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Interview: Twiddle Frontman Mihali Savoulidis on PLUMP Chapter Two, Tumble Down, and Converting Naysayers

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The jamband scene can be crowded- just do a quick search to see how the genre has grown in recent years. Many talented acts are working overtime to attract fans. The successful ones key in on the live experience in an effort to build their base, playing as many dates as they can handle. It takes time to create a following, and many bands have been labeled as “The Next Phish” or “The Next Grateful Dead.” However, Twiddle–  among those labeled “The Next” –  is carving out their own place in the scene.

Twiddle tunes easily get stuck in your head. The Vermont quartet, founded in 2004, features catchy riffs, beautiful and complimentary interplay between Mihali Savoulidis (guitar) and Ryan Dempsey (keys), and a reggae undercurrent through many of their songs which helps create a unique, fun, and positive sound. Easily danceable, it isn’t hard to get hooked on their vibe. Their lyrics lean toward the optimistic: full of possibility, of second chances, and of the beauty of nature and music. The driving and frequently funky bass (Zdenek Gubb) and pulsating rhythm of the drums (Brook Jordan) help Twiddle stand out among the masses.

Twiddle will release PLUMP Chapter Two– their fourth studio album- later this month (April 28). Chapter Two follows  PLUMP Chapter One, which came out in December 2015. I had the chance to speak with guitarist Mihali Savoulidis about their new album, playing with members of Trey Anastasio Band, and the importance of the live show as Twiddle kicked off their extensive spring/summer tour.

The group will play dozens of solo shows nationwide before wading into their equally-busy festival schedule, with stops at Dark Star Jubilee, Summer Camp Festival, Bonnaroo, and moe.down. They will also host their own event, Tumble Down Festival, in Burlington, VT at the end of July.

Writers On The Storm: So you guys are out in the Midwest now?

Mihali: “We are currently at a campground somewhere near Grand Rapids, Michigan. When we pulled in with the bus a couple days ago it was pouring and got kind of flooded, but its pretty nice out right now.”

You released PLUMP Chapter One back in the end of 2015. Were all the songs for both chapters written then, or you guys just had a whole bunch of music and wanted to break it up a little bit? How did you guys decide what was going to be Chapter One and Chapter Two?

Mihali: “Actually Chapter One- those songs had all been written for a long time. We had been playing them for a few years, and we just needed to get them on to a studio album. We actually recorded four or five other songs for Chapter Two and when we released Chapter One we decided to put those five songs we recorded on the back burner and start fresh. Actually we wrote all of the material for Chapter Two- well we really kind of wrote it as we were going but all that stuff was written right before we went in to record the album.”

And do you do most of the writing or is it more of a collaborative process where everybody contributes a bit or brings something to the table?

Mihali: “I did most of the lyrics, and Brook (Jordan, drums) also writes some lyrics, but for the most part, the first disc is a lot of tunes I wrote. Chapter Two is much more of a collaboration between all of us. We all have a handful of songs on there, and we’ve written a bunch of them together, so its really kind of what makes Chapter Two so special is that the songs were fresh and they came from all of us. In the past it would be like someone wrote a song and brought it to the band and we kind of learned it and started playing it live and that’s how it usually unfolds. Chapter Two is nice- diversified writing.”

It is pretty diverse, definitely different from Chapter One. I like the instrumentals included. They are really soulful, powerful songs. Do you have a different process when writing a song that has no lyrics? Or was it more like you had the music and you couldn’t fit lyrics to it?

Mihali: “No- I think sometimes when we go into writing it we are like let’s just do this one as an instrumental. Some of our favorite songs when we started the band were all instrumental songs and really for Chapter Two we were trying to get back to a classic Twiddle sound, sort of how we wrote songs earlier in our career, while bringing some of the more modern stuff -the vibe of some of the stuff we had been writing recently- into the fold. But no, there’s no real rhyme or reason. We just go into it- me and Ryan (Dempsey, keys) write a lot of the instrumental ones together- and Zdenek (Gubb, bass) now has kind of joined the fold and has a few of his own there so it’s really just how it turned out. Certainly we felt that if lyrics needed to go in a certain spot we would put them in or attempt to write something in there but a lot of the time its just how it comes out in the end.”

I saw in an interview that you all did back in 2013 where you said if you were writing something new you would throw it up on Facebook and see what kind of reaction you got from fans.

Mihali: “I used to do that, yeah. That was kind of my thing. I would write a new song and immediately when it was done I would record a video and put it up and kind of get a feel for it there. I don’t really do that anymore. I kind of- not removed myself from social media- but I am a lot more reserved in what I post and what I put out now. I’m just a little more private now with that stuff. Now instead of posting it on Facebook I will play the song live at one of my solo shows and get a feel for how it goes over with the audience there and let it develop before I make a decision on whether or not it will be something Twiddle plays. And really the other guys have to like it too.”

So a lot of the music you have written you have worked out in a sort of solo fashion first to see how it feels in front of a crowd?

Mihali: “Totally. Yeah I do that quite a bit. I do that with covers too. It works. My solo act is kind of like the “one man band” looping thing, but our core fan base comes and supports those shows so it really is a beautiful testing ground for those kind of songs.”

Its nice to have people that come into it with open ears and open hearts to check out what you’ve got.

Mihali: “Yeah people get excited. People used to love when I posted those videos and so I think when I say at one of my shows that I have a new song I’d like to try out people will listen more, you know they are interested to see what’s coming out.

With this new album PLUMP Two- anything that had lyrics in it- we were on a strict ‘no play anywhere’ kind of a thing. We did’t want anybody to hear it before it really came out, so we kind of had a blackout on all those songs.”

So have any of the tracks on PLUMP Two- have they all been performed live by now or are there still some that you guys haven’t busted out yet?

Mihali: “No no, only a handful of them. The first song we did new at the Capitol Theater a year ago or something was Blunderbuss. Then we had another song called Moments– kind of like a reggae tune that I wrote on tour in the fall and we added that. So we’ve been sort of playing those two and only recently at the Playstation Theater did we debut six of the new songs. We debuted the Juggernaut, Orlando’s, Fat Country Baby, a song called New Song, and a song called Milk. But we still have a handful of songs that we haven’t done. We haven’t done (The Fantastic Tale of) Ricky Snickle, and we haven’t done Dinner Fork or Peas and Carrots. There’s still a handful left.”

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed getting to know about you guys is the reggae influence that you have worked into your sound, especially a lot of the songs on PLUMP One. You want to talk a little bit about your reggae influence?

Mihali: “Sure. When I was 14 or 13, I went with a friend to St. Lucia, where he was from, so we stayed in his home village, Canaries- this really small village- and yeah man, the reggae was just everywhere out there. And it really took over. I was a huge Sublime fan but I didn’t really get into the good stuff until a little bit after. I bought my first Bob Marley records and then I got into various forms of reggae but a lot of that was kind of the start of my love for it. From that point on worked it into a lot of my music and because of that all the other guys in the band also grew up listening to it. I think maybe because we play so much of it we have an appreciation for it as well.”

You guys worked with Ron Saint Germain on both PLUMP One and PLUMP Two?

Mihali: “No, Ron did a couple of tracks for us- we remixed a few of the tracks that are on PLUMP Chapter One and it was quite an experience. It was awesome working with Ron. He did work with the arrangements on Five for us.”

You’ve got some horns and some strings that make some appearances there- was that his influence or was that something that you guys wanted to do with those tracks?

Mihali: “No, we recorded everything from Chapter One back a year or two years ago. That was our friend Chaz who wrote and arranged all the string and horn parts for us. We took a different route with Chapter Two. We had recorded those parts well before we knew we were going to be working with Ron. Chapter Two we used other players. We had a great group of horns out of Nashville that worked on Phish’s last album. They were a blast to work with.”

I saw that James Casey from Trey Band (TAB) sat in with you guys recently.

Mihali: “Yeah we have played with a lot of the guys from Trey Band. Russ (Lawton) and Ray (Paczkowski) live right around the corner from me in Vermont so we play all the time. They are some of my favorite guys to play with. We had James on saxophone playing with us at the Playstation Theater. He’s also with Trey. It’s funny- we have played with all the guys in Trey’s band- all incredible musicians so it’s always quite a pleasure to play with them.”

You are going to be at the Sweetwater Festival with them and Widespread, which should be cool.

Mihali: “Yeah looking forward to that. Its going to be great!”

I was looking at your tour schedule- pretty packed to say the least- and you have a good mix of festivals coming up too. How do you guys plan what to play between the stand-alone shows and the festival sets?

Mihali: “The mentality obviously changes from a festival set to a regular theater show. We know what it is going into it. A festival set you’re playing in front of a lot of new people, trying to gain new fans. You pick your setlist to cater to that vibe- unless you are headlining that festival. The theater shows fall into how I would typically write a set list: what have we played the last few nights- trying to avoid that- and what did we play in this city the last time we were here. So I take those into consideration and formulate a setlist off of that. So its a totally different approach but we understand that summer is mostly festival hits and we are really just trying to pick up new fans and give everybody that’s there a really great show in an hour. Which, well, that can be challenging sometimes. I mean, some of our songs can go on for 40 minutes if we let it (laughs). So we have to kinda keep that in the back of our minds too.”

Speaking of doing your own festival, you guys headline Tumble Down?

Mihali: “Yeah, that’s our event in Burlington at the end of July.”

That’s cool. What’s the experience like putting on your own festival? Sort of the Phish mold as far as the festivals they have done?

Mihali: “Well, I feel like every modern festival is sort of modeled after the early Phish ones. Our thing is a little different. It’s a day festival so there’s no overnight camping. We have two days and its right on the water in Lake Champlain in Burlington so it’s a beautiful location. And it’s super family-friendly, and all the bands we picked are all good friends of ours so it’s a real family affair. We are really looking forward to it. Last year was a blast so we are hoping that it will be as successful again this year. I really enjoy flooding Burlington with music. It’s not just at the waterfront- We kind of take over all the music clubs in town and there’s all kinds of music going throughout the whole thing.”

You guys have a very positive theme that runs through the music you have- a focus on nature, second chances, things like that. Then I listened to Juggernaut, and that has little bit of a different feel…

Mihali: “Yeah, it does (laughs).”

 Not to wade into any sort of political thing, but it definitely has a little undertone of social commentary.

Mihali: “Oh for sure. That is kind of what the whole song is about. It’s kind of weird how it happened. I’m a huge Nirvana guy- all the grunge stuff from the 90’s is really what I grew up listening to. So when we were in the studio I was like ‘screw it, I’m gonna go in the back real quick and bust out like a cool grunge song’- or something that’s heavy. We don’t do that and I wanted something cool like that on the record. So I went and we recorded it- just the core instrumentation of it- as just this real super cool heavy tune- sort of like Nirvana meets Rage (Against the Machine) feel.

At that point I had only written the chorus. I was giving my guitar tech a hard time about being a bully in the 3rd grade- it’s a joke we have. When he was in 3rd grade- he was a little chubby kid and his brothers used to call him “the juggernaut.” So the story goes that he was playing King of the Hill and the one kid he bullied constantly kicked him in the face when he was trying to get to the top of the hill. And so I wrote as kind of a joke- it inspired the chorus- “you want to kick me in the face because I’m different/ you think you’re king of the hill.” That was written well before Trump had won the election, just about an inside joke between me and my guitar tech.

When it came down to actually writing lyrics for the song, it was right after Trump had been elected and the overall feeling between everything that was going on in the world was really heavy. My wife, her sister, my mom and sister- basically all the women in my life- were feeling nervous. Nobody knew what to do and everyone had this bad vibe, bad energy going on. After listening to the song I tried to write lyrics and I realized that the chorus I had written was appropriate for how I was feeling. I don’t get very political with music but I decided that that time in our lives -the specific song and the way it was structured- I felt like that was the time to at least speak about the stuff I was feeling a little more passionate about.

But you’re right- usually we don’t focus on anything negative. We try to focus on the positive at all times but life isn’t always positive and life isn’t always sugar-coated. It’s real and it sucks sometimes and can be frustrating. I think it was important to get that across as well.”

You mentioned your wife- you are recently married with a new child?

Mihali: “We’ve been married for two years, and my daughter is 15 months old now. It’s been the greatest thing ever.”

Hows life on the road away from home?

Mihali: “It’s pretty rough man, it can be brutal. But with technology nowadays it makes it a little easier to be there and at least she can look at me on the screen and say hi. My wife plays lots of videos of the band and me and YouTube gives her plenty of stuff to watch. We do our best. I think because I am the only guy in the band that has a family at home, they are all super supportive and understand why I try to fly home more now. I spend every free chance I have to be home with them. I’m learning. I have only done three or four tours since Hatti’s been born so we’re all sort of figuring out how to make it work and make it better.”

You guys use live downloads and get most of your shows posted for consumption?

Mihali: “Yeah man! We support all the tapers- that’s how our scene thrives. We just want to put out a better product for people so we record each show now. It’s cool to know people can get the shows pretty soon after. People have been taping forever too, so we learned a while ago that everything we do is probably going to be recorded and archived somewhere so now we try and behave ourselves (laughs).”

I checked out some live stuff of yours. Studio stuff is great because it provides a framework but the studio to the live versions are night and day.

Mihali: “Yeah. We have a lot of naysayers out there. And any time I bump into them- which I do from time to time- I just tell them to come and check the live show out. If you don’t dig the live show, then cool- no big deal. I think there’s such a big difference between live and studio recording. I think a lot of bands try to capture their live sound in the studio, which is a great way to go about it if you want someone to hear it and see it that way again live. But there’s something cool about going in and going nuts on a studio album and trying to create a piece of art for art’s sake and create a version of a song that might be difficult for the four of you to pull off exactly that way live. But maybe that’s why someone goes and listens to the studio album version of it anyway.”

A huge thank you to Mihali for his time and conversation.

Check out Twiddle on tour in a city near you! They will be at the Pour House in Charleston, SC, on April 22, 2017 and at the Baltimore Soundstage on May 3. They’ll also be in New York City at Irving Plaza playing a series of after shows during the Baker’s Dozen Phish run at Madison Square Garden this summer.

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