Photo: Richie Davis
If you’re financially invested in a festival lineup, it makes sense to read the bill top to bottom and see the most music you can for the money you spent. At this year’s inaugural Sonic Temple festival, I was a bigger fan of the undercard (the band playing earlier in the day) than the headliners and the #1 band on my “Can’t Miss” list was the ’90s-sounding shoegazers Teenage Wrist. They were the first band to hit one of the side stages so I did some research on who was playing after them. The name Dirty Honey sounded familiar, I think YouTube kept suggesting one of their videos, but I hadn’t invested much time until the days leading up to the festival.
Those who know me know that I’m a HUGE fan of ’70s and ’80s big guitar rock – from bands that I consider “classic rock” (Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC) to the “Headbanger’s Ball” era of late ’80s MTV. It was love at first listen when I heard Dirty Honey’s “Heartbreaker”. I hear a bit of the ’70s classic rock bands as well as Tesla, Kingdom Come, Jackyl, The Black Crowes, Guns N’ Roses, and Great White.
The band’s early afternoon time slot at Sonic Temple was well attended and the band received an enthusiastic response from fans and newcomers alike. Not only was the sound perfect but the band nailed the look of “rock stars” and over on the Columbus Calling Instagram page, I posted a photo with the comment “Would love to see these guys again but have a feeling they’ll be on much larger stages opening for legendary classic rock bands in the future.”
On September 27, Dirty Honey returned to Columbus, opening for Alter Bridge and Skillet – both bands with huge followings – at Express Live Indoors. If the show wasn’t sold out, it was close and while typically opening bands play to smaller crowds, the venue was packed when Dirty Honey hit the stage. With only an EP to their name, Dirty Honey’s opening slot was confined to a 6-song, 30-minute performance but the band took advantage of each minute. Singer Marc Labelle has a commanding voice, something you don’t hear a ton of with modern rock band, and he stalks the stage like Robert Plant in his prime, even dipping down into the photo pit for some up close interaction with fans in the first few rows. Guitarist John Notto actually plays guitar solos, something that has been missing from rock for at least the last decade, if not longer. I have to imagine there are teenage kids standing in front of their bedroom mirrors air guitaring to songs like the Black Crowes-ish “Down the Road” and the bluesy “Rolling 7s”. Bassist Justin Smolian is a sight to behold – constantly running around the stage, banging his impressive hair (by looks alone, he reminds of Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez and former Ozzy guitarist Jake E Lee) and while drummer Corey Coverstone comes from a jazz background, his monster playing holds everything together. Dirty Honey is the real deal and certainly got the crowd pumped up for what was to follow later in the evening.
Before the show, I had the chance to hang out with Dirty Honey in their dressing room. I’m definitely of a different generation, as you’ll learn, and while I think these guys would have been Hit Parader or Circus Magazine cover boys in 1987, I discovered pretty quickly that they aren’t big fans of the ’80s hair metal sound that I so often compare them to.
If 19-year-old me was invited by Geffen Records in 1990 to come to their ROCK warehouse and put together a band, I have a feeling it would have sounded a lot like Dirty Honey. So, Dirty Honey isn’t the product of label folks sitting around a board room and finding four guys who looked the part, right?
John Notto (guitar): Absolutely not.
Marc Labelle (vocals): I moved to LA to start a band and actually everyone of these guys were sidemen for a couple of years in LA. And then John showed up at a gig one night and sat in for my guitar player and I thought he was way cooler and was a way better guitar player, that was obvious. He and I decided that maybe we’d do something together and then Justin came into the fold via John and then Corey came in via Justin. And we just sort of started this project one day after a gig. That’s how it all came about. There was definitely no professional people involved.
My teen years were during the ’80s hair metal explosion and you guys have the look and sound of the bands that my formative years were spent listening to. I know there is a certain stigma associated with that time and the hair metal genre, hope that doesn’t offend you.
Marc: It kind of does, honestly. I hate ’80s hair metal with a passion. I hate Bon Jovi and Poison. I never listened to Motley Crue or Tesla.
Justin Smolian (bass): But we love Guns N’ Roses.
Marc: You’re 48, right? You’re in this age range – it’s a very specific 5-year age range of people – my cousin is 43 and he’s like, “Dude, you’re like Soundgarden re-invented”. He’s right on the cusp of the start of this thing where it’s like, “Oh, I hear some Tesla, I hear some Motley Crue in there” from people who are like 47 through maybe 53. That’s what they love and that’s what they hear. If you get people that are older than that, they’re like “Dude, it’s Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. I hear Guns N’ Roses in there.”
John: If there was ever a rule, it was like, whatever sounded “80s like” in a song, it was go redo that part. If I accidentally palm muted or had too much gain, it was like “We gotta redo that.” We were kind of anti-80s in assembling our sound but I think we have big riffs and high vocals and that makes people who actually lived through it remember that. But, Back in Black came out in the ’80s and Guns N’ Roses are ’80s. The thing about Guns N’ Roses that I forget is that a lot of the recording techniques are pretty 80s. They do sound sort of ’80s but they don’t play ’80s.
Justin: I just heard Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” on the radio and was like, “This is NOT us.”
So where did your sound come from?
Corey Coverstone (drums): Our parents.
Justin: My dad would put on classic rock on the radio on the way to school and he would quiz me and be mad if I didn’t know the name of a Led Zeppelin song.
Marc: Our sound just comes from passion. If you’re not channeling your passion when making music, you’re kind of off to a bad start. You’re never going to be successful if you’re just faking it.
John: I think as a result of following that flame, we were in obscurity for a few years. We didn’t really have our sound congealed but I mean even in LA, nobody knew who we were. We weren’t the story of a band that was ruling LA – like Guns N’ Roses was the best band, they built it up, they worked from Tuesday to Saturday on the Sunset Strip, got signed. That’s not our story.
Justin: I grew up in LA and our sound isn’t the sound of LA right now. We didn’t play the Sunset Strip, we played Santa Monica.
John: At a bar, where college kids went. We did it on the backs of our songs and catching the ear of the right person who understood what was happening right now nationally. In LA, you can’t tell it’s happening.
Justin: Are you feeling a bit of the rock resurgence?
I like to think so. I love Greta Van Fleet, because they remind me of Led Zeppelin. And I know that’s a dividing line for most people – you either love them because they sound like Zeppelin or you hate them because you think they’re ripping Zeppelin off. If they become huge, that will only help out other guitar-based rock bands. I can’t think of a ton of bands that have a classic rock sound without trying to incorporate some modern elements. Off the top of my head … do you know Black Coffee?
Justin: Yeah, they played at Sonic Temple.
They are from Columbus and I think they are out in LA recording an album. I like Rival Sons but I’m not sure I’d say they are doing the exact same thing as Dirty Honey.
John: They are having a nice moment of success but it’s sort of not what we’re doing.
Marc: They’ve built it on the back of touring relentlessly.
John: They’ve built it in Europe, that’s cool.
What do you guys think? Is there a rock resurgence happening?
John: I definitely think so.
Marc: I’m feeling it. I’m feeling like we’re starting to have a little bit of success and our Instagram in-box is flooded with young bands that want to open for us. I think that’s cool. I was saying the other night that it would be cool to pick two or three of these young bands and bring them out on tour.
As a kid, I stood in the front of my bedroom mirror pretending to be everybody from Eddie Van Halen to Jake E. Lee. There aren’t many guitar heroes now. I can’t think of who I would be standing in front of mirror pretending to be if I was a teenager. Maybe Jack White?
Marc: I don’t think I’d put Jack White in that. I’m sure you’ve seen It Might Get Loud.
Marc: Oh, it’s so good. There is a scene with the Edge, Jack White and Jimmy Page. And of the three of them, I’m just kind of looking at these guys. The only one who is really a guitar hero is Jimmy Page.
Justin: But they are innovators, the guys who made other people want to go play guitar. Which I think John is doing.
Marc: We worked with a producer that made a lot of hit rock records but he did it in his own style …
John: Which was NOT us.
Marc: But he’s pretty much the guy who made a lot of stale sounding records. They are very tight and radio friendly but they lack the Guns N’ Roses and Zeppelin and Aerosmith sexiness and soul. He put John and Justin and Corey in a box and took all the personality out of their playing. It sounded like shit. Everything I love about John is his noodling between verses, that’s where you know it’s him. And that’s how you know it’s Brian May or whoever. We heard that back and just knew it wasn’t going to work.
I don’t love Steel Panther. They seem to mock the stuff I love. I’d rather see Faster Pussycat play a small club and hear songs I know than feel like a band is making fun of the music I like. But, my friends, who hate ’80s hair metal love Steel Panther.
John: They are funny as fuck. They are talented comic improvisers.
Marc: Have you seen Van Halen recently?
I saw them in 2007. First time I had ever seen David Lee Roth front Van Halen. I was just young enough to not have seen the original lineup but I saw Van Hagar a few times and David Lee Roth as a solo performer a few times.
John: You saw the solo tour with Steve Vai?
Corey: Greg Bissonette
Justin: Billy Sheehan
Corey: I got one of Greg Bissonette’s drum sticks when I saw him on tour. I played with it and broke it.
Did you see David Lee Roth is going to do a Vegas residency?
Marc: I would never, ever go see that.
Justin: Come on, if you had a free ticket you wouldn’t go see that?
Justin: I would be so entertained.
Marc: I would never go see David Lee Roth perform ever again.
Justin: We saw Van Halen do the Jimmy Kimmel Show. I was totally entertained by that.
You talked earlier about Instagram and your in-box blowing up. How important is social media to a band like Dirty Honey?
John: That’s the way we interact, for sure. You can directly interact with fans, that’s amazing.
Marc: It’s super important.
Justin: It’s like today’s fan club.
John: Whatever you grew up with, you probably had to do a yearly subscription and then you got what you got in the mail. I heard that KISS sort of started that with the KISS Army.
It is weird that bands I grew up listening now follow me on Twitter. 18-year-old me can’t believe Tracii Guns likes one of my tweets but that’s the world you live in. And you have to because you’re not on MTV.
Marc: We are, actually.
Justin: Yeah, we did get on MTV.
John: I think our first video is on MTV.
Justin: It’s some weird format, we’re next to like Billie Eilish. We were like, “We don’t belong here.”
John: There is no place for us so we need to be interjected to young kids, like, hey this is another cool thing you can be into.
You’ve gotten some pretty amazing tours. Has it been because of management? A good booking agent? I hate to ask, but did you buy your way onto any of these tours?
Justin: We didn’t buy our way onto anything, thankfully.
Marc: We have a really good manager …
Justin: Who got us a really good agent.
Marc: … he was the first one to ever play Bon Jovi on the radio.
John: He has a radio/label promotion background from the ’80s.
Marc: He helped out bands like Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses and the Black Crowes. He’s a great manager.
John: He got us on the first couple of things and those first two things were the Aftershock Festival – which is a Danny Wimmer festival – and opening for Slash.
Justin: We met Red Sun Rising at Aftershock and that’s how we got our first tour.
Marc: Danny Wimmer was side stage for us at Aftershock and he was like, “You guys are getting every festival I have next year” so we did every festival that he put on. And then we played with Slash and Myles Kennedy, the first night in Phoenix, was like, “Dirty Honey”. He gave us a shout out 3 times on stage and I remember John turned to me and was like, “He really likes us”. And Slash likes to spread it around. He’s not going to take just one band out for 6 months. He’ll give a month each to 6 bands.
John: We had a little jump start and then it’s organically spread from there. Alter Bridge came from the Slash tour with the Myles connection.
Justin: We’re doing two direct support dates opening for Guns N’ Roses in Vegas in November. Slash really liked us from doing that tour and that definitely helped.
Your debut EP is out now.
Marc: Vinyl’s out now with a new track, “Break You”, which should be out digitally soon. And then we’re touring pretty much through December.
Do you have a full length done or working on one?
John: We’re working on it.
Justin: We have a lot of good songs on this one that we have to push.
Do you think a full length is the way you’ll go, or maybe another EP?
Justin: We haven’t decided that yet. It’ll depend on if we write 12 great songs or 6 great songs.
John: I just want to have enough songs out that are as good as what we did so that we’re a viable headlining act. I want to be able to be booked for a 90-minute set and go deliver. When we get off stage at 30 minutes, I’m just getting warmed up. For real. That’s my goal and I think how we release it doesn’t matter so much anymore. The old model is literally gone. The device, the people pushing it, the whole thing is gone. If we do 5 more – and they are as good as these 5 – then we have 10 smashes in my opinion. That’s a band you go see, if you like rock.
Last question. You each get to bring one band’s greatest hits CD on the road to listen to on the whole tour. What CD you bring?
John: Guns N’ Roses has a greatest hits, right?
Justin: Yeah, it’s called Appetite for Destruction. I’d have the Beatles greatest hits. Zeppelin’s greatest hits.
John: Somebody’s gotta pick the Eagles. The only thing about the Eagles greatest hits is it came out early and doesn’t have all their greatest hits.
Marc: I’d take that Aerosmith … either Big Ones or the red one (1980’s Greatest Hits).
John: That’s one of the ones that was in my mom’s record collection that got be started – the red one.