DIRTY HONEY’s Sweet Hard Rock Revival

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Marc Labelle

How old are you exactly, if you don’t mind me asking? 

That is the question that Marc LaBelle, lead vocalist for asked me. Sounds like an odd request, but there is a point to his query. I had mentioned that is reminiscent of the classic hard rock bands of the 70’s such as Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and AC/DC. Responding to his question, I give LaBelle my age, 62, and he remarked “Okay. So, you’re in the age range where the influences you hear are…there’s a correlation to what you grew up listening to and loving at your age range. And then, when you get into the mid to late ’40s, there’s another completely different comparison. Everybody there is like, ‘Oh, it’s Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue and Tesla.’ And then when you get into the 30s, it throws more back to ’70s rock n’ roll. Finally, when you get to the mid-20s, my age, it’s just kinda all over the place. So the point is that there are specific segments of ages that have specific periods of rock n’ roll that they hear. It’s pretty interesting. And by the way, your comparisons are my favorite.” 

Trends in music come and go, but the classic-style hard rock that plays is labeled “classic” for a reason – there’s always an audience for well written songs, power chords and hard-hitting vocals. The genre got a massive injection of life a few years ago when Greta Van Fleet went from a little- known regional band to a worldwide phenomenon seemingly overnight, and  has the musical chops and songwriting skills to achieve that type of recognition. In fact, LaBelle mentions that were originally scheduled to work with Greta Van Fleet’s production team in Detroit. 

The origins of Dirty Honey date back fairly recently, to 2017 when LaBelle was playing in a cover band. “I met John [Notto], our guitar player, at a gig in Santa Monica. We were playing a four-hour gig, and he learned one of my original songs to sit in on. And he just blew me away, really. I pulled him aside that night and told him ‘I really feel like we could start something together if we’ve got the right people.’ However, it took a little longer than I thought we would have imagined to find the right people. He eventually introduced me to Justin [Smolian] on bass. And Justin introduced us to Corey [Coverstone, on drums].  So the whole thing sort of came together organically. We all have our specific loves of rock ‘n roll and when you put all that together, it turns into Dirty Honey.” 

And the band’s name? “I was actually listening to Howard Stern interview Robert Plant, and he was talking about his old band, The Honey Drippers. I thought to myself ‘I love that dirty nature of that name. It’s so sexual and soulful, and it’s cool.’ So I wrote down these two words ‘dirty honey’ into my phone, along with a thousand other terrible band names. And one night we were looking at this list, and Dirty Honey was the obvious winner, so we took that and ran with it.” 

With the band members in place and a name to call their own, the real grind began. Rock n’ roll seems cool and sexy–which it most definitely can be–but before the arenas come there are many, many hours in dark, sweaty clubs. LaBelle says that once the lineup was solidified, “From that moment on, I just started going full pedal to the metal with booking gigs and trying to figure out how to make this a more professional endeavor than playing covers at a bar in Santa Monica. We did that for quite a long time. I mean, you gotta know how to win over 20 people before you can win over 20,000. I definitely cut my teeth at bars and clubs in L.A., there’s no doubt about it. And then there was a lot of rehearsing, and a lot of writing. The focus really shifted towards writing more than anything else.” 

When it came time to record, the band traveled to Australia to work with producer Nick DiDia, who has produced records for Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine, and many other noted artists. Travelling thousands of miles to Australia may seem an odd choice when there are many top-notch studios in Dirty Honey’s backyard of Southern California, but there was a reason for that. “Anybody who’s made records will tell you it’s the people you’re working with that are more important than a studio,” says LaBelle. “Studios can help, but it’s about getting songs and the performances to sound right more than whether or not your snare has a specific tone. Led Zeppelin was always gonna sound like Led Zeppelin because it’s Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham. John Bonham’s kit, whether he plays it in a stairwell or at Capitol Records Studio A, it’s gonna sound like John Bonham, no matter what. The personality coming through is like the biggest thing. When we started crunching the numbers about whether we are going to record in L.A. or Australia, going to Australia was pretty obvious,” says LaBelle. “It was way cheaper to fly out there and record in Nick’s Studio for free, and we got to work with people who made some of our favorite records growing up. Given that, it was a pretty easy decision, I would say. We had a lot of feedback from the higher-ups that When I’m Gone was gonna be a success at radio, so we kinda knew going in that we had something special going on, which was encouraging.”

l to r: Marc LaBelle, John Notto, Corey Coverstone & Justin Smolian

“I think Nick did a really good job capturing our personalities through the recording. That’s what you love about Zeppelin and Aerosmith and the Stones. There’s a personality when everybody’s playing that is so important. And if you take that element out of it, you turn more into like a Nickelback, Shinedown sort of sound that’s more polished. I remember when we were in the  Pro Tools, Auto-Tune era that was really prominent a couple of years ago. I was doing a session somewhere, and this producer said to me,  ‘This is crazy. I don’t have to nudge you into Auto-Tune at all.’ I replied to him ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I didn’t even know that was such a thing in rock ‘n roll. It’s weird. So, yeah, growing up on those records like Toys in the Attic, and Zeppelin, and especially the Stones too, that’s the sound, that’s the energy of rock ‘n roll that we all love. We’re not trying to be another ‘radio-friendly’ rock band that has sort of a stale sound.”

The song Scars is an instant hard rock classic, and with the guitar and bass playing the same riff it’s reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog. LaBelle speaks of the recording process: “It’s kind of just what it is, you know? We did it all together…we recorded in the same room together. So the rhythm track is just the rhythm track. For example, the song Rolling Sevens is literally one take for everybody on the rhythm track. And then you throw solo in there, you do the vocal again, and that’s what it is. That one took not very long at all, but it just felt right…the take felt so good that everybody said ‘That’s it!’ But yeah, what you’re hearing is just… I think Nick did a really good job capturing our personalities through the recording. And that’s what you love about Zeppelin and Aerosmith and the Stones, for sure too.” Another notable song on on the EP is Heartbreaker, which LaBelle says is one of his favorites also. “I hope that song becomes a single one day. Because I think it’s a nice…people are singing along to that one a lot. They’re singing along to all of them, but that one is very catchy. And that was a song that Justin and I wrote together and we’d labored over for like a long time, trying to get it right and find the right mixture of melody and tempo. It took a long time to finish the song, and we’re pretty proud of how it turned out. I can only hope that it’s to the point where people are playing it in bar bands and cover bands and stuff. That would be awesome. That would be a really special moment one day to walk into a bar, on the road somewhere, and somebody’s playing your song. That would be so cool.”

While speaking of Led Zeppelin, the conversation turns to recent hard rock revival and Greta Van Fleet and the grief that band has received due to the accusation that they are merely Led Zep copycats. LaBelle has a differing opinion. “I think what they’re doing is cool. They get a lot of flack for sounding too much like Led Zeppelin, and I’m kind of more in the camp where ‘I don’t really care, man.’ I think they do some cool stuff and they can play their asses off, and what else do you really want? Like, it’s all rock n’ roll to me. I’m not too into the hating on our own. Certainly, there was a time when I was super envious of these young kids doing essentially what I wanted to do, which is be in a successful young rock band. They’re really killing it, and I was like, ‘Fuck.’ But as you mature and you start having some success, you look at them with appreciation.  I don’t know if rock would be … I don’t know if this whole thing would be happening between us, and the Bad Flowers and The Dirty Honeys and Greta Van Fleets, if Greta didn’t have some success. So, I think it’s cool.” 

Speaking of success, Dirty Honey has been making some pretty big waves themselves. The band has already opened for The Who and Slash, was chosen as iHeart Radio’s “On The Verge” Rock artist, has its music video in rotation at MTV, and recently became this year’s first new band to have its debut single crack the Active Rock Radio Top 10, with When I’m Gone claiming the #9 spot. Oh…and by the way, Dirty Honey is currently unsigned, which means all of the above has been accomplished with no label support. Pretty heady stuff for a young band. “Yeah, we went out with Slash,” explains LaBelle. “Any time we can go out with him, that’s not only an honor, but it’s a great fit musically, right? You get a lot of rock and roll fans going to see Slash, obviously, and then you introduce them to a young rock and roll band that’s pretty kick-ass. And people are like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna check these guys out.’ So that’s been a dream come true, honestly. He was literally nothing but nice. We were offered a bunch of dates with him, so we did some dates with Slash, and then we’d do our own shows in between. Made a nice little tour out of it. And we got to go to Canada for the first time as a band, and that couldn’t have gone any better honestly.”

 The comment is made that in addition to being a skilled vocalist and songwriter, LaBelle also seems to be music industry savvy, to which he concurs and explains. “Yeah. I think the guys… I spent so much time trying to make Dirty Honey work as a career and a profession or whatever, but the rest of the guys are more like sideman-savvy. They play for other artists and stuff, and they’d be content … I don’t know if they’d be happy but they’d be okay making a living as a musician. But being in an original band is the ultimate frontier creatively. They put a lot of stuff on my plate. They like to call me the Mick Jagger of the band, because I’m the one making merch and dealing with a lot of the business stuff. I do enjoy it, but certainly, with stuff like merchandise, I’m trying to maintain a quality that bigger bands don’t really deal with anymore. A merch company will just swallow up their stuff and pay ’em and then their merch goes to hell. Here’s an example: I got the nicest email yesterday from a fan who bought something from us. She wrote ‘I was so happy how fast your shipping was, and I just can’t say enough about the quality of the shirt. Whoever is doing this is really kicking ass in the merch department.’ And I was thinking, ‘Wow, it’s me.’ So I emailed that to her and she was like, ‘Why is the lead singer emailing me right now? This is crazy.’”  

l to r: Corey Coverstone, Marc Labelle, Justin Smolian, John Notto

When I say to him “Just wait ’til five years from now when you have people doing that for you,” he sighs. I know, I knowI rue the day when I go to our merch booth in a couple of years and all of sudden it’s just a shitty fucking T-shirt that’s like… I do not want that to ever happen.” 

Dirty Honey is currently on tour supporting Skillet and Alter Bridge through the end of October. I remark to LaBelle that when they play a venue in Southern California, I’ll be there in the audience, saying “You’re gonna see me with my grey hair and grey beard, but I’m still rocking.” 

LaBelle replies, “Still rocking. I love it.” 





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