Jim Semonik is a relentless fighter on several fronts.
Every day, he provides customers at Downtown record store Eide's Entertainment with maximum exposure to fresh independent music. In the studio and on stage, he strives to make his voice heard over the pulsing synths and distorted beats of his band, Reinforced. And as a concert promoter, he toils behind the scenes at many regional concerts in the genre of gothic/industrial music.
None of that prepared him for the biggest battle he'd ever faced in his young life. In May 2008, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, which had killed his father several years earlier. But the difference was that Jim was only 29 years old.
It seemed like only yesterday when the Ambridge native attended his first industrial show -- KMFDM and Chemlab in 1994 at now-defunct Metropol -- and fell in love with the music. "It was the live performance of [Chemlab's] Jared [Louche] and his bandmates which activated me," he recalls. "I was about to graduate from high school, and I'd never seen anything like it before. I left the club thinking everything I'd ever heard paled in comparison."
With lifelong buddy Don Anderson, Mr. Semonik went on a tear, acquiring all the EBM ("electronic body music," another term for electro-industrial) CDs he could find by reading the pages of Industrial Nation and other magazines he found at Eide's and South Side store Slacker. "I scoured the bins for labels like Reconstriction or COP, bought everything blindly, and nine times out of 10, they were great. I still buy music that way -- I hate using the Internet because it ruins the surprise of unlocking a musical gem. I like being a kid on Christmas morning when I listen to a new CD."
That same wide-eyed enthusiasm plunged him into a DJ slot on Penn State's college radio station by 1997 and a DJ residency at now-defunct Oakland club Laga's Ceremony goth/industrial dance night in 1999. He dove into the concert promotion business as Distortion Productions so more of his favorite bands would come to Pittsburgh, while expressing his lyrical creativity as frontman of the band Forced (which changed its name to Reinforced). Since 2000, he's released an EP and an album called "Futile Longings of a Condescending Man" and is working on a new release called "X Amount of Stab Wounds in the Back" with musical partner D.A. Turner.
More than anything, Mr. Semonik's love of EBM helped him endure the nine-month treatment for his unexpected ailment, which involved radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. He continued to work at Eide's and promote concerts, using music as an escape from pain and frustration.
"While I was blasted with radiation five days a week, the nurses and interns told me I should listen to whatever I wanted. I would put And One or Chemlab in, and they'd say, 'This is pretty cool stuff.' The interns would jump around smiling and say, 'You're good to go, we'll see you tomorrow.' "
The patient's upbeat demeanor was infectious, recalls David Medich, director of the division of colon and rectal surgery at Allegheny General Hospital. When assembled friends heard Dr. Medich say that Mr. Semonik wouldn't lose his trademark long hair, they all cheered. "Jim became a source of positive energy for patients. While recovering from surgery, he was encouraging the nurses on the floor, as if they were sick and he was well. He was the sort of individual who made everyone feel better."
In the midst of treatment, a conversation the musician had with Eric Powell of 16 Volt at Downtown club Pegasus prompted the realization of a grand concept -- why not ask bands from all over the industrial scene to contribute to a cancer benefit compilation? "Before I was done explaining it, [Mr. Powell] said, 'Absolutely,' He had close relatives pass away from cancer."
With many contacts in the industrial scene to call on, the compilation idea expanded into the final product that will be released tonight at a concert at the South Side's Rex Theatre. Titled "Electronic Saviors: Industrial Music to Cure Cancer," the project became a monumental effort spanning 83 artists over four CDs (plus a fifth bonus album, downloadable with a card inside), all packaged inside a box with a booklet chronicling the story of Mr. Semonik's ordeal. "Saviors" is the most exhaustive anthology of the industrial scene ever released (beating previous efforts by the Ras Dva, Wax Trax and Cleopatra labels) and certainly the largest comp anyone in Pittsburgh has ever produced.
The cover art, designed by Jeff Confer and Samantha Johnson, establishes the "branding" of the Electronic Saviors logo (a cross inside a gear) and the character of Cancerborg -- a robot who injects medicine into himself with the X-rays of shrinking tumors in the background. "Elaborate packaging is important," explains Mr. Semonik. "To buy a physical product, people have to get a quality item, and we came to the conclusion that around $30 would be a good value."
The "we" he refers to is Philadelphia-based label Metropolis Records, by far the largest U.S. company specializing in darkwave/industrial -- its immense roster includes Front 242, VNV Nation, Combichrist and Gary Numan. Metropolis already knew Mr. Semonik from years of record buying and concert promotion, and he describes the excitement he felt getting a call from label owner Dave Heckman one summer evening. "We had this awesome conversation about health insurance and the music industry. He told me, 'I'll release your record, I can tell this is your baby,' and it made my dream come true."
The employees at Metropolis were equally on board for the project.
Label manager Joe Schultheise had lost his mother to colon cancer and liked that the proceeds were designated for a smaller charity (Mr. Semonik expects to raise $20,000-$30,000 for the Harrisburg-based Foundation for Cancer Research and Wellness). Promotions director Shannon Ludwig says response has been phenomenal, with two-thirds of the pressing of 2,500 pre-ordered.
"Feedback has been extremely positive -- people are asking what they can do to help, posting banners on their website and social networks, or handing out fliers to create awareness."
The gargantuan "Saviors" takes the listener through the same journey the musician underwent, losing a portion of his digestive system but gaining triumph over considerable adversity. After spending a week going through the five discs -- themed "Diagnosis and Insurance," "Chemotherapy and Radiation," "Surgery," "Recovery" and "Bonus Medication," it's difficult not to feel energized and overwhelmed.
The tracks range from the guitar crunch of coldwave (SMP, Acumen Nation and Chemlab) to the glistening synths of futurepop/EBM (Assemblage 23, Imperative Reaction, System Syn) to industrial stompfests (Terrorfakt, Nachtmahr, Leather Strip). Some mid-tempo darkwave numbers ("Bow Ever Down," "Atomica," "I Scintilla") are reminiscent of the background music behind goth character Abby, who solves lab cases on the TV show "NCIS."
But even if you haven't heard of any of the artists on the discs, you shouldn't have any problem relating to the general mood of the compilation if you have any Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode or Evanescence CDs at home.
Besides discovering myriad new bands, what turns an otherwise serious effort into an enjoyable outing is the wicked sense of humor some artists wield for the cause. The Gothsicles (surely the Weird Als of the industrial scene) contribute "Jim, Let Me Know When You Can Drink Again," while Caustic offers the instrumental "Jim Made Cancer His Bitch" (which, in fact, he did). In the hallowed tradition of industrial bands grabbing media samples, Noisuf-X takes a snippet from KDKA's Patrice King-Brown ("for one local man, every day is a gift") and Andraculoid mines a horror film ("I can see how you'd like an adversary you can fight, instead of an intangible enemy like cells gone wrong"), while Boole's track addresses Joe Camel and the tobacco industry.
Mr. Semonik himself appears four times on the compilation -- the Reinforced track "Malignancy," guesting with Encoder and local powernoisers Prometheus Burning, and on a side project called Borderlines ("with Chase from Boxed Warning and my other friend, Jay Langdon"). A major aspect of the release is the inclusion of many local artists: Jordan Decay, Debutante, Patricia Wake, WreckCreation and others, not forgetting Mindless Faith and Thou Shalt Not, who were formerly based in Pittsburgh.
"Sure, [local bands] are not going to help Metropolis sell any copies, but I wanted everyone to be heard. It didn't matter to me if you were as big as Combichrist," explains Mr. Semonik. "Our scene has a voice, and I think over the last decade, we've lost the ability to express it. In the '90s, industrial was very politically charged. Alternative Press gave it a nod when the new Front 242 came out, or there'd be reviews in Rolling Stone or Spin. None of them cover this stuff anymore.
"Instead, this music is very underrated and underappreciated, getting a bad rap for school shootings. Having a negative stigma attached to this music is not productive. We're a small scene and we don't have major labels looking out for us, so we all have to stick together. One of the things I wanted to demonstrate with this compilation is unity. This style of music has lost its voice, and I want to help restore that."
Although he's focusing on the first compilation for now, he hopes that "Electronic Saviors" (see the website www.electronicsaviors.com) can become a series of three volumes. "If this one is successful, and it looks like it's going to be, I want to get started on Part 2 next summer, maybe with gold packaging and the 'Saviors' logo embossed on it."
It's that attitude of looking toward the future that helped Mr. Semonik beat cancer and has inspired him to want to become a spokesman for cancer advocacy organizations, perhaps even working in public relations in the future. "If there's ever a cure for cancer, chances are high it may come out of Pittsburgh, because we're one of the five leading cities for that research."
Dr. Medich agrees that Mr. Semonik's personal victory could inspire countless others. "There's a whole body of post-operative care called 'guided imagery.' It's been shown in clinical studies that the patients had a better experience with music. Rather than becoming locked into their disease, the music keeps them moving and not wallowing in their problems. At no point did Jim Semonik ever have a sense of self-pity. He was going to win, and he was going to help everyone else around him win, and that's what he's done."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. First Published February 18, 2010 5:00 AM