Musician, DJ, promoter, businessman, cancer survivor, Transformers nerd… Jim Semonik is a multitude of a man, one of the industrial/electro scene’s hardest working figures, speaking with ReGen about just what keeps him going.
An InterView with Jim Semonik of Red Lokust, Rein[Forced], Distortion Productions, and Electronic Saviors
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
In the last decade, few individuals have made so profound an impact on a music scene as Jim Semonik has, becoming a key figure in modern electro and industrial music. Having spent a significant number of years in the Pittsburgh area making a name for himself as a notable promoter, DJ, and musician as a member of industrial/rock group Rein[Forced], his diagnosis with a deadly form stage 2B colorectal cancer in 2008 would not only change his life, but set him on a path of renewed purpose and poignancy. His survival and recovery has served as an inspirational backdrop to the Electronic Saviors: Industrial Music to Cure Cancer
project, featuring music from 83 of the scene’s most respected and revered artists, eventually selling out its physical run and raising $23,000 that Semonik would donate to cancer research foundations. Over the course of the next few years, the Electronic Saviors
series would continue to grow in stature and size, continuing to bring together disparate elements of the industrial/electro community together towards a common goal, with Semonik himself continuing the right well after being officially cleared of cancer in September of 2013. He would also during this time establish his own record label, Distortion Productions, signing and releasing music from a diverse range of artists and styles, from the classic techno/industrial sleaze of the legendary En Esch to the atmospheric electro/rock of Ghostfeeder to the spastically varied sounds of The Dark Clan and the rhythmic intensity and celestial majesty of Steven Archer’s Dune inspired Stoneburner. All the while, Semonik not only continues to serve as a member of Rein[Forced], but also recently conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign for the debut album from his project with Aslan Faction’s Lee Lauer – Red Lokust. 2016 marks not only the fourth and largest volume yet of Electronic Saviors
, but also the project’s first spinoff – Respect the Prime
, paying homage to the 1986 animated cult classic The Transformers: The Movie
, with several artists offering their own interpretations of songs from the soundtrack, transforming (pun absolutely intended) the hair metal bravado of the original songs into a new series of industrial/electro anthems. Mr. Semonik was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to speak with ReGen
on his current set of musical and artistic activity, touching on his plans to tour and perform live for Red Lokust and Electronic Saviors
, with some words of love and remembrance for Dead on TV’s late guitarist Corey Devlin and the continuing struggle against cancer to light our darkest hours.
You recently ran a Kickstarter campaign for the debut album for Red Lokust – your collaboration with Lee Lauer of Aslan Faction.
First of all, tell us about how Red Lokust came about, what your initial ideas were and what you wanted to achieve.
Now that the album is complete and ready for release, how true to those original intentions do you feel you were, and in what ways did things change or evolve as you created the album?
: Getting to work with Lee has been a thrill for me. I’ve been a fan of Aslan Faction for a long time. We met in 2010 at a show I was doing here in Pittsburgh and last summer, he came to the KMFDM/Inertia/Chant/Rein[Forced] show and we talked some more at my merch table. I remembered him and we got to talking about working on a project together. He sent me six tracks to work on right away, which would be half of our album The Repercussions of Shedding Your Skin
. Our chemistry was great but we agreed that this was a new band for both of us and Kickstarter may be a good idea. My last Rein[Forced] album came out in 2012 and his last Aslan Faction album came out in the mid ’00s, so we weren’t sure how we would do it. We decided on Kickstarter to get some merch made and gave people some really great incentives. We want to make music we like. We joked about calling it Insect Industrial based on the name, which Lee came up with. We want to make this project a regular thing and our first four East Coast shows are coming up as part of the Electronic Saviors 4
release party events. We hope that we will have the albums for sale at these events. All signs are pointing to yes on that. I am particularly proud of this release because I got to sing about interpersonal stuff as well as sci-fi and comics. We wrote a song about the Marvel UK character Death’s Head. That was a fun thing for sure.
What do you feel Red Lokust achieves for you personally on an emotional level that differs from your work in Rein[Forced]?
: I think I have a bit more freedom with Red Lokust as far as songwriting goes. Rein[Forced] is always a blast, but it takes us a bit too long to put out albums. I don’t see that happening with Red Lokust. Lee is already working on the next album. For me personally, like all of the things I do in music, it’s a catharsis to get the bad stuff out of my system. I can’t tell you how at peace I feel after I play. It’s as if all the stress just melts away. I’d also say that Red Lokust is a bit more on the club side of things than Rein[Forced]. It’s a bit more high energy. Rein[Forced] is still around, so while Turner is working on music, I will do this. I also feel like there is more potential to take Red Lokust to Europe one day.
Will Red Lokust be performing live or going on tour anytime soon?
Semonik: Oh yes. This summer – June and July, we are playing some of the East Coast ES4 shows. I think our live show will continue to evolve from where it is now. We are just getting started.
Besides Red Lokust, you’re very well known for the Electronic Saviors compilation series. As a cancer survivor yourself and having contributed to different foundations for research and treatment, what are your thoughts on the way medical science has developed toward this goal?
: Saviors is very near and dear to me. I am extremely fortunate to know all of the wonderful acts who are involved who devote their time to this cause. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that. With no bands, there’s no comp; I just want to make that clear. And without the fans to support it, I don’t think we would have done four volumes. ES3
was supposed to be the end, but why stop a great thing? It still has tremendous support. As far as medical advancements, I know that there is new stuff happening everyday. I saw my surgeon, Dr. David Medich speak at Pitt University a couple years ago and just the advancements that he was talking about there were mind blowing. I really want to see this colon cancer vaccine happen among many others. Something needs to happen. Generally, Saviors
is there to help people. That’s why Our Clubhouse is such a great place to donate to. They are fantastic.
You can feel free not to answer this if it’s too sensitive a topic, but we have over the last two years lost many musicians and artists to cancer, so the need for continued medical advancement is as great as ever. Can you tell us what goes through your mind with each entry of the compilation series, how you keep yourself going?
: I think about my dear friend Corey Devlin every day. I’m not sure what is going on but it seems like people are getting sick more and more at younger ages. It seems I hear about someone getting cancer once a week now. Maybe I’m exaggerating and I hope I am, but it seems far too frequent. If I can get sentimental for a second, there have been times (often) when I’ll download a new submission from an artist and I will end up crying in front of my laptop. Some songs just touch you. The feeling I get when I get that one song that is just heartbreaking… it brings up all kinds of feelings. I think about my Dad, my friends, my family, people struggling with this… I don’t know. It’s emotional. It’s that emotion, that feeling that keeps me going. You know when you hear a song and the hairs on your arm stand up, your eyes water, your heart speeds up – that is what keeps me going. I want to honor the fallen. I want to make an effort to change the world. I feel that this compilation series does that. No matter on how small a scale, it achieves its goal: helping people.
You’ve also got the Respect the Prime tribute compilation to The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack from 1986, which I understand was something of a passion project for you.
Unlike many other cartoons and toy lines of that era, The Transformers has continued in various incarnations. From your perspective, what is it about The Transformers that it has maintained its popularity over the years?
Semonik: Oh yes. Respect the Prime has been a dream project of mine since before I even had a label. I just didn’t know how to execute it. This was my favorite part of my childhood that I feel grew up with me. I grew up reading the Marvel G1 comics and that book definitely grew up with the readers. I wasn’t one of those kids who was upset by Optimus’ death in 1986 – I was the kid who loved Galvatron for finally disintegrating that asshole, Starscream. I could go on and on about this, but to answer your question, it’s the comics that IDW puts out. That’s what keeps it interesting to me. More Than Meets the Eye by the wonderful team of James Roberts and Alex Milne is quite possibly the best comic on shelves right now. I implore you to read it. Start with the miniseries Last Stand of the Wreckers. It’s a bit more adult; like Game of Thrones with robots. Unfortunately, those damn Michael Bay movies contribute to the popularity, but let’s look at those as fertilizer for the franchise. The comics are where the real gold is.
If we may revel in some nerdiness and nostalgia, what is it about the movie and its soundtrack that still strikes a chord with you today?
How pleased are you with the results of the comp, the different artists and their interpretations of the music?
: I couldn’t be happier with how this release turned out. I got to work with the awesome Casey Coller and John-Paul Bove from IDW and the bands did some truly electrifying work. My god, wait ’til you hear this thing; it’s so uplifting and anthemic. Maybe I’m biased but I like it better than the original. I always thought that these robots would be into a harder electronic style, and the many forms of industrial presented here are extraordinary. You have Xenturion Prime doing an epic synthpop version of ‘The Touch,’ I worked with Deathproof on an industrial/metal version of ‘Instruments of Destruction.’ Bella Morte and White Shadow crushed it on ‘Hunger.’ Am.psych contributed two tracks. Ghostfeeder, Victor Love, Boxed Warning, The Dark Clan, ThoughtForm… I mean, it’s just awesome. I can’t imagine any fan of the original soundtrack not listening to this with a grin. It’s a great way to geek out. Plus it’s the first ever Electronic Saviors
spinoff album, so if you guys like this, I’d love to do a second volume with all originals based on stories from the comics. The soundtrack has a lasting appeal. It’s a cult classic. Now, we just need a blu-ray version of the movie. I timed the release of Respect the Prime
to come out exactly 30 years after it was in theaters – it came out August 8th, 1986 and our release date is August 12th. It’s as close as I could get.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about Distortion Productions, your label/imprint. You’ve released music from En Esch, Stoneburner, The Dark Clan, Dope Stars Inc., Spider Lillies, AM Tierpark, Tenek, and now you have Ghostfeeder on the roster.
What do you find to be the most difficult aspects of running a label, while also maintaining your own creative projects? Do you find the goals of being an artist and being a businessman to be in conflict, and if so, how do you resolve them?
Semonik: I think the hardest part of running a label is dealing with distributors, honestly. It’s a trust thing. The artists put their faith in me as a label and I put my faith in the distributors to do their jobs. This doesn’t always work out, unfortunately. We are now with MVD Entertainment Group and things have been better. I am blessed to be working with the artists that I have. Claus and John from Leæther Strip/Am Tierpark/Mirland, Dan from The Dark Clan, Pete and Geoff from Tenek, En Esch, Victor from Dope Stars Inc., Steven Archer, Chad and Stacey from Spider Lilies, Chase of Boxed Warning… they are all wonderful and very talented. I made the decision to do three major projects three months apart, which was probably not the smartest idea, but Stoneburner, Tenek, ES4, Red Lokust, the new Ghostfeeder, and Respect the Prime all tie together, so that is what I am focusing on this summer. It’s just hard to strike a balance. Plus, we are delving into vinyl for the first time. We have a very cool split 7″ coming and an EP by one of our artists, so we will announce those soon, plus a new signing. So the balance between label, cancer fundraiser, 45-hour-a-week day job, two bands, DJ, concert promoter, my relationship, and having a social life with friends is probably the toughest part; distributors would be second toughest. The businessman/artist conflict doesn’t really exist for me because I’ve been signed to labels and know the process, so I guess I am lucky that way.
I’d recently InterViewed Greg Puciato (The Black Queen) and we discussed how despite the band’s history (Greg of The Dillinger Escape Plan, the other members being associated with NIN, Puscifer, etc.), they went independent with The Black Queen… the CD and vinyl copies of their album on Bandcamp were completely sold out.
What are your thoughts on the way artists and independent labels – especially those with a long tenure in the ‘industry’ – themselves have to seek other, perhaps better means to release their music, mostly without the aid of the ‘industry,’ and in effect become involved in the business that they may not have had to before?
Semonik: I think Bandcamp is a great thing. I think in this day and age where if artists haven’t already established themselves prior to 2004 and they want to make a living in music, this is one of the few tools that can help artists make money. I’m not going to get into the whole physical versus digital debate thing here. I will always make physical product as an artist, but sites like Bandcamp aid artists. It gives them what a major label wouldn’t. But sometimes, an artist just wants to create music and not have to worry about managing all the other stuff that comes with the responsibility now. To those artists and labels, I’d say to familiarize yourself with the Bandcamp model if you haven’t; it can only benefit you.
What’s next for you? That goes for Red Lokust, Electronic Saviors, and Distortion Productions? What do you have next on the horizon and what would you like to see or make happen in the foreseeable future?
: After this summer… well, we will be promoting everything through the fall. I’ll be vending at ColdWaves V thanks to my bud, Jason Novak and for the first time, I will be doing a convention table for Respect the Prime
– TFCon Chicago happens in October. We have about 11 releases slated for 2016, so there will be so much to promote. I will announce here for the first time that Electronic Saviors 5
will be called Remembrance and will be slated for 2018 with submissions opening and running from January through December of 2017. I’d love to have the second Red Lokust done and out before 2017 ends, get started on Respect the Prime 2
or a Rein[Forced] album. More live shows. I’d love to go to Europe as well. Stay tuned to www.distortionprod.com
for new releases, pre-orders and new signings. I’m still alive so I have to do as much with my time as I can.
Website, Facebook, Twitter
Website, Facebook, Twitter
Website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube
Photographs courtesy of Jim Semonik & Emily Kirkpatrick