Mihali: Inspiring Interludes
photo: Dave Decrescente
“For me to be creative, I need to be all in. I work best when I’m completely committed to whatever it is I’m doing,” Mihali Savoulidis remarks, while discussing his preferred approach to such endeavors. “It’s hard for me to do something for a little while, then go off and do something else, then return to what I had been originally doing.”
Savoulidis—the guitarist, vocalist and principal songwriter of Twiddle— shares this observation while contemplating forthcoming changes to his schedule and flow. In late November, he announced that after 18 years of touring, Twiddle will embark on an “indefinite hiatus as a band starting in 2024.”
In August, Twiddle released Every Last Leaf, the group’s nuanced, absorbing fifth studio record. Just a few weeks earlier, Savoulidis shared his second solo album as Mihali, drawing on his passion for reggae. However, the musician reveals that he has additional artistic pursuits calling to him, at a moment when he is also enjoying time with his young children.
“The thing about being in a touring jamband is that our bread and butter is playing live. You keep your fans excited by taking risks and putting on a great show,” he says. “I love that. There’s no other scene where you have such a passionate fan base that will follow you from show to show because they know they’re going to get something different every night. But it does require being away from home at a point in my life where I don’t want to be gone as much. I’m still going to be touring, but I’d like to make time for some other things in my life as well.”
Still, while Twiddle’s Distance Makes the Heart Tour will wrap up later this year, this is not the end for the group.
“It was really hard to make a statement on the hiatus without being too wordy,” Savoulidis acknowledges. “I would’ve loved to have written paragraph after paragraph as to why I came to this decision. But I want people to know that it is just a break. The band is not breaking up. We have full intentions of coming back with a bang. We need to put some things into perspective and gain a bigger appreciation for the whole thing. When you’re in it and still doing it, it’s hard to reflect on it. But it’s not the end.”
Since this feels like a moment of reflection, I should start out by saying that, when I first heard the name Twiddle, I wondered if you’d named the band after a Magic the Gathering card. Eventually I came to understand that you selected it while searching through a dictionary for a word that evoked or complemented the spirit of the music you were creating. Is that a fair characterization?
Yes, it is, although I’ve signed many of those cards over the years. Our old managers and tour managers used to be really into Magic, so the card does hold a special place for us, even though that wasn’t it.
The more I think back about why the name ended up being Twiddle, I think of this band called Jiggle the Handle. In 2001, when I was 15, I had quite a summer. I went to Gathering of the Vibes and then later to Berkfest. That’s where I saw Jiggle the Handle, who had just shortened their name to Jiggle. One, I really liked their set, but two, I loved the name. [Laughs.]
Later, when me and Ryan [Dempsey]—our keyboard player—were in the dorms, I had the dictionary open, which is how we came up with Twiddle. There were all these other words that were synonyms for Twiddle that were silly and fun. I still know them because I wrote them into song lyrics: “hitch, jiggle, joggle, jump, squirm, stir, toss, trifle, dabble, doodle” [from “Beethoven and Greene”]. But I think it all goes back to seeing “jiggle” in the synonym list and thinking that was cool.
Going to those festivals had a huge impact on me, just hearing the music and seeing the culture. It wasn’t just one genre; it was lots of music under this umbrella of the jam scene. That would later influence Twiddle, where we wanted as many different kinds of music in our music as possible.
Prior to those festivals, did you attend a performance of any sort that guided you in your current direction?
When I was younger, I wanted to be an actor. I was in a few plays in middle school, and I had a passion for performing. I don’t know what drew me to it, but I was always performing, whether it was at the dinner table or with my friends.
Then, when I was 13 or 14, my brother brought me to a Dave Matthews Band concert and it just blew me away. The sound, the feeling of the live show and watching Dave do his thing up there really had an impact on me.
This was right around the time I was starting to get into guitar a little more. I knew the basic open chords and I would make up songs with my friends about whatever was going on in our lives—just for fun, as joke songs.
It was in that moment where I decided that a stage is a stage, so maybe I wanted to do music not acting. Then that sort of became the dream.
But it was a quiet dream. It wasn’t something I really talked about or actively pursued. I basically was writing songs in my room and playing for myself and my friends. I wasn’t really in any high school bands. My introduction to performing live was with Twiddle.
After Vibes and Berkfest, I strayed a little bit away from Dave Matthews Band, which seemed a little clean at that time. I began to dive into the guitar players from the scene, which started my love affair with all of that. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve looked back on my initial love for music and rediscovered my early influences. I asked myself: “Why do I write lyrics like this?” and “Why do I pronounce certain words like I’m from the South?” I’ve realized that it all goes back to Dave. Subconsciously, I’m mimicking what I loved about his singing and his lyrical stylings. I think that, just as Trey had an influence on my lead-guitar playing, Dave had an influence on my lyrical content.
Is there a studio album that led you to envision music in a new way?
Nirvana’s Nevermind. It had a parental advisory warning on it and I felt like I wasn’t supposed to have it. Until that point in my life, I had only been listening to whatever was on the radio. I never really got to choose my own music, then sit in my room and really listen to it.
My priest actually bought it for me. I asked him to buy it and he listened to the entire record with me on the way home, which I thought was really cool. That’s crazy because it’s an intense record. But it had a huge impact on me at a time when I had been going through some stuff in my life. My father had just passed away.
Counting Crows’ August and Everything After is another record where I also found some healing after my dad passed. Adam Duritz writes sad but beautiful lyrics. Many of them are emotional in one way or another, but he’s also a great storyteller. That was a contradiction to the grungy, heavy side, but I love both of those albums to this day.
You released two albums last year, which emerged during the pandemic and its aftermath. When you were writing that material was it your conscious goal to offer a salve given the struggles that people were facing?
I never try to put too much thought or pressure into what a record’s going to be or how it’s going to sound. I try to create music in the moment.
The reggae album I put out, the solo record Effection, was just me having fun with my buddy Nate [Feinstein], who’s an incredible producer from the band Iya Terra. I was inspired by his songwriting and their playing when Twiddle toured with them. So during the pandemic, I was writing some reggae songs just for fun and sending them to him. Then he would work on them and send them back. We were just doing it for ourselves because we didn’t have anything else going on. But then, before we knew it, there were six or seven songs. So I said, “Let’s do a few more and call it a record.” It happened naturally and the lyrics were reflective of the time period we were in.
With the Twiddle album, there was a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world and I put a lot more of how I was feeling during the pandemic into that record. I went to a cabin in the middle of the woods where I could think a lot at night, and then I would write in the morning. I didn’t necessarily go into it with the idea that “I’m going to write about this.” I’m not that intentional with my songwriting. I can’t just say, “I’m going to write a song about an orange,” and then write a song about an orange. I have a lot of friends who can do that, but that’s not how it works for me.
I do think the words are inside of me, though. My neighbors have a bunch of horses, so currently I’m staring at a big brown horse and a big white horse. Now, if I started writing descriptively about what I’m looking at—the trees and the snow and the old barn and the horses—I think that would turn into a song and eventually find its meaning. As a song progresses, I start to discover what it’s about.
Some of the better lyrical stuff that I’ve done is on Every Last Leaf. It’s just what was on my mind.
Do you think that the style of music you’re writing informs the lyrical content? Does reggae lead you in a particular direction?
Maybe a little, but it’s certainly not conscious. I’ll just start writing a line and then I’ll write another line. So I’ll watch a song form with no real intent for what the end result is going to be.
With the songs on Effection, if I had strummed them like bluegrass and not reggae, I think I would’ve come up with the same words. There’s a track on it called “Ballad of the Broken,” which I wrote as a bluegrass song with the Kitchen Dwellers in mind. I’ve been wanting do a full-length bluegrass record for a long time, but as we were working on this reggae album, I said to Nate, “Have you ever taken a bluegrass song and done the reggae thing to it?” He was like, “No, but I’ve always wanted to; let’s give that a whirl.” So it went from a sad cowboy bluegrass song to more of a sad/ happy cowboy reggae song—it’s in a major key so it has kind of a happy feeling to it.
I still sent it to the Dwellers and I think when they got it, they were like, “Huh, we’re about to do a feature on a reggae tune.” But it’s one of the coolest songs on the record because you don’t hear a lot of reggae songs with an upright bass, banjo, mandolin and flatpicking guitar. That’s not usual, but the genres worked so well together.
When I was younger, I had a very influential two weeks in the Caribbean. My best friend Nigel’s family is from Saint Lucia, and I went with them to the town where his mom grew up. I believe it was called Canaries. It was a different way of living than anything I had ever been exposed to—there was not a lot of electricity and there wasn’t much running water.
One thing I took away from it was the music—there was a passion for reggae, but also a passion for country music. When I asked an old Rasta about that, he said that they loved stories. That trip is where I discovered my love for Bob Marley and the Wailers, Morgan Heritage, Ernest Ranglin, Jimmy Cliff and the Skatalites. I went deep down that road after I came home and it also led me to Sublime, which was the closest thing I found to a cross between the music that had just become so important to me and the harder sound of Nirvana that I already loved so much.
That experience in Saint Lucia demonstrated how music can be universal. The fact that they were loving country and were also loving reggae seemed weird to me at first but it was really cool.
You mentioned that you’ve been thinking about a bluegrass album. Do you already have other ideas you intend to explore during the Twiddle hiatus?
There’s so much music I want to make that is outside the bubble that is Twiddle. The reggae album and the other solo album I did with Kraz, Breathe and Let Go, are stepping toward those directions.
With the hiatus, I want more time to be able to pursue some of these ideas. For example, I’ve always wanted write a children’s book with music that accompanies it. I love writing and I tell my kids elaborate stories. It’s not something I’d want to do as a career, but I’d love to try and get one or two of them out there.
I’m thinking about a few different musical projects that I’m hoping will come out shortly after Twiddle takes its break so that I have some stepping stones. However, my focus currently remains on Twiddle—which I still enjoy so much—and putting everything that I can into it.
You’ve been at this for a while now. These days, when you tour with bands like Eggy or Dogs In A Pile, you’re sort of an elder statesman. How do you treat that role?
I love those bands and it’s super cool to see what they’re doing. I feel like I’m always giving as much help and advice as I can. I think being supportive of any new band that you’re playing with is important.
Early on, there were some bands we toured with who couldn’t care less about who we were or what we were doing. I won’t say any names but it wasn’t a great feeling to have no relationship with the band you’re opening for. So I try to make an effort to get to know the bands. I don’t feel a responsibility to mentor them or anything, but I think it kind of comes naturally.
We made some mistakes as a band, as humans and as a business. So I want to make sure that I let them all know what we did right and what we did wrong. Hopefully, they can take some of that and maybe it will help them.
If they ask for advice, I’ll usually say, “You’ve got to keep playing, keep touring and take every gig you can in those early years. It’s so important to establish your fan base and the only way you can do that is by playing as many shows as you can. Don’t worry about the money. If you’re young enough and you can, take all the gigs, sleep on all the couches and play your butts off. With that mentality, you’ll also gel more as a band. The more you play, the more cohesive you become as a unit. Hit the road, push yourself musically and just go for it.”
I’m always here to help or listen or jam. I love playing with everybody. I have a rule that I’ll never say no to a sitin. If I have to go somewhere or I already have something else I’m doing, then those are OK excuses but I always try to say, “Yes.” I believe by playing with other people, you learn a lot about yourself and your playing.
On the subject of sit-ins, John Popper is someone who has appeared with you a few times, and he also guests on the new Twiddle album. How did all that come about?
John was always so warm and welcoming to us. The first gig we ever played with him was some random show in Colorado where we were his backing band. We also did that many years later at LOCKN’, but the original idea was we’d learn some Blues Traveler songs and then he’d play a couple of Twiddle songs. So that was when we first met him.
I was a huge Blues Traveler fan. four was one of the first records that I absolutely loved. I knew every song on it and I’d been playing them in my solo looping act—when Twiddle would come off the road in the early years, I’d hit all the ski resorts to make money. So I knew all the stuff we were going to do with him, and I taught it to the band. He was just so cool and kind to us, and from there, we were able to keep in touch.
Over the years, he’s spent a lot of time in Vermont near where I lived. So he would come out to my small bar gigs and play with me. I’ll never forget, I was playing “Hook” one time, and just as I was about to start singing, I felt a tap on my shoulder and he started singing it. I didn’t even know he was there. He just sort of came in and surprised me.
I’ve opened for Blues Traveler many times over the years. They were the first big band that ever let me sit in with them. I asked John if I could sit in at Vibes on the main stage one year, fully thinking that he was going say no. And, immediately without thinking, he said, “Absolutely. Come to the tour bus in 10 minutes. We’ll talk about it.”
I was so nervous, and it was such a big deal to me. But the sit-in went well and they always had me up after that.
When we were doing “The Devil,” the song on the record, we were listening to it and someone looked at me and said, “That needs something. It’s missing something.” Almost immediately, I was like, “It needs John. That’s exactly what it needs.” I sent him the song in a text right then and there, and he said, “I love it. I’m in.”
John has kind of been a mentor. I’ve picked his brain. I’m a huge fan of H.O.R.D.E. I’m sort of obsessed with the concept, and I’ve been trying to bring it back. [Laughs.]
I was not able to experience H.O.R.D.E. [which took place from 1992-98], but I have watched every video and as a concept, it just seems so right. I was at the Big Summer Classic Tour [in 2005], which had a similar vibe. It was String Cheese, Umphrey’s, Keller and a bunch of other people. That was one of my absolute favorite events to go to. I mean, what a cool thing. It was like a traveling circus.
Thinking back to the festival scene you described earlier, I can recall seeing Psychedelic Breakfast at Berkfest in 2002. Adrian Tramontano, the drummer, distinguished himself immediately. He’s been playing with you lately. Did you meet him during that era?
I grew up in North Jersey but I would sneak into the city as much as I possibly could and try to see shows. I remember one night, I must have been 15, I stumbled into the Tribeca Blues rock club because I saw a sign that said Psychedelic Breakfast. They blew my mind. Tim [Palmieri] has been a huge influence for me on guitar. I think he’s definitely one of the best in our scene. But Adrian is such a beast, and I really looked up to him as well.
We toured with Kung Fu and we opened for The Breakfast early on, and The Breakfast was one of those bands that were always super kind to us when we were the opener. But to have Adrian behind me in Twiddle and also in my solo band just feels so good. He’s an amazing drummer and to be playing with someone who was my favorite when I was a kid is a really special thing.
He was always such an amazing player but for whatever reason, his bands never quite moved from a van into a bus. They all came so close but never quite got there. So for me to be the guy that helped get him onto his first bus and to see him play some of these bigger rooms feels really good. If there’s anybody that should be playing at that level, it’s him.
Looking at Twiddle’s upcoming schedule, it appears that you’re still filling in shows. Do you have a final performance date or venue in mind?
We are still actively adding shows, but we do have an end date in mind. We haven’t announced it yet but there definitely is a final show on the books. We want the end to be at a place where we’ve always felt really at home. It’s a place that we really love.