Zopa Michael Imperioli

Photo by Andrzej Liguz

We spoke to Michael Imperioli about his band Zopa, playing Montreal this week

The Sopranos actor told us about his favourite bands and movie soundtracks, and the NYC indie rock trio he’s been part of since 2006.

Trying to talk around the fact that Michael Imperioli starred in a television show that changed the face of the genre is tricky. 

But on the Talking Sopranos podcast that he and his former series co-star Steven Schirripa hosted over the span of the past two years, Imperioli revealed himself to be almost a walking encyclopedia of modern cinema and stage history. 

So is his relationship with music in any way similar?

“I think I’m more into music than cinema, to be honest,” Imperioli said. “As a fan, I’m probably more of a fan of music, although I love cinema, and I’ve worked in cinema. What really gets me more obsessed is music and fiction, more than anything. Maybe music first.”

His band, Zopa, plays Montreal and Bar le Ritz PDB on Thursday, Aug. 25. The actor, writer, director and musician shared some time while filming season two of HBO’s White Lotus in Italy earlier this summer to tell us more about his history as a music fan.

Darcy MacDonald: What was your first connection to music?

Michael Imperioli: Somehow, when I was a kid, I wound up with this box of 45s. I had this little case for 45 records that had some Beatles, some Beach Boys, some Four Seasons. I don’t even know where I got it from or if they were my cousin’s or someone else’s, but I remember having them in my house. And I had a little record player that I would play them on. 

I remember I made a radio show. I had a cassette tape recorder, which, when I got it, I thought was the most amazing thing. I was maybe seven or eight, or younger. And I would play the songs and then talk about them, even though I was probably just making up most of the details about the people I was playing. Because some of it was more obscure stuff (from the late) ‘50s and early ‘60s. I remember one song was “I Want a Yul Brynner Haircut” which was like a novelty record. 

DM: What was the first album you bought?

Michael Imperioli: When I was 10, (I bought) a 12-inch of A Night at the Opera, which had come out that year. I had heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the radio and I was like, “What is this?” It was so bizarre. So I went to the record store and bought it. I listened to that album and studied it. There were only four headshots of the band. I spent a lot of time with that one.

Around that time, I started getting into the Beatles and buying all their records. You know, when I started listening to the Beatles, it was only six or seven years after they had broken up, which is bizarre, because even back then, it seemed like ancient history. When they broke up I was three or four. When you’re nine years old, being three seems like a lifetime ago! The Beatles seemed like another era that I had no connection with, time-wise. 

But it was only six or seven years! That’s nothing. It’s like comparing now to 2016, which seems like yesterday to me now. It’s weird looking back at the way you process time when you’re a kid. 

DM: What are your memories of John Lennon’s death?

Michael Imperioli: I was 14 and big into the Beatles, still. We were sitting around the table watching the news. It was so strange and sad. It seemed surreal. I actually live about half a block from where he lived. 

The window from my desk looks at his old house, which is pretty wild. So I think of him a lot. I was in the park on his birthday in October, which was really nice. It’s not organized, but it’s really nice. All these people just come together in Strawberry Fields and play Beatles songs and sing together. All ages, all colours. Hundreds of Beatles fans. It’s really beautiful. 

DM: So then as you get older, and you’re hanging around New York, what’s going on? And how does your relationship with music grow? 

Michael Imperioli: Up until high school, I didn’t live in the city. And it was very much classic rock radio. The first concert I went to see was Jethro Tull. I wasn’t exposed to anything beyond what was happening on the rock radio stations at the time. But then I finished high school and started spending all my time in Manhattan. (I had a friend) who had been a DJ at Boston College. He had seen all these new bands and I think his station had set up a lot of concerts, touring bands like REM, Echo & the Bunnymen, U2 and all of that early ’80s stuff that was happening. 

Through him, I started learning about New York punk, which I got attracted to right away. The Ramones were still playing now and then and I saw them. 

And then the bands I just mentioned, REM and U2, were also really important to me at that time. In about ‘85, we went to the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, and that was really exciting. And I got into Lou Reed around the same time. He was always a big influence on me. 

Right around that time, I started playing in a band called Black Angus, which was a no-wave band in New York City. We played some shows and wrote some songs but never recorded anything.

I bought a nylon string acoustic guitar because it was the cheapest one in the store. I didn’t really know anything about guitars. The bass player and the other guitarist had electric guitars. But I figured if I just put it in front of a microphone, it would sound kind of similar. And I realized it didn’t. 

So I bought a pickup which I glued to it and plugged in, and started figuring out ways to make weird sounds with the amplifier. I could play decent rhythm but I didn’t know anything else. So I’d do that and try to find interesting sounds. Then they brought in another guy and he hated playing with me because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to make sounds. That was kind of the end for me. He knew how to play, I didn’t, and I didn’t really care! 

Zopa started in 2006 (with drummer Olmo Tighe and bassist Elijah Amitin). I was playing on my own and making demos and stuff. But I realized I really missed playing with people.

They were really great from the beginning but I was still figuring stuff out. Being the guitar player in a trio rather than the rhythm player in a band with two other guitarists was a thing I had to figure out. It was the first time I was singing and playing. I was very limited in terms of how to play lead guitar. (But) right from the beginning, it was exactly what I had hoped for.

I actually took a couple of lessons with Richard Lloyd from the band Television. He taught me how to practise. And I put in a lot of time trying to figure that out, playing a lead the way I wanted to, or the way I could play it. The early (Zopa) shows were primitive, but we played a lot of shows. We played wherever they would have us. 

DM: Do you think your acting skills are at all transferable to music? 

Michael Imperioli: Acting skills come more with the performance, both live and in the studio, and the way you commit emotionally to the material in a script or music. In acting, you commit with your body and voice, and in music, with your instrument and the way you sing. But the difference between committing authentically, emotionally, or not…I mean in acting, that’s what you go for! 

For practising, it’s just learning to be disciplined, learning scales and learning how the notes are laid out on a fretboard and how they interact, and proper hand and finger positioning. That kind of knowledge lends itself to being able to do more lead guitar work. When I was 20, I wouldn’t have had the discipline. 

DM: What are some of your favourite soundtracks to films you’ve been part of?

Michael Imperioli: Goodfellas had a really good soundtrack. Summer of Sam did, too. I liked a lot of the songs that Spike (Lee) used. 

I loved what they were doing with the music on The Sopranos. For TV, it was really new and cool. David (Chase) really wanted to bring that cinematic feel for music into television, and it hadn’t really been done. 

My favourite music on the show was probably when they used Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” But there are so many good moments. There’s a lot of Van Morrison. 

One of my favourite movie soundtracks is a movie Al Pacino did in, I think, 1980 called Cruising. It was a very controversial movie because it’s about a serial killer in the gay, kind of S&M, anonymous sex subculture in Greenwich Village. 

There were a lot of protests when they were making it because the gay community was really upset that they were making a movie about a gay killer. It was a ballsy movie for Pacino to make.

But the music, the soundtrack to that movie, has a lot of Willy Deville and other stuff like that. It was kind of just at the end of punk, and it’s just really cool — one of the best soundtracks of a movie ever. ■

This article was originally published in the Aug. 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Zopa plays with openers Patrick Holland and Karma Glider at Bar le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.) on Thursday, Aug. 25, 8 p.m., $26.80

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.