Ethereal Meets Punk: Michael Imperioli on Music, Buddhism and new album 'La Dolce Vita'
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
The endlessly talented actor, writer and musician Michael Imperioli discusses the themes of Zopa's new album, La Dolce Vita, and the intersectionality with Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices.
It's not easy to follow up an Emmy-award winning career after The Sopranos, one of the most critically acclaimed, culturally cherished shows of all time. Where do go you from there? For Michael Imperioli, the answer is anything but simple. The actor, writer and director has taken a non-linear approach to pursuing his myriad of interests. He wrote a coming-of-age novel about a boy who befriends Lou Reed in the '70s. In quarantine, he's been co-hosting the Talking Sopranos podcast with Steve Schirripa, revisiting the iconic show episode by episode. And to expand on his ever-growing spiritual practice, he's been hosting weekly meditation sessions via Zoom that delve deep into Buddhist philosophies.
While his career has taken on many eclectic and diverse endeavors, there's one thing that seems to tie it all together --- his love of music. When he's not posting about his favorite artists on Instagram, ranging from the underground cult heros like Kembra Pfahler to quintessential rock 'n roll legends like T. Rex, he's creating his own music through his band Zopa. The three-piece, including bassist Elijah Amitin and drummer Olmo Tighe, harkens back to the cool, unaffected '70s New York punk attitude with an entirely unique perspective of the modern age. The album explores loneliness, bereavement, anguish, and ultimately, emotional surrender, a theme very much brought on by Imperioli's Buddhist influence.
I had an opportunity to chat with Michael Imperioli in support of Zopa's new album, but through a zoomed out perspective of his overall relationship with music. We talked about vibrational frequencies, Carmine Street Guitars, creativity through a Buddhist perspective, and of course, rock 'n roll.
T&E: Let’s start off discussing your mindspace when you’re creating music. In Buddhism, there are the six vijñāna, or six modes of consciousness. Do you feel that there is a synthesis of these modes when you’re working in a creative space? If not, what is the headspace you work in for music, and how does it differ from your other various creative disciplines?
Michael Imperioli: What I love about the songwriting process is that the musical aspect of it is non-literal and non-intellectual. There is no logic or reason in the musical mode of consciousness. It's much more instinctual, abstract and emotional. There are a lot of other creative projects I do, like acting, writing, or directing, where there’s a very literal, story-telling order to it. Creating music, however, is a much more ethereal process.
When you add lyrics to a song, there obviously can be a more linear quality to it I find melody to be really magical, though. Melody just comes from the ether, as if it comes from the Gods. Of course, you can come up with a chord progression and plan according to certain notes, but the core melodies seem to come from nowhere. I love the duality of how words can come from a certain logic, but melody is very abstract. That’s just really beautiful to me.
I’m lucky to be working with two very talented musicians in the studio, Elijah Amitin [bass, keys, production] and Olmo Tighe [drums]. I might work on some chord progressions at home, but a lot of our material just comes from us jamming together. That process has a lot of non-verbal communication. There have been songs where we all had completely different ideas on a central theme, but we go on creating our own interpretations and infusing that into the track.
I recently read an analysis on how meditation is a stabilizing root to our non-phenomenal awareness, and the creative mind uses phenomena to harness insight from our material existence. It went into an analogy that likened out eternal self to a tree, the meditative element acting as the grounding root and the creative element becomes the fruit of that labor. In that sense, how do you find your music as an extension of your path towards self-discovery?
Absolutely, I do find that connection between meditation and music, especially when you’re crafting a song. You begin in a meditative state, connecting to a more ethereal place, and when you bring in lyrics, themes, etc. that come from that place of phenomenal awareness, it’s like bridging those two worlds together. The songwriting process is very much imparted to connecting these mental states.
I find the time I spend with Elijah and Olmo in the recording studio to be a very meditative experience in and of itself. In order to find a song’s structure, there’s a process of finding a chord progression, sitting with it, and playing it through over and over again. That type of repetition brings on a very meditative flow. You have to learn patience. It takes a certain art of just “being” to absorb creativity and make music come to life. At least for me, I’m not really technically adept enough to just know how a song is going to work. It has to open up naturally, which many people may find frustrating, but I find to be a very satisfying experience. Creativity is a process of emptying the mind of any worldly quality so you can use yourself to channel something more emotional and organic. It's a process of connecting to a state of pure sound, really.
I love that this album has a very live sound, and I want to bring up how you always discuss live music in terms of vibrational energy in other interviews. There’s a beautiful quote from Bardo Thodol that says:
“When thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in springtime in one continuous stream of vibrations.”
What is your take on how music fits into this continuous stream of vibrations, and how music itself is an extension of this body/mind separation?
That's a big topic, but a really good one. It's an interesting subject that I think about a lot, especially in terms of Buddhist teachings.
So my wife and I just finished a six day virtual retreat with our teacher at the Garchen Buddhist Institute. A lot of the retreat is mantra recitation, and you know, mantra recitation usually comes from seed syllables. The vibrations of those syllables correspond to certain chakras and energy compositions in the body. Quantum physics says we're made of particles and waves, and we're constantly alternating between the two. We're basically vibrations anyway, so external vibrations interface with us as beings and can alter our consciousness. Whether we’re aware or not, we're ultimately affected by vibrations all the time.
That's why certain sounds can feel really harsh if it's something you don’t like, sometimes even to the point where it feels physically unnerving. For example, the sound of an angry voice or someone screaming in pain, those are all vibrations that affect us in different ways. I think music is the same thing. When you're experiencing live music, the vibrations are that much more intense and organic because they're actually happening in front of you in the room. Same thing when you're writing music in the studio with other musicians, it's all happening there together.
I’ve been in the process of moving to another apartment in New York, and it was owned by a jazz musician who had lived there for twenty years. The people who work in the building told us that he used to jam in the apartment with his colleagues all hours of the night. I kind of felt that immediately when I walked in. Sometimes you can just pick up on that energy when you walk into a room. I mean if you think about it, the walls, if they're made of wood or stone, also experience and absorb those vibrations as well.
This conversation reminds me of a great documentary I saw about Rick Kelly who runs Carmine Street Guitars in New York. Over the last several years, Rick has been making guitars out of really old wood that he gets from buildings that are being demolished in New York. He’s made guitars from the Chelsea Hotel and from buildings in the Bowery neighborhood, those buildings dating back to somewhere in the mid-19th century. Back then, they used to make buildings from really old trees. Nowadays when you get wood for construction or even for guitars, it’s from much younger trees. Young trees have a lot more moisture and sap in them, whereas old wood has been drying indoors for basically 150 to 170 years. The pores of the wood become more clear with time. Therefore, new and old instruments create a completely different resonance, and resonate with sound vibrations very differently.
Rick noted in that documentary that if you play the same kind of musical style on a guitar over a long period of time, the actual molecular structure of the instrument conforms to those vibrational patterns. If you take Andrés Segovia, the great Spanish guitar player, and play his music on his guitar at the instrument collection at the Metropolitan Museum, it's absolute magic. But if you play a different style, it might not sound that distinctive because he used that guitar for 30 or 40 years with his sound, so the molecular structure corresponds to those vibrations. Rick also noted that the same rule applies to a street musician playing some shitty, cheap guitar. If they’ve been playing a certain style on that guitar for like twenty years, that guitar is going to become the perfect vessel for that style. Perhaps it won’t sound any good if you try to play classical on it, but you know, that idea really blows me away. It’s almost as if our instruments are alive.
It’s an endlessly fascinating topic! And to circle back to that Bardo Thodol passage, it goes on to say that the “natural sound of thine own real self is like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding.” It’s a really interesting contrast of achieving a silent mind in order to come back to our original state of a “thousand thunders sounding.” I want to translate that to music, and the variance in rock ‘n roll of complimenting silence with noise. In your album, for example, the track “Best Intentions” goes from melodic flows to thrashing verses. What does this balance mean to you, and how does it play into the band’s ethos?
You know, that’s a style that I’ve always loved. It reminds me of that Pixies documentary loudQUIETloud, the title referring to their style of going from a quiet verse to a crashing chorus. That signature Pixies style is what Kurt Cobain said was really his inspiration for Nirvana too. So it’s a stylistic choice that I’ve always liked, but in terms of songwriting, I think it offers a bigger range of storytelling and emotion. Even when I’m writing a work of fiction or screenplay, there’s an element of that contrast too. It just makes sense to build up tension and release in a way that’s audibly satisfying.
As far as that contrast within ourselves, it reminds me of how my teacher often says that Buddha is not the name of a man, it's the name of mind. A lot of people have a preconceived idea that Buddhism is worshipping a God and you do what Buddha said, and that's basically it. That's not it at all, Buddhism is not a theistic religion. Buddha was not a God. So in that respect, we use meditation to quiet the mind, because the mind contains everything.
You had previously released many of these tracks on the LP as a demo and sat on them for a few years before officially releasing your album last July. I know that was a more logistical decision due to the pandemic and hiatus, but do you feel that there was a newfound sense of completion once you released these songs out in the world and let them take on a life of their own?
Oh yes, very much so. It's still very limited in terms of how it's gotten out. We just put it out on Bandcamp, but I think after we release the vinyl we'll also try to put it out on more platforms. Now that I'm moving back to New York, I'll be closer to Elijah and Olmo so hopefully we can go back to performing live when that's a reality again. In the meantime, this is all building momentum for us to work together again which I'm really grateful for. We haven't played together as a band in quite awhile, even before the pandemic. I was reading some excerpts from my book live in clubs with Lydia Lunchs' Verbal Burlesque show. I would read and Elijah and Olmo played behind the spoken word for a few shows, but as a band, we haven't been playing our music for a while. I'm very much looking forward to that. We’re also currently in the process of making a final cut of those tracks.
This reminds me of the themes of the track “Last Exit”. There are these lyrics about letting go, messages getting washed away in the sand, sort of like a ritualistic burning. You let things happen at the rate it happens. Do you feel that mirrors the way you guys approach songwriting or the whole musical process in general?
Yes, definitely. I think there’s a certain amount of surrender to the material and pretty much whatever you're bringing as individuals into a group project. A lot of the songs, like "Last Exit", present different themes between the verses and chorus. The verses of that song are about spiritual practice, but the main theme of that song is actually about a friend of mine who took his own life. In every aspect of life, there’s a lot we must surrender to. As far as music, we’ve very much a band in that we bring things together, and you sometimes have to surrender your own ego for the sense of the whole.
And just to clarify, your band used to be called La Dolce Vita and the demo was Zopa. Was there any particular reason why you switched?
Yeah, we were called La Dolce Vita for a long time and then it turned out there was another band with that name. We flipped it and changed our band name to Zopa, which is Tibetan for "patience", and the album to La Dolce Vita because, well...shit, I don't know, I guess to further confuse everybody! [laughs] But we're going with Zopa for here on out.
I love that, reminds me of Spinal Tap when David St. Hubbins says, “We used to be called The Originals, until we realized there was another band named that, so we switched it to…”
The New Originals! [laughs] Yeah, pretty much.
When did you all actually record these songs? My understanding is that Elijah did all the production as well?
We formed the band in 2006 and started writing material then, but these songs were recorded in 2013 or 2014. And yeah, Elijah is really musically savvy. I lucked out to be working with these two because I'm very musically illiterate. Olmo is a tremendous drummer with a very distinctive and creative style, and Elijah is very savvy with playing lots of instruments, creating arrangements, and production, so I've learned a lot from the two of them. We recorded at a place called The Bunker in Williamsburg. I believe it used to be some kind of factory, I don't know the whole history but it definitely was some type of bunker. Really cool place.
That reminds me of the track “In Pink”, which has that really classic walking bassline, cruising NYC with a snarl kinda vibe. Who are some of your favorite artists that epitomize this type of unaffected, CBGB-smelling, New York punk attitude?
Oh you know, the usual suspects. That attitude is so iconic for artists like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, The Ramones, and so on. But more so recently, I've been really influenced by post-punk and no wave stuff like Bush Tetras, ESG, Pixies, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, bands like that.
Totally. I’m sure I speak for a lot of us when I say it’s been really rad to see you talking music on your Instagram.
It's been a lot of fun being on there and turning people onto music and whatnot. I got onto Instagram in 2019 to promote a NBC show that I was on. I really tried to avoid being on social media, but then I figured it would be a good way to connect about my more indie projects, like my book or music or doing a live show. And I mean, it's hard to get people out to shows when you're just playing at a little club in New York and don't have a way to get the word out. So I figure I have this outlet, I might as well start posting other things I'm passionate about. Obviously I wanted to talk about Buddhism because it means so a lot to me personally, and if I could share some inspiration from these teachings then great. But yeah, then it just led to me sharing artists that inspire me, and it opened this whole community. I've been getting asked to make playlists for Bandcamp and Stereogum and other outlets, so it's been a lot of fun.
Going back to the album, the track “It’s Not Real” is a great bittersweet ballad. It laments on how a situation may not be "real", but it still hurts all the same. You then bring it all down to themes of emotional surrendering. In one of your recent meditation classes, you talked about the idea of the Bodhisattva, a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to help others. Can you talk about these lyrics of transforming pain into compassion through this lens?
Absolutely. That's really a Buddhist song. You know, there's the "Christian rock" genre, so I guess this would be "Buddhist rock" [laughs] … just kidding. So in Buddhism, we talk about how everything is really an illusion. There's this concept of emptiness, as in, nothing is what it appears to be. Even this pen I'm holding, for example, is made up of atoms and smaller particles. Our perception doesn't allow us to see it for what it's made up of, we can only perceive the item as a greater construct. We ourselves are made up of these molecular structures, and as science advances and creates instruments that can see on a smaller scale, we find even smaller particles that make up who we are. So, everything we see is from a certain point of view of our sense faculties.
Basically what that song is stating is that what we experience, based on those teaching, is not real. But even though something is immaterial, we can still relate to it in some deep way. You can look at things from a Buddhist point of view and say it's not real, but we're still going to suffer and have pain. Well, at least at this point in my life I will, maybe someone who's enlightened won't suffer, but most of us aren't enlightened. Then in the chorus, it says "better off if we sit awhile" referring to meditation. The next line, "take a walk around and around", is referring to circumambulation, a practice of walking clockwise around a holy site, like for example at the great Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. The lyrics “place your hand one by one on the floor and your head to the ground", that's called prostration, which you do when you walk into a temple and face something that you want to revere. So those are three physical acts you can do in terms of spiritual practice to give yourself into compassion.
But these lyrics, of course, aren’t just for Buddhists. Like I mentioned earlier, Buddhism is not a theistic religion, so it's not about giving praise to the almighty. Why I love Buddhism is because it's about dealing with our own minds. In many ways, it's more a science of mind than it is a religion. And as my teacher says, Buddha is not the name of the man, it's the name of your mind. The mind is the source of how you're going to interact with this world and how you're going to deal with it, for better or worse. So the better we are at working with our mind, the better humanity will become.
Absolutely. So in the post-pandemic world, what will be next for Zopa? Any tours, new material?
Hopefully we'll be able to play together again soon. As far as writing, that has to happen when we're together. I just find that that's how it's always worked. We might each brainstorm some ideas beforehand, but the magic really happens when we're all together in a studio. We are almost done pressing the vinyl, which is really exciting. And yeah man, I'm just waiting 'til live music comes back. Concerts are a very special thing, and sacred in its own way too. It can be really transporting and very magical. I miss seeing bands live and I miss playing live, so that'll be the next step when possible.
We’re all looking forward to it. And while I’d love to end off on some fun music-related Sopranos question, I gotta save some material for the Talking Sopranos Podcast AMA! Thanks again for speaking with me.
[laughs] You got it, thank you!
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