After starting during their college years in 2004, the Vermont quartet, Twiddle, has been grinding out a solid career for over a decade, building a large fan base and establishing themselves as a noteworthy and respected artist in the jam band scene. Twiddle has been known for pulling from various styles to create their unique blend of music, including rock, funk, jazz, reggae and bluegrass. A big part of this success has to be attributed to their bandleader, Mihali Savoulidis, better known as simply Mihali. This dude brings vast and diverse musical talent – both as a gifted songwriter across genres as well as a dynamic player of multiple instruments.
I first saw Mihali perform apart from Twiddle at Cali Roots Festival in Monterey, CA, this past Memorial Day weekend, and I caught him again just over a month later at Peach Festival in Scranton, PA. Both of these sets, a mix of reggae and rock, blew me away as Mihali had assembled a powerhouse band to compliment his masterful guitar playing – most notably drummer Adrian Tramontano, who also pounds the skins for electro-funk aces, Kung Fu, as well as saxophone player Michael Oehman, who’s lends his transcendent playing to gritty blues rockers Wild Adriatic, funk/soul darlings West End Blend and party-funksters BooYah!
While Mihali has the game to surround himself with strong musicians, his solo looping performances show what a true virtuoso he is. It’s incredible to watch him build a song piece by piece by strumming his guitar, beatboxing – which in itself is a spectacle – tapping a drum pad for a few moments and then throwing down a riff on the electric bass.
All of these skills will continue to serve Mihali well no matter what musical endeavor he next pursues, because a year ago, after 18 years of making music and touring, Twiddle announced that, after a year full of performances in 2023, they would take an indefinite hiatus starting 2024. In a letter to fans from Mihali, he stated “I believe that change is necessary for creative growth and proper reflection.” It went on to say that music has “engulfed his life” since the age of 14 and that he’s “devoted every part” of himself to it, and that he’s “come to a crossroads in life” where he’s “being pulled in many different directions.” He said he needs to make the right choice for him and his family, and he felt that it was the time for him to “make a much-needed change to gain a different perspective on life” and focus my creative energies elsewhere.”
Considering that earlier that year, in July of 2022, Mihali had released his second solo LP, Effection, a straight-up progressive reggae album, I had to wonder if it meant that he would be pivoting his musical career.
Not exactly, he told me during our conversation in Twiddle’s tour van before a recent solo looping performance at New York City’s Irving Plaza in support of HIRIE and SOJA. Rather, the album unfolded unexpectedly during COVID when he had sent a demo of the song, “All Day,” to his friend, Nathan Feinstein aka Nathan Aurora, because the song reminded him of Nate and his highly regarded progressive reggae band, L.A.-based Iya Terra, who he had met during Twiddle’s tour with them and Stick Figure during the winter of 2018.
I asked Mihali what about the song reminded him of Iya Terra.
“I was ripping off his vocal riffs,” Mihali laughed, before singing the line “All day” as he does in the chorus of the song. “I never really did any kind of vocal flourishes like that. I totally stole those from Nate.” Mihali continued to say that he sent it to Aurora simply because he wanted him to like it, but he surprisingly sent Mihali back a “fully mocked” tune with Aurora even joining him on vocals, igniting a collaboration that would result in Aurora producing a collection of Mihali’s songs in a reggae style that would eventually become Effection.
This makes total sense knowing Nathan Aurora. Growing up a lover of heavy metal, Aurora brought an element of hard rock to Iya Terra’s music and has additionally made a name for himself as a producer with a specialty for converting songs from various rock genres such as emo, indie rock, alternative, nu-metal and grunge into reggae songs. In fact, after going viral posting reggae versions of pop-punk songs on social media, he recently released an entire album titled Pop Punk Goes Reggae.
As for Mihali, releasing a reggae album didn’t come totally out of left field, since his first solo record, 2020’s Breathe & Let Go, contained several modern reggae gems like this killer collaboration with Matisyahu, “Enemies,” and “Fading State,” which has garnered over 1.8 million streams on Spotify to date. Astute Twiddle fans will also note a reggae influence in some of the bands songs, such as “Lost in the Cold” and my personal favorite, “Memories.”
Actually, Mihali had been a lover of the genre since first hearing Bob Marley during his tween years after buying a record while on vacation with his family in London. “I just remember it really hitting and I had my little discman that I drew all over, and I was bumping it for that whole vacation,” he recalled. “And then when I got home, you know, it sort of stuck with me.” Mihali added that he then got really into Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff and that Sublime had also “resonated” with him a bit later, but he never actually “made the connection.” He “just really loved both styles of music.”
In fact, on the same trip to London, he also picked up a copy of Putomayo Presents: Reggae Around the World, which would eventually be a big influence on him because of the Ernest Ranglin song, “Stop That Train.”
“Years later, when I was listening to it, his style of guitar play really caught my ear,” Mihali said. “I just thought it was so dope the way he fused reggae with jazz. And, you know, his octave style playing, which Wes Montgomery is more known for. But, yeah, so I dug into Ernest and he became really a focal point for me as a guitar player. And I ended up getting to meet him and play with him years later for his, I think, 83rd birthday or something like that, here in the city. So, I actually got to play and jam with Ernest. That was definitely a bucket list moment for me.”
Mihali also attributes his love of Jamaican music to a trip he had taken with his buddy Nigel and his family to their hometown of Canaries, St. Lucia, where he had been exposed to a lot of reggae and its related culture. “I really just felt kind of at home there,” he said.
So the seeds had been planted long ago and had continued to flourish, but it took the global shutdown due to the pandemic and a whimsical exchange with Nathan Aurora to birth Effection. For all the dread and suffering the pandemic caused, on the other hand, it certainly fostered a lot of great music from within the reggae community. “Covid was different for me,” Mihali admitted. “I loved it because I was home with my family and not on the road. So, for me it was like this big break. It may have, like, ended a bunch of stuff career-wise that I was hoping for, but outside of that, for just me personally, being home with the family was so good.”
I asked Mihali how working remotely with Nate from west coast to east coast had compared to the creation of his first solo album, which had been released in early 2020 just before the pandemic had erupted. “The first record, Breathe and Let Go, I did with Eric Krasno, and we did part of it in New York and Brooklyn and part of it in Los Angeles. And we sort of did them in like three-day blasts where we were working together, but a lot of the stuff was still remote. You know, Eric would send me lots of ideas, and I’d listen to them. And I think I even did a bunch of vocal cuts and some stuff I flew over to him. So I was a little familiar with that style of doing records. So when me and Nate started doing it, it felt very easy. And honestly, for me, it works very well because, you know with kids and a family, it’s hard for me to always be gone. And so to be able to kind of work on a record from home is helpful for my lifestyle, I suppose.“
Effection kicks off with a song titled, “Maplewood,” which Mihali wrote as a tribute to his hometown. From my experience, in most cases, where people grow up has a significant impact on the person he/she/they become(s) and also influences the music and cultures, or lack thereof, that people are exposed to.
“I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, kinda like a melting pot right outside of New York City,” Mihali said. “I loved it. I think, like any kid, when I was there, I couldn’t wait to get out. But I think that’s just like any normal person’s reaction to life. Once I reflected back on it and had my own family and my own life as an adult, I realized what a great place that is to raise a family and to grow up. But, just overall, I had a really good childhood and a lot of positivity and community and culture, so I feel pretty blessed, you know, and I hope I can give my kids something similar. But that’s definitely a really special place for sure.”
The song also celebrates the stage in life as one turns the page from teen to adulthood when, for the lucky ones, life is bursting with potential and possibilities. It contains a line that really resonated with me:
We were so young, in love with getting old
I can recall, growing up, how I couldn’t wait to be old enough to drive, old enough to drink legally and be old enough to make my own way in the world. Fast forward to the present day, and somehow it all went by in the blink of an eye and I’m on the other side of life, at times wishing I was young again; the grass is always greener, right?
I wondered if, at this stage of his life, Mihali feels he’s grown and matured from the days when he first started creating music professionally — not exclusively as a musician, but as a human being overall.
“I mean, I think the whole ‘I can’t wait to be old’ is so true. You know, everybody wants to be able to gamble or drink or buy cigarettes, whatever it is. Like, whatever you can’t do, you wanna be able to do. But I think it kind of continues in a different way when you’re older, whereas you start a career or you get to college, and it’s not like I want to be older, but you start thinking about the future and all the stuff you’re gonna do to get to this ultimate end goal. You’re gonna have lots of money and a good career, whatever is your end goal, and so it’s not like in love with getting old, but you’re still looking for the older person.”
Mihali continued, “And I think everybody forgets to pay attention to the journey. That’s what I’ve learned now and what I try to tell my kids, is that every day counts and every moment is important. And the present is where you should be focusing on. So many people just live and work for this mysterious future that you never know is gonna come to fruition or not. And I think a lot of people do get there, but then they reflect back on everything they missed or maybe didn’t pay attention to or appreciate at the time. I don’t want that for myself when I’m older. I’d like to say I really felt everything and appreciated everything when I had it.”
Effection continues with “Living is the Lesson,” a collab with Iration that similarly embraces the idea of living in the present and trying to enjoy life rather than looking at the future. Considering that Mihali started Twiddle during his college days and for almost twenty years has been throwing everything he has into his music career, he’s surely had to make personal sacrifices along the way. Did this inspire the writing of the song?
Not the case, said Mihali. “The song didn’t really have anything to do with Twiddle, or it was not really specifically about my time with Twiddle — just a more general observation that I’ve come to see, just getting a little older and watching people just focus too much on the future and let what’s happening in the current time pass by them without paying attention to it. Twiddle has been an incredible journey, and I don’t think I wasn’t present for it or took it for granted, you know? Especially now with a lot more time for reflection, you know, it was an incredible blessing and thing we did, and we’re still doing. The break I feel is very much just needed for some perspective and honestly for more creative outlets outside of that bubble.”
After a moment of consideration, Mihali emphasized that thought with, “That’s just growing as a creative person and wanting something outside of what you’re used to doing. Change is good. Very good, I believe.”
With the third song on Effection, Mihali’s messaging shifts from introspective to ingenious with the upful roots reggae track, “Open House,” which features guest vocals from Chadwick Stokes of the New England indie/jam band, Dispatch, who had rose to prominence in the 90s. While many of the guest artists on the album were recruited through Nathan Aurora’s connections, Mihali took credit for this one. “Me and Chad are friends,” he said. “I toured with him a few years ago. I opened for him with his band, The Pintos. He’s the best. I’ve been a Dispatch fan since I can really remember liking music. So it was an honor to get to play with him and then, you know, do a song with him. And he’s a really good dude.”
In our country’s continuing contentious climate that pits people against each other, “Open House” lifts spirits with idealistic lyrics that spread a message of tolerance and love as Mihali beckons listeners to join him “in the big house in the sky.” I wondered if the song was written from the perspective of God or an angel, or if was written as a tribute to someone who had passed.
“No, no, that was more just like, okay, if we had to just like disappear somewhere that was safe, like where would it feel safe? So I was like, it’d be cool if we had a little city or house, a little community that lived up in the clouds, where we could like peer down and kind of see everybody, but our one job was to like grow these gardens…that we were growing love or affection or, you know, happiness, laughter, stuff like that, right? And when it rained or whatever, I just sort of pictured that stuff sprinkling down. This little garden community up in the sky, I mean, that’s how I initially pictured it. And then the song kind of came from that with a little more relevance to the lyrics and more just a safe place where everybody can come and feel loved and feel seen and respected. And that’s more where I was getting to.”
Mihali is an imaginative lyricist, and “Open House” contains some of my favorite on the record:
Yea it’s cold outside come in to weather the storm
I got the melody to remedy and make ya feel warm
We got the vibe on point oh yea the laughter is strong
To be reveling with so much love
It’s true the world outside can be hateful and cruel
All together we are better, I am welcoming you
We respect all creatures all colors all love
Guided by the sun above
Just as Mihali called upon his creative muse to conceive the utopia in the sky he sings about in “Open House,” in the next song he looks back in time and imagines what our society must look like to our distant ancestors with the catchy tune, “Digital Heaven.”
Next, Mihali slows down the pace with a darker, dubbier cut called “Greater Escape,” which features not one but two awesome guest features with Josh Swain of The Movement and Jackson Weatherbee of The Elovaters, two of the choicest voices in the modern American reggae scene these days. As the title alludes to, this track praises popular intoxicants used to help people unwind and forget their troubles with a trippy vibe and a killer chorus that includes the line:
I throw my cares to the sky no stress time to live it up
I hit the spliff take a sip straight drift till the sunrise warms me up
Another cool element is how, as the song comes to a close, Aurora ends the vocal track by slowing the tape down until it fades out, giving the impression that the ganja and alcohol have taken hold and caused Mihali to drift into unconsciousness.
After “Greater Escape,” the second half of the album begins with the title track and features Jacob Hemphill of SOJA on guest vocals. Through his press release, Mihali had stated that the song is about making positive changes in life to get healthier. I asked the singer if there were any specific changes he may have implemented recently or that he may strive to change?
He responded, “I’ve made lots of changes in my life. I don’t recall anything very specific around the time I wrote that song. But being better to yourself is the one thing. You know, self-love is real and it’s important, but it also comes in many different forms, whether that’s eating healthy or exercising or believing in yourself or saying mantras. Whatever helps, I believe that’s what you gotta roll with. And I also think that can be the hardest thing to do for a person like myself, who doesn’t ever want to admit there’s something wrong. I’m pretty much a bury it into the gut kind of guy. It’s probably why it all bubbles out in the songs, you know? But I think taking steps to work on yourself is so important.”
In analyzing the messages in his music, Mihali graciously played along, but he made a great point about how songs can “take on new meaning over time” and “evolve for each person.” He admitted that, for that reason, he doesn’t like to be too specific about what a song is about “because I always love the idea that it could kind of be about anything depending on your perspective and your interpretation.” He added, “So, if someone hears a song and the words mean something to them, and that’s why they love it, and that’s what makes them feel good or helps them, and then I come along and say, ‘Hey, this song is about this,’ and it wasn’t what they thought it was about…I don’t ever want to take that away from someone, ’cause I would be heartbroken if someone took that away from me.”
No need to deeply analyze the intent of the next song, “Ballad of the Broken,” as its lyrics are straightforward. This track differs from most reggae music that typically speaks to social issues, spirituality, or personal challenges and growth in that it recounts a fictional tale of an old Western outlaw. These kind of lyrics remind me of songs like “Jack Straw” and “Friend of the Devil” by The Grateful Dead that tell the story of being on the run from the law back in the old days and, with Mihali being such an inventive storyteller, I asked if he had any favorite lyricists that he emulated or any predominant songwriters that influenced his own craft.
“Whew,” Mihali laughed, “That’s a loaded one. I mean, there’s so many…Bob Dylan, obviously. And then, you know, there’s Dave Matthews. I really love his lyrics. Brandi Carlile, she’s just one of the greatest out there. There’s so many, I’m definitely gonna forget like a billion. John Prine. Oh, you know, Counting Crows, Adam Duritz. I love story lyrics and I do do them.”
Musically, “Ballad of the Broken” especially stands out to me because it features a surprising collaboration with Kitchen Dwellers out of Bozeman, MT, one of my favorites from another genre of music that I deeply vibe with, jamgrass. As it turns out, Mihali had actually written the song as a bluegrass tune. “As you probably know about Nathan, he’s really good at taking other genres of music and turning them into dope reggae songs,” Mihali began excitedly. “So he kept saying to me, ‘Bro, I want to do a bluegrass song reggae.’ And I said, ‘Well, I just wrote this one that I was gonna do with the Dwellers.’ I was gonna do it with them originally bluegrass and release it as a single. And he was like, ‘Let me just hear it.’ So I sent him the song and he whipped it up and he was like, ‘Can you get the guys on it?’ And I was like, ‘The Dwellers?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘Mandolin and banjo and shit? And he’s like, ‘Yeah!’ So we sent them all the tracks and they cut their shit and we made a bluegrass reggae cowboy song!”
Mihali continued, “So I was stoked. I was happy, you know, ’cause that was like a melding of worlds, which for me was really cool, you know? ‘Cause I love those boys — those are my really good friends, The Dwellers. And to bring other worlds together like that. For me, it was super fun. When I called ’em, I was like, ‘Alright guys, we’re gonna do the tune, but we’re gonna do it reggae,’ and they were like, ‘Whaaat?? What do you mean?? I was like, ‘It’s gonna be great. Don’t worry about it.”
After the bluegrass-tinged, “Ballad of the Broken,” the next track, “Terrestrial Tango,” implements more of a hard rock edge thanks to the guitar playing of Nathan Aurora who brings his recognizable tone so prominent in Iya Terra music. Lyrically, the song offers beautiful imagery that celebrates nature and speaks to how, while we all walk our own path, whatever that may be, one thing we share for certain is Mother Earth.
As light as a rock or a mountain
As heavy as a rain drop in a stream
As bright as a nighttime thunder
In my wide eyed telescopic dream
I can hear the flow of the ocean
I can feel the light of the moon
Little sparkles dancing in motion
On the waves they dance to my tune
‘Cause when the wind mixes with the sun
There’s a cool joy for everyone
And every bird floating in the sky
Sings the stories of our lives
And at last when the day is done
They’ll be songs for everyone
We’ll have nature sing along
‘Cause we all call this place home
“I wrote that one a long time ago, walking around the Friendly Gathering Festival site while they were building it up for the festival that year. It’s definitely the oldest song on that record. And I used to play it solo a lot. The riff, that’s Nate’s guitar and his tone,” Mihali said before mimicking the sound of Aurora’s guitar. “But I always had that riff in there. I don’t know, it may have been something I had thought would be Twiddle at some point, but I don’t know if I ever brought it to the band. So it has some of that earlier styling of my lyrics. I kind of go through phases, but I was just sort of looking around at all the nature in Vermont and where it is. Timber Ridge is a beautiful spot in Vermont and it’s kind of just describing what I was looking at and sort of just turned it into a little story.”
Next, through a modern reggae track dripping with Nate/Iya Tera vibes, “My Way” speaks to fighting through the disillusionment and confusion caused by this chaotic world and the challenge of life to become grounded and focus so one can move forward with confidence and ease. The final verse alludes to the sad state of affairs with our planet and how mankind just continuously ravages the planet due to greed and negligence, which offends our collective consciousness and likely weighs on our psyche.
Pollution distribution through democracy
And our solution for the future is hypocrisy
So we send out poison to the air we breath
Confusion and illusion mixed with prophecy
While the ultimate conclusion never gets to be
And we carry on as if we own the sea
So I try myself to find a better way
To lead my conscience out of disarray
To find sweet happiness in every single day
Yes I will find my way, I will find my way
“I mean, that’s just another one,” Mihali began when I asked him about the song. “Believe in yourself and…there’s a whole hell of a lot of terrible bad stuff in this world. There’s always been a whole hell of a lot of terrible, bad stuff in the world. All you can do as a person is just try to just do a little good, give a little love, put out a little love. That’s all I try to do with the words. You know, I just want a message of positivity and that, like, it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be feeling that way. There’s tons of people that are feeling the same as you, and you’re not alone. And, you know, people just need that more and more now than ever. And so just trying to do your little part for the good I think is the best path.”
Finally, the album concludes with the aforementioned “All Day,” the song that led to this wonderful collaboration with Nathan Aurora. An infectious roots number, it promotes positivity by expressing gratitude and offering encouragement that the hard times will pass and give way to greener pastures.
Effection and Mihali’s presence as a whole have been a gift to the progressive reggae community. Whether his stay is temporary or long term, fans appreciate this versatile musician’s visionary songwriting, his twangy, stirring voice and his superlative guitar shredding.
As we wrapped up our conversation, as such a highly regarded artist with the better part of a lifetime’s experience in the music business underneath his belt, I asked Mihali if he had any advice to share with up-and-coming bands that may just be starting their ascent. “Write lots of songs, put out lots of albums, tour your butt off, try to love each other and understand that it’s a long commitment, but if you commit to each other and you do it right, you can definitely succeed.”
See below for Mihali’s upcoming performance dates:
12/28 Killington, VT – Pickle Barrel (Gubbulidis)
12/29 Killington, VT – Pickle Barrel (Mihali & Friends)*
12/30 Providence, RI – The Met (Solo)
12/31 Middlebury, VT – Town Hall Theater (Solo)
The Winter Sessions at Pickle Barrel:
1/3 Killington, VT – Pickle Barrel (Solo)
1/10 Killington, VT – Pickle Barrel (Mihali & Friends)
1/17 Killington, VT – Pickle Barrel (Solo)
1/24 Killington, VT – Pickle Barrel (Mihali & Friends)
1/31 Miami Beach, FL – Miami Beach Bandshell ^
2/1 Jupiter, FL – Abacoa Amphitheater ^
2/2 Cocoa, FL – Cocoa Riverfront Park ^
2/3 Daytona Beach, FL – Ocean Deck ^
2/4 St. Petersburg, FL – Jannus Live ^
2/8 Houston, TX – White Oak Music Hall ^
2/9 Austin, TX – Emo’s ^
2/10 Dallas, TX – The Echo ^
2/12 Tempe, AZ – Marquee Theatre ^
2/14 Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst ^
2/15 Sacramento, CA – Ace of Spades ^
2/16-18 Long Beach, CA – Cali Vibes Festival
* with Special Guests: G. Love & Brandon “Taz” Niederauer
^ Solo, with The Movement
Mihali performing at Irving Plaza, NYC, October 2023: