Interview and Live Photos by Robert Cavuoto
Dirty Honey will be releasing their long-awaited self-titled debut full-length album on April 23, 2021.
They are a soulful, maximum-blues-infused Rock & Roll band featuring Marc LaBelle on vocals, John Notto on guitar, Justin Smolian on bass, and Corey Coverstone on drums.
With their raw riffing and unbridled passion for rock, this LA quartet has received critical acclaim in 2019, when their debut single, “When I’m Gone,” became the first song by an unsigned artist to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Their second single, “Rolling 7s,” went into the Top 5. That same year, Dirty Honey opened for The Who, Guns ‘N Roses, Slash, and Alter Bridge. Their new CD is packed with songs that offer big riffs and even bigger grooves like on “The Wire,” “Tied Up,” and “California Dreamin,” along with a large dose of swagger.
I had the pleasure of speaking with both John and Justin to talk about the release of their new CD, how COVID impacted its creation in a positive way as well as some of their favorite songs and riffs on the CD.
Robert Cavuoto: We met at the Playstation Theater in NYC in September of 2019 when you opened for Alter Bridge and Skillet. We chatted briefly, and you told me how Corey, was instrumental in helping the band. Can you share that story with me today?
John Notto: When Corey joined the band, we were still playing crappy bars. Marc was starting to think about making some moves and wanted to record. We were looking at smaller studios that we were familiar with. Corey overheard our conversation, as he was still the new guys, and mentioned he had a good friend, who is an engineer at a larger studio. He said we can use it in the off-time and would just have to pay his wage.
Justin Smolian: We took him up on it, and we got two days in a really nice room there. It was the place that we made our first recording so that we could find our way.
John Notto: It was actually the “Fire Away” recording that our manager didn’t want us to take put out, but it got its traction on a playlist with 100,000 plays and now has over a million!
Robert Cavuoto: Being the opening act for so many great bands, is it a challenge to win the crowd over night-after-night?
Justin Smolian: We like the challenge! We show up every night like we have something to prove, and we give it 110% because the people are not there to see us. By the time we have a headline spot, I think it will have prepared us. There are probably other brands that have a hard time, but we love to bring energy to the room. It just makes us better.
Robert Cavuoto: I love the new CD. Does it seem like you took the best aspects of “Rolling 7s” with its momentum and groove and used it as a template for the entire new CD? I was wondering if that was the case?
John Notto: Not directly. It was my favorite riff that I had written, but it wasn’t the template for the new CD.
Justin Smolian: I think for almost every song on the last record, we have a newer version of it [laughing]. We realized that we could swing well in this band and wanted to do more of it on the new record.
John Notto: Marc brought in two riffs that were more swinging-type of tunes. Who knew, now I have to kill him [laughing]. The beauty of our first EP, even though it was so short, helped us realize that each song is a potential avenue for a new type of song in that lane. We can explore more of the “Scars” lane songs or any other song. “Rolling 7s is probably the most explore-able because its language is more swing and has a wider lane for bluesy and up-tempo.
Robert Cavuoto: My favorite track is “The Wire,” as the riff is stuck in my head. What can you tell me about its creation?
John Notto: That started with my riff for an acoustic song. Sometimes I come up with stuff that doesn’t make sense for the band. The riff you are hearing is only half of the original riff. The full riff was created for a song with big harmonies that we can’t do [laughing].
Justin Smolian: John and I are always writing these types of songs and imagining big harmonies. Then we remember Marc is the only one who can sing in the band [laughing].
John Notto: Marc really liked the song and cut the riff in half. I think it came together while on tour.
Justin Smolian: I think that song started at a soundcheck in Asbury Park, New Jersey when we were doing our very first headlining gigs. It was our first sold-out show! We took the riff and then wrote the pre-chorus and chorus.
Robert Cavuoto: Is there a song on the new CD that stands out for each of you as being special in some way?
Justin Smolian: I would say “California Dreamin” as that stood out for me because I thought it was the best band performance. It was the last of the newer songs that we had written this record. I was still figuring out what I was doing for the song and what was is on the record is me improving in certain spots. I think it was the same for Corey, too, as we were both still figuring out the groove. We just seemed to catch that magic, which is my favorite part of the new record when things aren’t too planned out. It’s those special improvisation moments that make songs more special.
John Notto: I think my most favorite solo, which is bitchin, is a song called “The Warning.” I recorded it on a 1965 335 guitar. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite song, though. I don’t think I can choose one. Even the ones that management didn’t consider as singles, I listened to them, and they are awesome too! I really love them all. I have to agree with Justin, “California Dreamin” has that extra edge of spontaneity. I’m currently reading Keith Richard’s book, and he talks about that and why it makes Exile on Main Street so great.
Robert Cavuoto: Did COVID impact the making of this CD in any way?
Justin Smolian: Well, it gave us more time to work on it. We were planning to go to Australia to record it in March of 2020. It most likely would have been a five or six-song EP. Many of these songs were written on the road, and we got a lot more time to workshop them. John has a home studio, but he lives with other musicians who weren’t really cool with us coming over. We were in the middle of the lockdown and went to a studio. Because we were paying for it, we were encouraged to be there every day. We were able to focus on it and kept doing it over and over until it felt right.
John Notto: It was largely a positive impact on the record. There was nearly no negative impact other than now it’s tough to go promote it in person.
Justin Smolian: I think there was a week or two where Marc was out of town, so John, Corey, and I got together and jammed to some cover tunes. Corey picked Van Halen, I picked Rage Against the Machine, and John picked Gun ‘N Roses. It was super fun. We were working on being a better band by learning other band’s songs. We even wrote a jazz-fusion song!
Robert Cavuoto: That can be your next album!
John Notto: I don’t think we will ever release it [laughing]. Maybe play it at the Montreux Jazz Festival!
Robert Cavuoto: What do you think it is about your sound and aesthetic that makes you rise above the rest of the bands out there?
Justin Smolian: I think it’s just the synergy. When we play, I don’t think we sound like anyone else. I don’t want to blow our own horns, but I think we are all pretty great musicians. When we come together, it elevates us even more. We focus on that and love to incorporate inspirational elements in our music, so when we play live, it doesn’t sound exactly like the record. I think people enjoy that because they are not going to see the same show every time.
John Notto: There is a lot of “kismet” in the situation always when we play. There was this moment when we were getting some momentum on a national scale to do what we want the way we want to do it. That is the biggest part of the dream. We are not bending over backward or changing anything to get ahead. What we do stands out as being unique and is a blessing. There are probably many bands out there who are passionate about their sound, one of the bummers about it is there are five other bands out there succeeding at sounding like it. The toughest thing to do is differentiate yourself. What we do in a very honest and sincere way, which automatically differentiates us from the herd.
Robert Cavuoto: Your style of guitar playing seems like the perfect match to Marc’s voice. People talk of chemistry, but the two of you seem more like destiny.
John Notto: What’s funny is that it was a bit of an arduous road for the two of us in getting there. Early on, Marc was a straight blues rocker and viewed anything melodic as being soft. I was a big funk and R&B head, so we had to walk that long path to fine-tuning my riffs to find our style. He’s now very militant about melody. Anything we come up with, he feels he can come up with a better melody [laughing]. It’s about understanding how essential a riff is to what we do. Maybe the shorter answer is, we had a whole repertoire of songs that didn’t go together. We have some tunes that sound like “When I’m Gone” and a whole bunch that didn’t. When we were told that “When I’m Gone” could be a hit, that galvanized writing more in that style. For me, I took a moment and realized that is how I play guitar anyway. I think that is why it works so well for us as it’s natural. What adds to the whole band is Corey is a jazz fusion drummer; Justin is modeled more after music that came from the 90s and a classic rock head too. You put all that together, and it’s a new spin called Dirt Honey.
Robert Cavuoto: There is so much talk about rock being dead. What do you make of it as Dirty Honey is full steam ahead, kick-ass Rock & Roll?
Justin Smolian: I don’t think rock is dead. I think it just cycles through. Everybody is ready for Rock & Roll, especially after COVID. We are all going to come out of this and want to let loose. There is definitely a gap for a band like us to step into. That is probably why we have been so successful because there is a void that needs to be filled.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you have a sense of when you will get out there again?
John Notto: We have some plans, and if the powers that be allow it, it could be summertime. We just don’t know and can’t say exactly.