One of the distinguishing characteristics of Memphis music is that it takes wildly divergent influences and boils them down into something new. That's also a concise description of Impala.
The instrumental band was first formed by then-Pezz bassist Scott Bomar and his high school buddy, drummer Jeff Goggins, around 1989. Though he emerged from Antenna-era punk, Bomar's interest in a wider music world had been sparked when he heard the Compulsive Gamblers mine pre-British Invasion rock and soul, as well as Angelo Badalamenti's atmospheric soundtrack work on Twin Peaks.
But Bomar says Impala really got rolling when guitarist John Stivers joined the band. "I love playing in Impala. I'm as much of a fan of the band as I am a band member. It's such a huge part of my life, and my career. If it wasn't for Impala, I wouldn't have a career in music. I don't know what I would have been doing, but it wouldn't be music. ... But Impala is about the genius of John Stivers. He never ceases to amaze me. His playing and his writing is so effortless. It's like it comes to him so naturally. He's a brilliant musician, a brilliant guitarist, and a brilliant writer. We tap into probably a thousandth of his talent to do what we do."
In the early 1990s, Stivers' lyrical, precise picking fit with Bomar and Goggin's kinetic rhythm section and what Bomar calls Justin Thompson's "old honky tonk, rock-and-roll sax sound" to create something that was almost but not quite surf music. Their 1994 debut album El Rancho Reverbo was released at the beginning of the Pulp Fiction-inspired surf revival, and Impala was lumped in with bands like Man...or Astro Man? and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.
But Impala's ambitions were always bigger than surf. Even their earliest recordings stray into Peter Gunn-style crime jazz and MGs-style soul. They always seemed to be scoring an unseen film noir, equally at home covering Henry Mancini or Dick Dale.
After four albums, including the Teenage Tupelo soundtrack, and countless singles, Impala went on hiatus in 1999. Bomar went on to found Electrophonic Recording and form the Bo-Keys, an acclaimed soul band in which Stivers briefly played. In 2005, Impala reunited for some new shows, with former Neighborhood Texture Jam and Afghan Whigs drummer Paul Buchignani taking over on the skins, and released their retrospective album Night Full of Sirens the next year. Now, they have their first full album of new material in more than a decade, In the Late Hours. "This is a record that was literally 20 years in the making," says Bomar.
Most of the songs on In the Late Hours have been around for a while, says Stivers. "I had bits and pieces that I thought would never get used, and we put them together to make cohesive songs. ... When we were recording, I was wondering, 'How is all this going to fit together?' But once we got through, and got it all mixed, and came up with a sequence, it sounded like a record!"
The 10 songs were cut at Electrophonic on a vintage analog Skully tape machine. "That's the same machine Stax Records had," Bomar says. "We recorded some of these songs last year, digitally. The digital just never hit the mark. We went back and re-recorded on tape, and it made such a big difference. This band was intended to be analog."
Stivers says the recording sessions, which were engineered by Adam Hill, were challenging. "I wanted some more polished songs, over the top with lots of horns. But we still wanted it to sound like Impala. There's hardly any overdubs. It's on an 8-track, so there's no room for overdubs. When you hear it, that's what it sounded like when we were playing. If it sounds polished, that means we were able to pull off a good performance."
Impala celebrates the release of In the Late Hours with a party at Bar DKDC on Saturday, August 25th.