Jim Semonik might be considered the Pittsburgh music scene's jack-of-all-trades. He's played in a signed band, DJed at clubs, promoted concerts and bought music for a large record store -- all for the better part of a decade. But lately you won't find him rocking at Brillobox or rhyming at Shadow Lounge. Instead, he's the driving force behind an oft-overlooked local subculture: Pittsburgh's goth-industrial scene.
In May, Semonik was diagnosed with cancer and underwent radiation, chemo and surgery, emerging with quite a bit of hope. Even in his weakened state, he kept tabs on concerts, assisted by the loyal Distortion Productions team, including soundman Gary Makovsky. With the color returning to his cheeks, and grateful for assistance from the Pittsburgh Cancer Society during his ordeal, Semonik plans to release a benefit-CD compilation in 2009, featuring some high-profile acts he's worked with over the years.
A dedicated "rivethead" going back to his high school days in Beaver County, Semonik saw KMFDM and Chemlab at Metropol in 1994 and became obsessed with the bone-crushing beats of electro-industrial music (sometimes called EBM). "It was so different than anything I'd experienced in my life," he recalls. "Any chance I'd get, I went to Eide's or [now-defunct] Randy's Alternative, and I read a lot of Industrial Nation and the local zines."
Semonik bought up labels' entire catalogs out of sheer hunger for the music, eventually amassing enough CDs to become a club DJ, under the name DJ Hiem (adapted from Jaime, a nickname from his Spanish class). In 1999, he was inducted into the Night Shift, the DJ team running Pittsburgh's goth-industrial institution Ceremony, then at Oakland's Club Laga. "The point of DJing was to share the music I loved with others," he says. He and fellow Beaverite Don Anderson (a.k.a. DJ TFS) swapped records by new bands like Pigface and Frontline Assembly as if they were baseball cards.
In 2000, under the Distortion Productions moniker, he began promoting concerts, including a big yearly fest called Cyber Wars. "The point was to bring in national acts and have locals open for them to juice up the scene and establish connections with out-of-town bands." Together with local rivethead acts like Agnes Wired for Sound and Cyberstrukture, also in the mix was Semonik's own outfit, Forced, comprised of several Pitt students congealed by a common love of EBM.
On the strength of one song, Semonik was offered a recording contract by Albuquerque-based label DSBP. Since then, the collaborators have done an album as Forced, a self-released EP, another album as Reinforced -- called Futile Longings of a Condescending Man -- and are working on a new one titled X Amount of Stab Wounds in the Back. Along the way, Semonik has performed alongside many of his industrial heroes, including a recent opening slot for Thrill Kill Kult at Diesel.
With all of that activity, you'd think he'd have it easy, yet none of it really puts bread on the table. So over 10 years, Semonik's risen to the position of head music-buyer at Eide's Entertainment. "I've met some of my best friends there, and I love talking one-on-one about music, whether to young adults or people in their 40s," he says.
When his home bases Laga and the Upstage closed to make way for student apartments and a supermarket, Semonik found a new venue for his concerts at Downtown's Pegasus Lounge. A packed house at one Crüxshadows show convinced Pegasus' owner to give the Ceremony night a try on Saturdays. But that respite was only temporary. Pegasus management decided to discontinue the club night due to declining attendance -- the final installment is Sat., Nov. 29 -- and the Ceremony "brand" will probably be packed in after a monumental 12-year run.
"We weren't getting the patrons we once did -- it just boils down to numbers," says Semonik. "The scene is getting older, and there's not as many 'gateway bands,' like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, to hook new kids into darker music."
With plans in place for both his band Reinforced and Distortion Productions, Semonik refuses to throw in the towel to popular whims. He stresses that he'll still produce concerts at Pegasus, including the upcoming Crüxshadows/Azoic bill on Saturday and his landmark 50th show with Austria's Nachtmahr (featuring Thomas Rainer of L'ame Immortelle) on Tuesday.
"It's been a joy for me to meet great people and play with bands I've admired," says Semonik. "I never have any intention of quitting. I will be here involved in this scene until death takes me."
The Crüxshadows, The Azoic, I Scintilla. 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 15. Pegasus, 818 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $15 ($20 day of show). All ages. 412-726-2925
Nachtmahr, Alter Ruine. 8 p.m. Tue., Nov. 18. Pegasus, 818 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $12 ($15 day of show). All ages. 412-726-2925