want to know whether I was HIV positive, because at that time HIV was a bit like a death sentence; there were no medications and nothing to treat it with. Or rather there were some medications but they werent very successful yet. So I found out I had hepatitis and then my doctor managed to convince me to have a test because she thought it was quite likely that I would have been infected with HIV as well as hepatitis.
Skrufff: Were you doing heroin before then?
Fran: I had used heroin before, yes, but I never really got addicted, Id dabbled with drugs and been taking drugs socially. What I mean by that is that I knew about heroin but I never was addicted. After my HIV diagnosis I went into a downward spiral and I didnt really feel there was much hope; even the person who told me at the time, suggested to me that I shouldnt make long term plans. At the time I wanted to start training in psychology but the person said I shouldnt think long term to avoid being even more disappointed. Which was bad. I dont necessarily agree with the way they dealt with my diagnosis at the time.
Skrufff: Did you get infected from needle use?
Fran: Im not sure how I got infected, to be honest, I never shared needles, but I did share spoons when I was taking heroin. I suppose I could have caught hepatitis C from that, because the virus doesnt die very easily. I think with the HIV I was probably infected through sex.
Skrufff: What was your immediate reaction when you were diagnosed HIV positive?
Fran: I felt I had been turned upside down completely because also I had a partner at the time and he was diagnosed a week later and we split up because there were issues of blame and they were really unnecessary. So we went our separate ways and I found myself all by myself in London; living in a flat that was almost a squat. I dont have any family over here so I didnt tell my relatives then either. I felt pretty much isolated and by myself with it; and also had to cope with the fear of the actual reality of having it I think my heroin use after being diagnosed was a way of self-medicating for a while.
Skrufff: How long did it take you to embrace it?
Fran: I had periods where I felt I was more at ease with it than others but a long time, I would say. And then a lot of friends started getting ill with AIDS and some of them died, so those were the things that really frightened me the most to actually see the illness in reality. I was losing friends, and seeing lots of them getting really ill to a point of losing their sight, or literally losing their minds as well. I had a few friends who got toxoplasmosis through HIV. Ive seen a lot of horrible things that that can do to you. One friend of mine used to get lost in his own house, he wouldnt remember where the toilet was, or where the bedroom was, so when all that happened I was terrified. I clearly remember sometimes lying in bed at night, really thinking about the reality of my situation and what , if, when, anything went wrong, what could happen. I dont think I was able to actually cope with that reality at all, apart from for short periods of time. From being diagnosed, I would say I cam to terms with at properly after about eight or nine years.
Skrufff: When was the first time you got really ill, after you were diagnosed?
Fran: I got ill quite a few times. Fortunately I didnt have anything really serious like toxoplasmosis but I had a lot of opportunistic infections. For example,even if Ive got a spot because my immune system was really low, I would get an infection on my face, and I would have to have it cut open and all the infection taken out. I had a lot of skin infections and a lot of opportunistic infections. The first time it happened was about eight or nine months after I was diagnosed.
Skrufff: Whats your health like now?
Fran: My health is fine, its much better now, on medical terms Im fine. My T cell count is quite high but the medication has brought me a lot of complications, a lot of side effects. I had a lot of different things going wrong, but it all came out when I basically stopped the heroin, and came off methadone. Most of the time, I think a lot of the side effects were covered because I was either on heroin or methadone. I had a period of about two years where I had all different things such infections in my mouth and sinus infection. They had to open up all my sinuses, and when I had this mouth infection, I had to have about eight teeth taken out. Everything was going wrong, and I think I was kind of giving up on a rational level as well.
I didnt have such a desire to be here, if you know what I mean. Then I met my partner and I started to think about doing this project and I found I really had more of a purpose in life. My wish to be here was much stronger and things kind of seemed to get better. Even now, though, I have a lot of side effects from my medication, unfortunately. I cant really sleep at night, I have a lot of stomach problems, and I had to go on anti-depressants because the medication can bring really strong anxiety and depression. I still have all that, but I just seem to have accepted it for what it is, and I seem to be able to get on with life, instead of wallowing in misery and worrying too much. I mean I know what I have to do, it takes me a couple of hours to kind of get into gear in the morning. I know thats what I have to do and thats just what it is basically.
Skrufff: What do you as see the state of AIDS in London today?
Fran: I think obviously the situation is a lot better in terms of the medication available. There are people who within the HIV issue have a lot more serious problems, like people in Africa where its much more about life and death really. Not having clean water, not having food, these are all really necessary, basic requirements if you are HIV positive to keep healthy. But here I think there are different problems, its not like its a different disease, its the same disease, but in different places you have different problems. Here obviously its more about not letting people feel left out and isolated from society. Its great that we have medication and the immediate problems are a lot more looked after obviously than somewhere like Africa, but I still think theres a lot of stigma around. I was once kicked out of a dental surgery of a GP for example; these are things that really shouldnt happen in a so-called civilized society.
Skrufff: Have you had much negative reaction, now that you are speaking so openly about being HIV positive?
Fran: Not really, no, I havent had any from the people that I have spoken to, and everyone thats heard the CD and the idea of the project, has been really supportive. Everyone seems to think its about time that HIV was back into the media, because I think thats where it should be. I also I work with disadvantaged kids in a school in Peckham as a counselor and you really realize that they dont know much about it at all, because there isnt anything really out there. You hear some adverts on the radio talking about STDs but theres nothing really about AIDS/ HIV.
Skrufff: Are you still going out to clubs these days?
Fran: I do, though I have to be careful. I used to go out a lot before, I went through periods when I used to go out every weekend , but I do sometimes go out every now and then, and I make a night of it. I might be out for a couple of days, but then I make sure that I have a few weeks to recover and eat well and all that kind of thing.
Skrufff: Marc Almonds remixed the track, whats your connection with him?
Fran: Marc is a friend of mine, Ive known him for quite a while now. So when I decided to put the record out I really wanted, because I do like the club scene, I just wanted to have some good remixes on the CD and Marc was a natural choice. I also went through a phase when I was in Italy where I really used to like Soft Cell and that whole scene, Depeche Mode, so it just made sense to me to ask Marc.
Skrufff: Do you go to clubs like The Cock or Nag Nag Nag?
Fran: Ive been a few times, yeah. I like that kind of scene as well. Its great that theres a gay scene again that is different from the usual.
Skrufff: With Italy, were you tempted, did you consider going back to Italy ? I always imagine Italy being obviously a more hot, sunny, comfortable country to live in?
Fran: Thats quite right in a sense that thats also what I miss from Italy, the weather more than anything else, but I dont think I would go back and live over there. In Italy there are really nice places, but its not a great place to live if you have an alternative lifestyle. You always end up feeling like an outsider, and knowing me, I already feel like an outsider here sometimes, with all the things that Ive been through and problems that Ive had and the choices of lifestyle and all that. So Italy wouldnt be a choice for me at all. Its too family orientated, and there isnt a lot of respect and space for people who lead different lifestyles. I think in London its a lot better, at least on the surface. I love going back to Italy for the summer or for a few weeks in the summer, but after a little while I just feel completely out of place. Also Ive been here for 19 years now, so I have spent half my life in Italy and half here.
Fran plays live at Cuckoo Coutures launch at the Shadow Lounge Soho, Wednesday December 8.
http://www.franb9records.com (Violent Silence is out now)
http://www.worldaidsday.org (This year in the UK, World AIDS Day is about reminding us all that HIV is an issue for everyone. Thousands of new cases of HIV are still being diagnosed in the UK each year . . .: December 1)
http://www.thebody.com/treat/toxo.html (Toxoplasmosis: fact sheets)
Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)