We’ve Got A File On You: Michael Imperioli
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
If you’ve owned a TV some time in the past two decades, then chances are you’ve already seen Michael Imperioli in any number of acting roles. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Imperioli shot to fame on The Sopranos, in which he portrayed the young and sensitive but dangerously volatile mobster Christopher Moltisanti. More recently, Imperioli re-entered the cultural zeitgeist with The White Lotus‘ second season, where he played Dominic Di Grasso, a wealthy Hollywood bigwig battling a sex addiction.
On top of acting, the zen and cerebral Imperioli is also an accomplished screenwriter, novelist, podcaster, social-justice warrior, and music mega-nerd. A fervent fan of My Bloody Valentine and Bardo Pond, Imperioli came of age around the downtown New York post-punk and no wave scenes. Meanwhile, his art-rock project ZOPA has existed in some form or another since 2005. Together with drummer Olmo Tighe and bassist Elijah Amitin, Imperioli has spent the last 17 years writing songs, jamming, and playing all over the world as time and schedules have allowed. Though ZOPA took an extended break in 2012 when Imperioli relocated to Los Angeles, they picked back up in 2019 and even released their first album, La Dolce Vita, in 2021.
Now, the trio is set to release an EP, TONDO, on August 13 and has plotted a brief summer tour. Rumor also has it ZOPA are also currently in the studio with producer John Agnello to record a second full-length. It might have taken them nearly two decades to formally release records, but there’s no question that ZOPA are in the game now.
Ahead of TONDO‘s release, Imperioli called in from his gilded, Sicilian-inspired New York apartment to talk about ZOPA’s evolution, what Sopranos co-star James Gandolfini would listen to when he wasn’t spinning his Dookie vinyl, and why the late actor would’ve “hated Donald Trump.”
ZOPA & TONDO EP (2023)
Your band ZOPA has been around, on and off, for 17 years. Can you walk me through its evolution? What led to the decision to pick back up recently?
MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: Towards the end of 2005, I decided I wanted to play with some other musicians, which I hadn’t done in quite a while. I had been in two bands prior to ZOPA, one in the ’80s, one in the ’90s. I’d been playing music and writing some, but not with other people, and I missed it really a lot. I knew a lot of musicians, but I really wasn’t sure who I would approach. I went to a party in November of 2005, and I ran into a guy named Michael Tighe, who’s a musician who once played in Buckley’s band – [he] played on Grace and toured with Jeff, but was an actor before that.
When I was 25, in 1991, I did a movie called Postcards From America about the artist David Wojnarowicz. It was a real indie, underground New York movie, and Michael played David Wojnarowicz as a teenager. Michael Tighe was 18 at the time, and I was 25, and we had a lot of scenes together and became friends. Michael’s younger brother, Olmo Tighe, who plays drums in ZOPA, was eight years old, 10 years younger than Michael. He was in the movie and played the artist as a boy, and he was very good. It was pretty rough material for an eight-year-old. I was really impressed with him, but I didn’t see him again, and I hadn’t seen Michael. Michael and I became friends, we did some plays together after that movie, and then Michael went into music.
So I ran into him at this party in 2005, and I asked about his brother, who I hadn’t seen at that time in 15 years. He said, “Oh, Olmo is a drummer now and he works at the Strand Bookstore.” He didn’t tell me what kind of music he played or anything like that, but I got it in my head that I had to approach Olmo, and I don’t know why to this day. It was a very strange, instinctive, intuitive thing.
I started going to the Strand Bookstore in New York because all the employees wear name tags. I figured, “Well, that’ll be easy to spot that name.” [But] I can’t find him. After a month or so, I asked somebody, “Does Olmo Tighe work here?” He said, “Oh, he does, but he works in the warehouse.” So I wrote a note and I said, “Could you give this to him?” Olmo contacted me and we met up. I had some stuff that I had written, and we jammed a little bit – it was really fun. He said, “Do you want to work with a bass player?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “There’s a guy I played in a band with in high school.”
We set up a practice for the next week, and the day before practice, I was at the flea market in Chelsea with my wife. She was talking to one of the antique dealers she knew, and this kid walks up to me and says, “Oh, I’m playing music with you tomorrow.” His father was a friend of my wife’s. Turns out his cousin had been my manager at one point.
It was very weird, all these little connections. Then the next day, the three of us played together and then started writing songs. We played our first show a few months later in Lisbon, Portugal, which was a whole other kind of strange chain of events. Two years later, Olmo married my cousin, my first cousin. Now they have two kids, and we’re kind of family now. It was a strange journey. But I moved to California in 2012, so for six years we played a lot of shows, mostly in New York, anywhere they would let us play. We did a little bit of touring, and we recorded that EP and an album and never released any of it.
We were trying to still do a few shows in LA and New York, but it became too hard because we weren’t in the same state and we weren’t able to practice, so we really didn’t do anything till around 2019. I started doing some live readings of this book that I wrote, and I did one with Olmo playing drums behind me. Then I started doing it with Elijah [Amitin] playing bass behind me. I got a sublet in New York, and I was starting to go back and forth. And then a year after that, we moved here full time again, and that was 2021. Then the band started playing again.
Wild Carnation & First Bands (Early ’90s)
I’ve read that you’re a big Feelies fan and that you were in a similar-minded jangle-pop band called Wild Carnation. Were you all a mainstay at Maxwell’s in Hoboken? Did you cross paths with the Glenn Mercer crowd around that time?
IMPERIOLI: A little bit. Yeah, because we were going to Maxwell’s a lot, my friends and I. The Feelies had an offshoot band called Yung Wu, which was a cover band. I remember they did [the Rolling Stones’] “Child Of The Moon.”
My first theater company, when I was 22, did a fundraiser so we could put on our first play. And Yung Wu played at Maxwell’s. The guy I started the company with was a bartender at Maxwell’s, Tom Gilroy, who’s now a really great indie filmmaker. Yung Wu did the show, and that’s how we raised money to put on our first play back in 1988.
When I was in Wild Carnation, we weren’t called Wild Carnation. We actually didn’t have a name. It was the three of us, Rich Barnes and Chris O’Donovan basically writing music. We never played any shows. We recorded some demos, and then I had to leave the country for quite a long time, and I really felt bad about having them wait. They were ready to start recording and gigging and stuff. I think part of me was… I don’t know, I was just singing in that band. Part of me didn’t have enough confidence.
Brenda Sauter, who actually played with the Feelies, went into Wild Carnation. Some songs that we wrote, they did with different lyrics and some different melodies, but mostly different lyrics that Brenda wrote are on their first album. They just did Mike Watt’s podcast and played one of the demos that we made.
At that time, Maxwell’s was one of my favorite rock clubs ever in Hoboken. I saw Nova Mob, which was Grant Hart from Hüsker Dü, his band. I was a big Hüsker Dü fan. I never got to see them play. But seeing Grant Hart play was pretty cool. Black Francis did a solo show with just him on electric guitar while the Pixies were still together. He played solo doing all Pixies songs, just him on guitar, and I was right in front of him. I got there really early and was right up against the microphone. That was just heaven. That was one of my favorite shows ever.
When I lived in New York, for a while I tried never to miss a Feelies show. Any time they played the Bell House or the Prospect Park Bandshell, I’d be there. I even had a Feelies mug at one point.
IMPERIOLI: What a great band, a great live band.
Christopher Moltisanti & Adriana La Cerva Try Their Hand At Producing (1999)
In The Sopranos Season 1, there’s a subplot where you and Adriana are trying to produce a not-so-great band, Visiting Day. There’s clear overlap between Christopher’s screenwriting aspirations and how you, personally, are a writer. As a musician, did you have any advisory role around Christopher’s music storyline?
IMPERIOLI: [The writers] didn’t really need it. They had it covered. I thought that stuff was really well written and fleshed out really well. I’d certainly been to a million rock and roll bars with shitty bands playing and sometimes good bands. But the funny thing was, those musicians who were in the band, Visiting Day, were all actually really good musicians in really good bands, but they had to kind of come together to become this cheesy band, which was really fun to see. But no, I just was in the acting seat for that.
Talking Music With James Gandolfini (2000s)
A few years ago, you told us how much your Sopranos co-star, the late James Gandolfini, loved Green Day’s Dookie. Our readers were so pleased to learn about that.
IMPERIOLI: Green Day was really happy to hear that too. It meant a lot to them.
AC/DC. He loved AC/DC. He loved Green Day. The Grateful Dead. In his trailer, he brought a turntable and speakers. Which is a rather cumbersome thing to install into a trailer. He didn’t really install it, he just had it on the table — speakers there, and he had the vinyl of Dookie that he would play. At some point, he started feeling… He felt like the writers were using stuff in his own life into the character, and he resented it. Whether or not they were or weren’t, I’m not really sure. And I remember he made up his own lyrics to – I forget which Green Day song – one of the songs on Dookie and would add specific names of the writers and producers and stuff. But he had a good sense of humor. Let me see if I could find what song that was, because that’s kind of funny.
“Basket Case,” right?
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. He liked music. I can’t remember what else he had in the trailer. But yeah, a lot of people loved hearing that for some reason. I guess they think he was… I don’t know what the fuck they thought he was, but he wasn’t really like Tony Soprano at all. He was much more of a hippie. Very smart. [But] a lot of fans just wanted him to be Tony Soprano.
Yeah, these characters were not meant to be aspirational.
IMPERIOLI: I post a lot of political things on Instagram, and people write all the time, “I’m glad Tony killed you in the show.”
Oh for god’s sake.
Imperioli: Yeah, “You’re a disgrace. Tony would hate you.” You know what I mean? I’m like, [James] was not a right-winger by any sort.
He was very supportive of people in the military, but not out of a kind of hawk solidarity. It was out of respect — he felt that these young people were giving their lives for the country. That meant something to him. But he was not by any stretch of the imagination some gung ho… I think he would’ve hated Donald Trump. I think he would’ve thought he was just a con artist like many people do.
But yeah, people say that kind of stuff all the time to me. Especially if I post anything like pro-LGBTQ, which I do pretty often, you wouldn’t believe some hateful stuff. “I liked you better as Christopher. I’m really disappointed.” I guess they thought being that guy is somehow better than being someone who cares about human rights. It’s kind of amazing.
Hosting A Radio Show On NTS Radio (2020)
After posting about My Bloody Valentine on Instagram, you were invited to host a radio show on NTS. How was it to play DJ?
IMPERIOLI: It was cool. I made a post about My Bloody Valentine and it got a lot of attention on Instagram and then in some of the music press. Which was kind of fun, thinking that people actually cared what kind of music [I like]…
I like being able to turn people onto stuff that they might not necessarily know. A band like Unrest, and especially that album Imperial, which was a really big, important record for me at the time when it came out.
I mean, I made mixtapes when I was younger, but it was not… René Marie, who is a jazz singer, who does that incredible medley of [Maurice] Ravel’s “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and somehow meshes them together seamlessly and beautifully — I heard that once and I was like, I got to turn as many people as I can onto that song because it’s just so moving.
Have you heard the new Slowdive songs?
IMPERIOLI: No, I don’t know Slowdive that much. I know I should because everybody loves them. I was into shoegaze, but that band Bardo Pond, I don’t know if you’d consider them shoegaze. That was a band that I discovered during the pandemic that just… Well, right before [the pandemic] I saw them at the Mercury Lounge in New York. To me, they took it to another level in a way. And I don’t even really know how to describe it, but seeing them live was just such a powerful experience and just transcendent. They’ve been around a long time. They’ve been playing together for quite a long time and just so uniquely them. I like the new stuff that Thurston Moore’s been doing a lot.
Friendship With Thurston Moore (’90s-Present)
Thurston was going to interview you about your book The Perfume Burned His Eyes at the Strand last year.
IMPERIOLI: He was supposed to, and then his mom passed away. Thurston and I did a thing at the Miami Book Fair about the Velvet Underground. Yeah, that was fun.
Before I got to know him, I was a fan for many years and had seen [Sonic Youth] play. One time – and I told him this when we first met – when I was like 22, I worked at a restaurant in New York in the village called Cafe Bruxelles. It was a Belgian place, and Sonic Youth came in and had dinner there, and I waited on them. It was just such a huge deal for me to have them at my table waiting on them.
Did you gather up the courage to say anything to them?
IMPERIOLI: No, I didn’t… I couldn’t say anything. I was too shy. But no, I told Thurston about it years later and he thought it was pretty funny.
How did you formally meet?
IMPERIOLI: I don’t know. That’s a good question. We have a lot of mutual friends. I think that we wound up meeting through maybe Lydia Lunch. Lydia does this verbal burlesque thing that she tours every so often, and I’ve done a bunch of those with her in LA and in New York, spoken-word stuff sometimes with a little bit of music accompaniment, but that’s always fun.
Writing Debut Novel The Perfume Burned His Eyes (2018)
In 2018, Stereogum interviewed you about The Perfume Burned His Eyes, which featured Lou Reed as a character. It was supposed to be adapted into a play at NYC’s Joe’s Pub in March of 2020, but then COVID happened. In late 2020, Vice said you were adapting it into a movie. Is a movie still the goal?
IMPERIOLI: Well, we weren’t going to do it as a play at Joe’s Pub. It was more a radio show on stage, which was an extension of what I had been doing with Lydia and on my own sometimes. I started doing it with Lydia where I would just read sections of the book with some music behind, and then I did it again with actors. First, I just did it by myself. Then I had a couple of actors doing it with me, and it was just a lot of fun, and we were going to expand on that and do it at Joe’s Pub, and then the pandemic happened.
I’ve gone back and forth between wanting to adapt it for a movie and not wanting to. It’s been strange… One day I feel one way, one day I feel the other. Part of me feels like maybe it should just be a book. I’ve had people interested in doing it who I didn’t know, and I was adamantly saying no because if it were [adapted into a movie], I’d have to have a lot of control over it. I think I’m afraid of fucking it up somehow because it really means a lot to me, that book. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, and I think I’m afraid of sullying it somehow. But I may change my mind tomorrow and get it done.
Yeah, when it’s that personal, I understand the anxiety.
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. It’s tricky. And then there’s the Lou [Reed] angle because Lou Reed is a character in the book, and it’s dealing with his legacy in some respect, even though it’s not a biopic by any stretch.
What are your feelings on music biopics in general? I have a screenwriter friend who is also a musician, and he hates them because they tend to get the music industry nuances wrong.
IMPERIOLI: Usually, they stink. The ones that work are when they just take a little slice of life. When it’s the rise and fall, it always seems like the same thing all the time. You know what I mean? They all had a rough childhood, and it was rough starting the band, and then they got successful and then they got hooked on drugs, and then the manager ripped them off, and then they went to rehab, and then they started up again. It’s always the same shit.
There’s one movie that stayed with me for the longest time, and I don’t know where you’d see it because it’s strange because it’s only an hour long. It’s a narrative. It’s a feature, but it’s not a documentary, but it’s called The Hours And Times.
I don’t know how you pronounce his last name, it’s spelled M-U-N-C-H. It might just be Monk or Munch. [Editor’s note: The Hours And Times is by Christopher Münch.] It’s about this weekend that John Lennon and Brian Epstein spent in Barcelona right before the Beatles got huge. They were big in England, maybe they had a hit single or two in England, but they weren’t universal yet. It’s right before that. It’s just these two guys, they were friends and working together. It’s in black and white. It’s got really good period detail and really exceptional acting and writing. It worked as a story because John is this kid who’s really young but really smart and really talented. And Brian’s got this great vision for them and is also in love with John. There’s some great tension between them. That one really got it right. Very rarely do they get it right.
For what it’s worth, I usually hate movies and shows portraying journalism. Few get it right.
IMPERIOLI: What’s the ones that get it right?
I always liked Shattered Glass with Hayden Christensen. And, more recently, Spotlight.
IMPERIOLI: You like Almost Famous? That’s a good one.
As a kid I found Almost Famous to be inspiring. That said, watching it as an adult in this industry makes me a little sad, because, today almost no music journalist gets the type of access William Miller does in the movie. Not unless they’re pretty famous themselves in the writing world. I have met Cameron Crowe though, and thought he was a total mensch.
IMPERIOLI: About five years ago, my dad, who’s 82 now, was obsessively watching that movie. It was on cable, and I forget what cable channel, but they were running it a lot. My mother’s like, “He’s watching that movie again.” And it’s probably one of the last movies I would ever think he would like or watch. My dad is an Italian American bus driver from the Bronx. Love movies, but mostly Robert De Niro stuff, Al Pacino movies, and even Tom Cruise stuff. He is not really a rock and roll fan. He likes doo-wop from his era and shit. But the idea of him watching that over and over again, I still to this day don’t know what it was about.
Appearing In Music Videos With Japanese Breakfast And Holy Ghost! (2019, 2021)
I enjoyed your turn in Japanese Breakfast’s “Savage Good Boy” video a couple years ago, as well as Holy Ghost!’s “Heaven Knows What” video. How was it connecting with modern indie scene?/
IMPERIOLI: It’s fun. ZOPA has a very young audience. Our shows have people in their 20s and early 30s, and sometimes teenagers. We had a show in Milwaukee. Milwaukee? Not Milwaukee, I’m spacing out. Was it Milwaukee? Well, whatever. Oh, no, no, no, no. Let me think for one second.
The kids came because the show in their town was 21 and over, and they drove a few hours to come to the show that was 18, which I thought was really sweet. They hung out and waited to talk to us, and that was really fun. Being able to communicate to a younger generation of artists and even just fans to me, is a real privilege. It doesn’t always happen when you’re an artist and are known for something from a specific period of time. So to me it’s a real privilege and I’m really, really happy about that.
There was a long read in the New York Times that asked “Why Is Every Young Person Watching The Sopranos?” Do you think your younger fanbase has anything to do with there being a new generation of Sopranos fans, and then they start researching you and discover you have a band?
IMPERIOLI: I totally think that’s part of it, and a lot of it is social media. Being able to communicate to people on social media and them getting us a sense of other things you like and other things that you’re into. But The Sopranos, I noticed around 2019; I was shooting in Central Park, and this kid from Scotland was there with his father, they were tourists. He came over and showed me a tattoo of Christopher Moltisanti on his leg, 18 years old.
He was like, “I’m a really big fan of the show.” That was around the first [time] when I became aware that a lot of young people were watching the show, which didn’t really happen before that. We always had our audience that watched it when it was on the air and grew up with us and grew older with us and stuff like that. Then at some point, this other generation started watching it, and that does not always happen with TV shows or even movies. You can look at a lot of shows that were on and did really well at that time, [but] not many people are watching anymore.
I find it very rewarding to be able to communicate either on stage performing with the band, or sometimes we do this live in conversation with The Sopranos. It’s me, Steve Schirripa, and Vinny Pastore, and we take questions from the audience. We meet people from all over the country. We’ve done it in Australia, and the band has played in Spain and England recently, and meeting young people in different parts of the world that are into what you’re doing is very meaningful to me, communicating on that level.
Opening For The Hold Steady & Singing “Chill Out Tent” (2021)
IMPERIOLI: It was the first show back from the pandemic. [The Hold Steady] do this week of shows – I think they do it every year in December, but they hadn’t done it in a year or two because of the pandemic. So ZOPA opened for them on the first night of the run, and then they brought me on stage to do “Chill Out Tent.” So Craig [Finn] sings it, and then they had a guy and a girl sing parts of it. On the record I think it’s Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum and I forget the woman who did it [it’s the Reputation’s Elizabeth Elmore on the record], but they had me and Augusta Koch, who’s in the band Gladie. We did it together. That was really fun.
What was really exciting that night was being in a packed rock club again, because it hadn’t been for a while. We had just done a few shows, but I hadn’t been at someone else’s show in a while. And man, the Hold Steady fans are so devoted. They know every single word. They hang on everything they do. It was really inspiring to see how much love those guys inspire.
The White Lotus & The SAG-AFTRA Strike (2022/2023)
Are you unable to promote The White Lotus right now due to the SAG-AFTRA strike? And as someone who posts a lot about social justice, what are your thoughts around the ongoing strikes and fairness in the streaming and AI age? These issues around workers’ rights and creativity being undervalued also pertain to musicians.
Imperioli: I just did an interview for a Buddhist magazine and we were discussing the psychology of [my White Lotus] character. So I don’t consider that promotion. I think you can’t promote stuff that’s about to come out.
They never quite figured out how to pay actors backend, like residual payments for streaming. In the old days of just network TV, there was something called the Nielsen ratings. They had a good idea of how many people were watching on a specific night. Those were transparent. They were accessible to everyone, and it behooved the networks to make it transparent because they use those numbers to sell ads.
The streaming services don’t share their numbers. There’s no transparency. So no one knows how many people are watching or when they’re watching or what shows [they’re watching]. The bigger your show was, the more residuals you got paid. That meant the more people watching, the more money it’s making, and you get a bigger share.
Now, on streaming, you get paid the same no matter if your show’s a hit or if it’s not. And we’re not really sure of what the metric is that they’re using to determine these payments. So [we’re] demanding A) transparency and then B) some formula of payment that seems fair. Because SAG doesn’t think it is fair. So that makes a lot of sense.
AI to me, for the way it seems like they’re thinking of using it, AI is basically a plagiarism app. They say, “Oh, it can write a Bob Dylan song.” Well, it can write a Bob Dylan [song] because they feed 2,000 Bob Dylan songs into a program and then generate something similar, which means it’s basically a high-tech plagiarism tool. Let’s call it what it is. It’s not inventing, it can’t invent anything because it doesn’t have a brain, it doesn’t have a mind. What it does is process information that it’s given. And if you’re giving information that somebody created, then you’re plagiarizing them.
Now, for stuff that’s really simple and simplistic and mindless, maybe some bad soap opera or some mindless cartoon or something. Nothing against cartoons. I love animation. But some kids’ show say, maybe they can use AI to just write those scripts… But you’re plagiarizing someone because you’re feeding it samples that somebody has written.
I don’t know if this was true or what exactly happened, but the studios wanted to figure out a way of buying extras’ faces so [with] AI they can use them as virtual extras in the future, which basically cuts [extras] out of a job. There has to be contractual language protecting creative people from being ripped off in that matter and being rendered obsolete in that manner.
But at the end of the day, you can’t really replace an artist with a program or with a thing. You know what I mean? People really relate, not only necessarily just to the art, but to the artist as well. I think what’s going to happen is that there’s going to be more focus put on the artist themself as well, because that’s something you can’t just AI.
ZOPA’s TONDO EP is out 8/13.