“I’ve never seen it so crowded here before … ”
This musing of surprise was voiced last Friday night by several individuals who traded in the outdoor winter chill for the sticky, sweaty, sold-out floor of Fishtown’s Kung Fu Necktie. But when taking into consideration who was headlining on that intimate stage, a packed house wasn’t so surprising.
It was the first Philly show in years for indie rock band ZOPA, comprised of Elijah Amitin on bass, Olmo Tighe on drums and, on lead vocals and guitar, Michael Imperioli. Yes, that Michael Imperioli, who portrayed made man Christopher Moltisanti on HBO’s smash hit The Sopranos, in addition to Spider in Goodfellas and a slew of other roles.
Imperioli, Amitin and Tighe were in their element as they jammed their way through the setlist, comprised of tracks from their debut album La Dolce Vita, new single “Red Sky” and an impressive cover of Lou Reed’s “Ocean.” Rocking a ZOPA band tee and bright red sneakers, Imperioli’s perfectly grungy appearance was a complete shift from the suit-sporting Christopher that Sopranos audiences came to know and love. And that’s the point. As a music lover, meditator and writer, Imperioli is excited to have old and new fans alike get to know the real him.
Ahead of the show, Star had the honor of chatting with Imperioli about his longtime background as a musician, a talent that much of his following just discovered. It was in the mid-’80s when a 20-year-old Imperioli bought a nylon string acoustic guitar “because it was the cheapest one in the store” and formed a no-wave, instrumental band called Black Angus.
After playing with some other groups and eventually taking a break from band life, in 2005, Imperioli once again craved collaboration. This was when ZOPA was born in what he described as an “interesting and strange story.” In 1994, Imperioli appeared in the film Postcards From America alongside Michael Tighe and his little brother, 8-year-old Olmo. A decade later, when Imperioli bumped into the elder Tighe brother and inquired about Olmo, he learned that he was 23 and a drummer.
“He didn’t tell me what kind of drummer or what kind of music he was playing or anything else, but for some very weird reason, I got it in my head that I had to approach him. I was told he worked at the Strand Book Store, so I started going there looking for him like every week and couldn’t find him,” said Imperioli.
Eventually, the two crossed paths and Tighe agreed to join Imperioli at the studio. As for Amitin, ZOPA’s bassist not only went to high school with Tighe, but Imperioli’s wife Victoria knew his father Mike, a New York salsa musician. The trio, as well as the vast array of influences that they brought into ZOPA’s sound, including Lou Reed, Galaxie 500 and My Bloody Valentine, was a perfect match.
“It’s always a good thing and always has been,” said Imperioli. “It’s a very unspoken thing. We just really relate and connect musically, it doesn’t need a lot of explanation. A lot of it’s instinctual and telepathic. We just connect and create together.”
Amitin, who has familiarity with the “great rock and roll town” of Philly after recording at Fishtown’s Miner Street Studios with another band, echoed Imperioli’s sentiment to Star. He said, “We got into the room together and we just had a very unique sort of chemistry. We’ve been building on it since.”
Despite ZOPA forming toward the end of Imperioli’s reign on The Sopranos, the group often struggled to sell tickets to gigs (though Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, heard them perform at a benefit).
“Like any new band, we were finding ourselves and finding our sound, which took a long time. Some of the venues were pretty crappy and some of the shows were not that great,” he said. “But we did a lot, lot, lot of shows.”
Much of what’s heard on La Dolce Vita, which was available on Bandcamp in July 2020 and released in 2021, was recorded in 2012 before the band’s lengthy hiatus that ended right around the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Imperioli, the dreaded period of quarantine actually served as a benefit.
“It turned out to be a good time because people had lots of time on their hands. A small group of people started listening to it, especially people in music, other musicians, bookers and club owners,” he said.
During the pandemic, Imperioli made a decision to create an Instagram account, something he shied away from before. The power of social media proved to be a “game changer” as Imperioli began to post about his passions of Buddhism, meditation and, of course, the music of ZOPA.
“Most of our shows used to be a mixture of Sopranos fans, curiosity seekers and just rock people who would go to that club to see who was there,” he said. “The difference now is that it’s people who have actually heard the album, which we never really had in the past. People would come and, for the most part, no one really knew what the hell we were gonna do. Now, some know the words to the songs. That’s a new thing and that’s really fun.”
An interesting tidbit about ZOPA, the word means “patience” in Tibetan and is part of the name given to Imperioli by his Buddhist teacher. Though Imperioli stressed that the band isn’t considered “Buddhist rock,” some songs, such as “All That Heaven Allows,” have “that flavor.” Prior to being called ZOPA, the band’s name was actually La Dolce Vita.
“I saw there were wedding bands and sh*t that had that name and I just kind of got sick of that name. It wasn’t good,” said Imperioli. “ZOPA’s good. It’s kind of mysterious, it’s short, it sounds good, it has a lot of meaning.”
On Feb. 16, ZOPA released its newest single “Red Sky,” which was also its first song written since getting back together. During an August show at The Mercury Lounge, Imperioli knew that this track was special.
“For some reason when we played it, I could see the audience bouncing to it more so than they were to other songs. Not that they weren’t to other songs, but there was definitely something that was connecting and I could just feel it both nights we played it,” Imperioli said. “Lyrically, it’s definitely a love song. It was inspired by, I don’t like giving too much away, but honestly it was inspired by my wife and I meeting and it’s also something about the importance of being an individual in a society that constantly challenges us.”
In fact, his wife Victoria, along with her cinematographer friend Lisa Rinzler, created the “Red Sky” music video, a black and wide ode to a snowy New York City.
On the heels of the Kung Fu Necktie gig, ZOPA is taking a brief break as Imperioli travels to Italy to film season two of HBO’s The White Lotus. But this summer, the guys expect to record more new music, which Imperioli said will have “bigger sounds and more shoegaze-y influence, a little more alty-’90s influence rather than the ‘70s, ‘80s New York-y thing.” While in the studio, he’ll be using a fresh addition to ZOPA – a Carmine Street Guitar crafted by friend Cindy Hulej. Imperioli shared that the piece will include wood from the historic Chelsea Hotel and former speakeasy Chumley’s, two significant places in his life.
“The new songs are different sounding. That’s just a matter of growing as an artist, growing as a musician and being a little more mature and specific about what sounds you want to make. We’ve evolved sonically individually and as a group and just getting a little better,” said Imperioli. “There’s definitely been some movement I think in a positive direction.”
Story by Samantha Bambino