Updated: Nov 26
By Brett Hoag
Photography: Claudia Hoag
Hail, Metal Heads! As promised, here is part II of my interview with Metal Hall of Famers Chris Impellitteri and James Pulli of Impellitteri. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!
I read that Tony Iommi has 400- 500 unused riffs on his phone.
James- On his phone?! He better have that backed up! LOL
Do you guys have a store of riffs waiting to be worked into songs?
Chris- As soon as I like something, I've always historically gone and immediately recorded it to get it down, even if I have to play to a click and a drum machine to lock it in so I don't forget it. Everything we do starts with a riff. Some people think that we masturbating guitar players start with a solo and work around it, but that's not how it works. I love Iommi; he's the king of riffs. I disagree with James here because my favorite Sabbath is not with Ozzy. It's the stuff with Dio, Heaven and Hell, The Mob Rules, and the song TV Crimes later. That's the stuff I love. But Tony is such a fantastic guy who just constructed great riffs. As for me, I'm always writing, and if I think it's really good, that doesn't mean it is, but if I think it is, it gets documented. Most of the time, I use them. It's not like I have a box like Tony. What will happen is something like, later on tonight, I will be playing somewhere. It could be in my studio or on the couch, watching TV. And my finger will slip and I'll hit something that will make my eyebrow go up, and I'll go, what was that? Can I do that again? That's really cool. That's how it all begins, so I'll never be out of riffs.
That's good to hear, as a fan and as a fan, getting back to the Country thing. I have to ask you a favor. Please don't write a Hot Dog. Please don't do that to me.
Giles (from the living room)- LOL
Chris, you said earlier that you loved chicken-pickin' but that it's not something you played around with in Impellitteri. Have you done anything with it?
I did one instrumental many years ago with James and the band. It's called 17th Century Chicken Pickin' on our Screaming Symphony record. I can't tell you how many kids I see on YouTube mastering that thing and it's brutal to play. That all comes from that country style, even though it's metal shredding and 17th-century Baroque kind of stuff. It does have all of that when you listen to it, but then the chicken pickers are in there. People love it when that comes in. They get a big smile on their face. It's about a minute and 13 seconds into the song when we go into the chicken-pickin' thing. It's not easy to play. It's hard LOL But you blend that with a great shuffle and it just lightens everybody's face.
Indeed, it does. You mentioned that you have always considered Impellitteri a band, not a solo project.
Chris-Yes, that's correct.
Before we began today, James mentioned that you had just finished recording a new song. What is your songwriting process?
James- Well, I've got a lot of work to continue with what we're doing. But, on my side project, I do a lot of remote recording where people send me files from all over the world and I add the bass line. That was one I finished up today. That keeps me pretty busy.
Chris- He's Yo-Yo Ma LOL
Do you guys sit down and write together? Or do you (Chris) write everything?
Chris- I usually demo everything and get everything to where I think it should sit. Then I usually give it to James and he does his thing.
James- We'll bang off some ideas sometimes. Like, hey, will this work good for you in this section? And work off of each other. But for the most part, he does the writing.
Chris- That just means that the template is there. A lot of times, I will play all the guitar parts and lay a keyboard bass line so that we have a reference. But, the bass and drums have the autonomy to do what they do, which makes these four or five individuals into a band. It's like we are all painting on the same painting but doing our own little thing to it if that makes sense?
Yes, absolutely. You mentioned that you write music, so I assume--
Chris- Whoa, whoa, careful. LOL Are we talking about where we are actually writing down notes?
I don't know. You tell me. Can you write music?
Chris- I can write very crudely. If you asked me to score..,
Could you score one of your songs?
Chris- If you give me a couple of weeks LOL
James, Can you write music?
James- It's the same thing. I can read and write music, but I don't site read. Individual notes or a chord chart? Great. Little passage like you have to comp this section for the first four bars. Give me a little time and I'll figure it out.
Chris- I can probably play as good as the soloists in the L.A. Philharmonic, but they can read very quickly. I think it's BS when we see them up there acting like they are playing a piece for the first time and reading along that fast. Believe me, they've worked that out before. LOL They know where the part is going. Some people can do that, but you know it's a refined skill.
To clarify. You're saying, then, that no actual writing takes place when you are writing music. Is that correct?
Chris- Exactly. It's all recorded. Everything is done by memory and we document on recording. We know this song will be in A 4/40 but dropped D. Since we are all there, we will sit down and show each other the riffs or the part and take it from there. So, you don't need notation because notation is really for if you don't have it committed to memory. We work and master the parts. Once you have the intro, where are we going? We're going to the first verse. Memorize, memorize, master, and get your parts down before you record it; you have three to four minutes of a song before you know it.
None of your songs are written down? The entire set list is memorized?
Chris- Yes. The only time I did a chart like that was in 2010. I did a Japanese music project and it was insane. It was all based on famous Anime music. When the Japanese compose music, they don't ever repeat a part. It was this "supergroup" they created specifically for the Japanese market and we did it. We were playing some huge shows and arenas, and the music for me was, well, I was born and raised in the United States. This kind of pop culture had so much information that I couldn't store it, so I had to have these massive whiteboards with notations taped down on the stage floor. I would be rockin' out and no one could see that I was looking down and reading my notes to see where I was going! LOL It was brutal! That's the only time I've actually had to do that live.
That was Animetal, correct?
A friend of mine, Sam Saltman, implored me to ask if you have planned anything else with Animetal or in that style in the future.
Chris- It was a lot of fun. It was a great learning experience diving into something I hadn't been exposed to. When I think of Anime, I think of children's cartoons. It is entirely the polar opposite in Japan. Anime is a huge part of their culture. Some of it is dark and dramatic, but the music is written by composers from the 1950s and 60s. These are composers, not rock people. We had to interpret and understand it. Again, as I said, in America, we are very formulaic. Start with a cool riff or something; before you know it, we are into a verse, pre-chorus, return, and then eventually get to the chorus. There is a lot of repetitiveness. You did that part two minutes ago and now it's about to happen again, people like that. In Anime, it never repeats. You are on a journey forward and it never goes back.
Has it influenced the way you write music?
Chris- No. It hasn't influenced me because it would mean that I would have to change culturally. It was a great thing to be exposed to. I looked at it as another path to learning as a musician.
You are a recent inductee into the Metal Hall of Fame--
Chris- That would be thanks to Giles [Lavery] and Pat [Gesualdo]. I'm still going; why are we in there? LOL
How do you feel about it?
Chris- First of all, I am very humbled and very flattered. I think Pat and Giles had a lot to do with us being put in there. Look, when you get those kinds of accolades, it's really sweet and warming, but it's almost like people saying, Oh, you're better than someone else or you get some "Godly" status. What I really like about the Metal Hall of Fame is that the people they are letting in were not the people that were ever going to be put in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is more of a popularity contest. Pat is putting in these almost cult-status bands. I think that is really cool. Twisted Sister, that's a little different, right? They certainly had their huge moment with We're Not Gonna Take It. That was huge in the late 80s. But it was cool to see them acknowledged for their work, not in the popular period, but for what they had done in the bars before. I knew about them then but was a kid, so I was never allowed to see them in the clubs. I finally saw them at the Agoura Ballroom in Connecticut. I saw them and Dee scared the shit out of me. He terrified me. I didn't understand what I was seeing, but he scared the shit out of me. LOL He's a big guy! LOL
It's the same thing for Impellitteri. If you walk out on the street right now, 99% of the population will go, Who? What? Impellitteri? What is that? Is that a virus? LOL But yet, if you go into the circles of the metal world, you mentioned Iommi. I promise you that Tony Iommi knows this band. So, we have been able to achieve that kind of respect. Not everybody loves us equally, as many people hate us or me. But we have that ability to influence a lot of people around the world. I can't tell you how many bands come up to me and say, Dude! I love your band! So, I thought that the Metal Hall of Fame acknowledged that we had done something that touched certain groups of people worldwide and made an impact. I found that to be very humbling for a band with at most 2-3 million records sold instead of a band with 10-20 million.
How many records have you sold worldwide?
Chris- It's always hard to say. The biggest one, which is the challenge, is Stand in Line. There was no corruption going on, but there was some very questionable accounting. I can tell you that I got paid very well for that record, so we assume it's probably well over a million records worldwide. It had to have been. But I don't know; there are no definitive numbers.
Are you still getting royalties for that record?
Chris- No, no, no. It's very small. The last significant royalty I got, and the only reason I got it, is because we had this manager called Metropolitan Entertainment. At that time, they were managing us and The Cranberries. I actually let them use my Marshalls for some live stuff, but that's another story LOL Anyway, I remember where it was a label issue; I can't recall if it was Sony or someone else, but they wanted something else from us and our manager went to them and said, you know, Chris and the band haven't seen much money from this record. We know it's been selling very well, so what's up? And that was a very big check I got. LOL
Before we started, you mentioned that you had an MBA. From where did you receive that?
Chris- Pepperdine Univeristy.
How has that helped you in your music career?
Chris- Not as much as you would think as far as propelling the band to more success. It actually taught me discipline and strategy. I think those were the key attributes I took out of the program. We had downtime and were coming out of the 80s and 90s, which was when the band was doing very well, and then suddenly, you get royalty checks that are $.10 LOL I'm joking, but it is that quick and you go, OMG! You have the big house, the cars, the life and now what? So, out of fear, I said that when I have a couple of months here and there, I will go to school. The guy who encouraged me to do that, and I don't even know him personally. We've met once or twice at a rehearsal or something, but I don't know him. He is Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses. He did the same thing.
It helped me to understand discipline, strategy and how to survive by finding a niche market. Really, that is the whole thing with this band. We've found a niche market worldwide in little pockets in little places where we do very well. That's been the secret, I think, in keeping the band alive and flourishing. Like our new record, whether it sells one or 10 million. It doesn't matter because I guarantee people will embrace it in certain places in the world.
James, did you go to college or study music? Chris mentioned you attended M.I.
James- Yeah. I came out to L.A. in '84 and went to Musician's Institute. Other than that, no. I've had a lot of different jobs, mainly in the mortgage industry. There is training going on there, but as far as formal schooling, just M. I.
Who were some of your classmates at M.I. during that time?
James- Oh, wow. That was a long time ago. LOL Elton John's drummer, Nigel Olsson, was there, and I played with him. Jeff Berlin was teaching then, and Paul Gilbert was there right before or after me. It was funny because you would hear some guy working through a jazz chart. In the other corner, some guy shredded arpeggios as quickly as possible, another guy was writing a country song, and another was practicing piano. There was such a diversity of musicians and people from all over the world that I think I got as much from them as I did from the curriculum. It was also the first time I got to record in a professional recording studio and that impressed me to the point of wanting to continue that as much as possible.
What got you into the bass?
James- Like most bass players, I started on guitar for a little while. My brother bought me a guitar, and I have always loved music in general. But back then, you would see The Who and The Beatles on TV and I wanted to play guitar. There was one kid in school who played guitar and girls really liked him LOL So, I'm like, I have to get a guitar and find a band. The funny thing is that my band joined a talent show immediately and we got first place! The girl who came in second became our singer, and people would suddenly talk to me. LOL
Then I got into junior high and was in one of maybe four bands, but there was only one bass player. This bass player would go around to all the different bands. It really limited when we could have a gig or practice. So, my buddy at the time, Mike Z. and I agreed to split bass duties half and half. But, as soon as we started playing, I got a real bass, cranked up the amp, and went, Oh! It's cool. I'll do bass full-time. I really enjoyed it.
I have to ask you my goto bass player question. Entwistle or McCartney?
James- I greatly respect Paul and what his bass lines do for their music, but I love Entwistle. One of the things that I remember is when my brother bought his first pair of headphones, plugged them in, put on Quadraphenia and said, "Here, James. Check this out." It starts with The Real Me. Just that beginning bass part, "MM MM M," and I was like, I don't know what that is, but I want to do it. Then I saw the movie Tommy on television and I could see Entwistle's fingers walking down his neck in that scene with Clapton singing and I was like, Oh, man. I want to do that.
Do you pick or finger?
James- Both. They both have their places. I prefer to use my fingers, but there are a lot of times when you have to be very articulate and very punchy, especially to keep up with a lot of the drummers we work with; you have to be very fast and precise and I think you have to do that with a pick. However, I love the organic feeling of using your fingers.
Chris, do you use your fingers when you're playing?
Chris- Occasionally, yes. It depends on what the passage is. I do some chicken picking, which is alternate picking and plucking with your fingers. And if you're doing string skipping arpeggios, where you go 1,3,5 and you want to go up to the octave and a lot of the times, I'll actually do three notes as well; therefore, you are using more fingers also, if I'm doing something acoustically, absolutely. Classical as well.
I don't hear a lot of slide work in your catalog.
Chris- That's funny you asked. I've thought about that recently more so than anything. One of my favorite records, rhythmically, from Van Halen is Fair Warning. A lot of the stuff Eddie did with the slide, I really love. But then Paul Gilbert's gone down that road and he's really mastered it, so I kind of feel like, "Oh, darn. I can't go down that road because if I do, it will be he's copying...
The slide is a beautiful instrument. I've always loved Joe Walsh. He is such an underrated, amazing slide player. Duane Allman, we all know that, right? But Joe Walsh is insanely talented. Blackmore is also a good slide player as well.
I love Page's slide work.
Chris- Oh yeah, he is fantastic. There was this mall where I grew up and the music store inside had two massive posters I will never forget. It was Kiss from 1975, Led Zeppelin for the Song Remains the Same and Page looked so cool. The problem is I could never play my guitar when it was down at my knees. LOL
Where do you hold your guitar?
Chris- It's gotten lower over the years. But when you sit, record and practice for hours and hours a day and I sit more like a classical player, instead of the guitar on my right knee, it's on my left. I like to have my left foot elevated like you have your little classic stand. After a while, you realize the guitar is high. Then I see me in a music video and I'm like, Dude. Put the guitar down any higher and it's going to hit your chin LOL
Where's your bass?
James- In between, I would say. Definitely not high, but I'm not a low slinger either. I can't play all the notes if it's too low. But I admire Doug Pinnick from King's X because of how fast he plays and his tone, and he's got it slung down to his ankles! LOL
You've been shredding since you've been playing. How are your wrists and fingers holding up?
Chris- Shockingly, everything is great. I've never had an issue with carpal tunnel or arthritis or anything.
How do you stay in shape? What do you do to remain tour-ready?
Chris- Well, I'm always playing. What keeps me in shape physically is the fact that I do my own gardening and yardwork and I love doing it. It keeps my cardio going and keeps me active, but as for guitar playing, I play every day. I love playing the instrument, it's not work for me. I pick it up every day because I love it.
Thus concludes Part II. Stay tuned for Part III when Chris and James talk about the new record, new drummer, and vocalist Rob Rock! \m/
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