Honey bees can only sting once in their lifetime. Aside from just being an interesting fact, the reason that the common honey bee can only sting once is that their stingers are actually attached to part of their abdomen. When they try to fly away after the attack, their stingers stick in the victim’s skin, resulting in a self-inflicted, mortal wound. So any honey bee that can sting twice is absolutely defying the odds. Corey Coverstone, Justin Smolian, John Notto and Marc LaBelle, collectively known as Dirty Honey are ready to defy the odds yet again and sink their stingers into the music industry establishment.
In case you’ve been confined to the hive for the last two years (that’s the last apoidean pun), let’s get you up to speed. Dirty Honey is the only unsigned act to have a rock radio number one hit, and if that wasn’t impressive enough, followed that up with another top ten hit. All of this buzz (OK, that’s the last one) from a six song, self-titled and self-released EP, unleashed in 2019. So you might think that all of this attention and success must have garnered lucrative offers from the largest record labels on the planet. Dirty Honey had to have signed a major record deal and be enjoying limos, Lear jets and lobster on the record company’s dime. WRONG! Although the offers may have been made, with their first full length record set for release on April 23rd, Dirty Honey remains independent and poised to sting a second time.
An avid athlete and sports fan himself, LaBelle played football, hockey and lacrosse competitively in years past. He has been a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan from a young age. How does a guy who hails from upstate New York become a Bucs fan? LaBelle shares, “One of my best friends was a military child and moved into my town. Later he moved to Tampa and I started visiting him there. I was a running back and cornerback in Pop Warner, so I loved Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber and Warrick Dunn, those were my idols in the early 2000’s.” So besides being on a tear professionally, his team just won the Super Bowl. It probably doesn’t suck to be Marc LaBelle right now.
If you think that he just shows up, plugs in his microphone and rolls sevens, think again. He describes himself as “very competitive.” That coupling his love of and participation in sports instilled in him some disciplines that translate to driving the current success of the group. LaBelle continues, “I think it has to do with learning the value of hard work and work ethic. In terms of practicing, reps always help you get better in sports and that can be translated into guitar, into doing shows and singing. The more you practice anything, the better you are going to get at it. I learned that fast in lacrosse, just playing wall-ball, I got exponentially better fast, and I started using that with guitar lessons and practicing later on. If you want to get good at something….reps, it’s all about reps.”
The new music economy, which isn’t really all that new anymore, overturned the apple cart of the music industry around 20 years ago. The advent of internet tools for streaming, viewing and downloading content changed the rules for how music is consumed. Most artists have been scrambling to keep up and earn a living from making music ever since. So how does a group of four guys who play rock n’ roll enter the fray and rewrite the rules? Glad you asked. LaBelle holds degrees in broadcasting, corporate communications and marketing. Getting the picture? He doesn’t just possess one of the most unique and powerful voices in rock, he also carries around some serious gray matter between his ears.
So how is Dirty Honey doing what should not be possible and rewriting the road map to showbiz success? LaBelle sees it this way, “I think the music is really pushing a lot of it forward. But we have a great manager (Mark DiDia) and a great radio promotion guy, yes, that’s his title, who works with our manager. He’s awesome! And Heidi (Robinson-Fitzgerald, the band’s publicist), obviously. That’s everybody.” That’s the Dirty Honey machine. No leather chaired conference rooms, countless interns, A&R guys, executives and a bottomless well of cash. It’s just the band and those three people. He goes on, “We get asked all the time, if this management company would help us. If the management company or label you’re reaching out to isn’t passionate about what you’re doing, they’re probably not going to be much help.” If this seems like uncharted territory, as for their approach, he surmises, “Certainly I don’t know of any rock bands that have been doing this.”
The group’s inaugural effort, although short on number of songs, was not short on sonic enormity. From the opening riff to the initial drum fill of When I’m Gone, their breakthrough number, the listener is assaulted with this rich and alive sound that carries through the entire EP. With the debut full-length record, the band has once again captured what could be referred to as the Dirty Honey sound. According to guitarist, John Notto, “A lot of that is very intentional and it’s a result of the fact that we share an ideology with the producer (Nick DiDia) about the feel we want for the records. Even if it isn’t done live, the recording, the mic placement and any production tricks, all work to to make it sound live. One of the best ways to get that, if you can, is to do it as live as you can. A lot of times we get the drums and bass together. On this record, more than the first, we got the drums, the bass and the rhythm guitar together.”
The four of them were set to go back to Australia and try to recreate the magic again before lockdowns and travel restrictions put the kibosh on that. Regarding the difference between that first experience and the latest, Notto continues, “On the EP, we went into a 12 day session with basically three complete songs, and came out of it with six complete songs, in 12 days. So we had time to tone chase, re-record guitars, not because it didn’t sound good enough in terms of playing, but to get different tone, or let’s combine some guitars or let’s combine amps. We got a little nerdy with it. For this record we went into a world class studio here in L.A., but we had, I think 11 ideas to go through in six days. So it was a little bit more run-and-gun. Pick a guitar, play each guitar, play the riff, quickly decide which dress to put on it the best and record it that way. So a lot of the basic tracks, it’s the guitar, the bass and the drums. That’s the take. So, minus maybe a punch in here, I think that’s contributing immensely to that feel.”
The Dirty Honey catalog is still in its infancy as far as number of published and released songs. With just the EP and a yet unreleased full length record, Notto is already establishing himself as a purveyor of great rock riffs. Notto tells about one of his particular favorites, “The riff in the chorus of Rolling 7s to me is just…it’s everything I want. I’m a fan of guitar playing across the board. That includes funk, gospel, old blues-man stuff and of course the influences I’m channeling more directly, big rock n’ roll era riffs. It could be perceived as a little countryish with the way it runs up through the notes, but it’s hard rock. It’s got a little bit of gospel language, it’s bluesy, it swings, and it just plays itself.”
Songs can come into existence in probably as many ways as there are songs. With respect to Rolling 7s, Notto continues, “I hadn’t played that one for any of the guys, and I had decided the method of introducing it would be to just start playing it in rehearsal, sometimes I do that. That’s how I want to show the guys, to get a real reaction. Sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’. Or they don’t say anything, and you’re like, ‘Okay, it’s crap.’ So it initially wasn’t as good as the final product, but the spark was there. I started playing it and Corey jumps on and starts playing, he took it downtempo. My original demo that I had for myself, it was very fast. All of a sudden we’re in this ’80s Aerosmith swing thing, and I’m like ‘Oh wait, this is better!’, so it just kept on churning. Then I was actually noodling another thing I had written, but I wasn’t doing it intentionally. Mark was like, ‘Oh, that should be the intro.’ I thought it should start with a big riff. We ended up starting with that, and it just grows in this perfect crescendo to the big delivery.”
There have been several storied songwriting duos in rock history; Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry. The latter two of those tandems were even given endearing monikers of Glimmer Twins and Toxic Twins, respectively. The pairing of LaBelle and Notto doesn’t have quite the ring yet, but perhaps in time it will. The Sticky Siblings? Maybe the Buzz Bros? Admittedly, they need some work. I’m sure some clever internet wordsmith will come up with a more appropriate nickname for them when the time is right.
LaBelle provides the yin to Notto’s yang, which is his lyric writing. LaBelle weaves numerous tales of love that bites you in the behind, either unwittingly or by diving in head first, knowing that there is no water in the pool. He explains, “It’s somewhat autobiographical and in some it’s fantasy. But you’re always drawing from some personal experience, or if it’s not my own, it’s somebody I know in having conversations with friends or whatever the case may be. A lot of times you just hit on a title and you spout out a lyric. When I was finding melodies for The Wire the thing that just came out of my mouth was the words, ‘I’ve been walking your wire for too long.’ That’s too good not to write itself. So you write and take that journey wherever it goes. And if it’s great as it is, it’s great as it is. If not, you can obviously rewrite it. But, the thing that came out was really good, so I didn’t want to screw with it too much.”
LaBelle spends a good deal of time vagabonding around the scenic and remote areas of the United States on his motorcycle. These travels have been inspiration for several a song. One such excursion from last fall provided some particular inspiration, as he details, “I did a trip and I rode back from Montana to L.A. in a day. I knew if I could just get to Vegas, I could crush that last four hours back to L.A. I made it to Vegas, got a good meal, and I drove through the night. The lyric from California Dreamin’ kept going through my head. ‘Ain’t no rest for the weary, crossing the desert at night.’ I must have said it to myself a thousand times.” His solitary travels supplied the inspiration to another song from the new album, “A song like Gypsy is me totally envisioning myself on the road somewhere, whether you’re camping or just living the vagabond lifestyle. Whether I’m on the road on a motorcycle or on the road touring, it’s all kind of the same.”
About 40 some years ago, there was a quartet that came from the Southern California area that became one of the biggest rock outfits in history, Van Halen. The boys from Pasadena had a special relationship with their producer, Ted Templeman, who worked on all of the original Roth era records. Again, it may be a bit premature, but this is a relationship that has struck gold twice already in a short period of time. Notto talks about collaborating with producer Nick DiDia, “I think he and I specifically have always been on the same page and I sussed that out pretty quickly. Essentially we met over Zoom calls and emails, and it only took a couple of emails where I thought, OK, he wants exactly what I want, in terms of guitar tone, what rocks, what doesn’t rock, all that stuff.”
There was a slight distance in the working relationship the second time around, about 9,000 some odd miles, due to the same travel restrictions. DiDia remained in Australia and produced the recording via Zoom. Notto explains there wasn’t much different about the process, “Zoom was really just for visual confirmation. The real functioning app that makes it work is a Pro Tools plugin called Listen To. He can listen to the session from Pro Tools live as it happens. He has a talkback mic that goes straight to our headphones. We have a talkback mic, each one of us at our booth. So, to be quite honest, there was almost no difference in terms of really being hindered by him not being there physically.” If there was a hinderance, it is hard to imagine that the record could have been any better.
Short of throwing the mantle of legendary status on them just yet, it is undeniable that the four members of Dirty Honey make up a unit that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. As far as just how those puzzle pieces came together, Notto recalls, “I knew when I first heard Marc that he was obviously the best rock singer who was young like me. I also knew that he had this sort of extra, maybe too confident sometimes swagger, which is also great for me. Justin and I met separately. We shared something really special between two people, which is musically, he could do anything and I’ll go with it. I could do anything and he would go with it. He’s my anything can happen and it’ll be fine guy, but musically. We would play clubs and jam with this other drummer and we could go anywhere, literally anywhere. There’s just this openness, there’s nothing where he’s like, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ He could be rocking out and we could go into a reggae section, just the feeling that we’re limitless. Sometimes I swear, he just moves me feet forward.” So the personnel were there, and the last piece fell, he goes on, “Between the two of them, I knew there was something special there. It took a while for all of us to realize that our creations were special, because I think we were searching a little too hard. We had gems like When I’m Gone early on, but it got overlooked because no one was paying attention to us. When we finally landed Mark DiDia as a manager, it was all the validation I needed. It galvanized my confidence in how I play guitar naturally.”
So here we are in the spring of 2021. The last show the boys played in front of a live audience was over a year ago. With the prospects of touring and playing live, still a bit ambiguous, the timing of releasing your first full length record without the firm knowledge of being able to support it, would seem risky to some. LaBelle reveals, “We were kind of always optimistic about this summer being a good time to tour. Our fans have been waiting very patiently for some new stuff. We’re lucky they were kind enough to stick around and wait it out. We’re walking this fine line where we don’t want to make them wait too much, but we don’t want to release something so early that you can’t tour on this material.” It’s not only touring that is up in the air, “You can’t go to radio stations or do any of that stuff you normally do. It’s tricky, really tricky, but I think we’re navigating it somewhat well. So, hopefully, fingers crossed, it all works out the way we’re hoping. But yeah, those are all under the umbrella of many concerns that we had.”
As you might imagine, as an outfit whose live performances have already amassed quite a reputation, that they might be chomping at the bit to get out on the road and play this new music. Both Notto and LaBelle have some feelings on this topic, LaBelle starts, ” I’m so eager to release the rest of the tunes, A. B, of course play a show. I’m sure I’m going to be emotional playing a show again. I’m ready to do it physically and performance-wise, but I’m just not ready for the wave of emotions and gratitude I’m sure I’m going to feel in front of a live audience again. Fingers crossed, we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Notto took a more timeless approach to his feeling about playing live, “It’s the biggest part I can totally get into. I can get into creation, introvert, cave dweller, where you just sit and play, the sky’s the limit. But performing and acting the fool sometimes, strutting around with the music and moving your body the way the riff moves you, that’s everything!” Far from the days of his youth when he would act out performances with a string-less ukulele, he explains his love of performing, “I always gravitate toward the live records, I even gravitated to jam bands, because I thought they took the ideology to the extreme. I also hold this belief, we can do this press stuff, we can put out records, we can make videos. We can do all the other stuff that really gets you accolades, but none of that is doing. Performing is the ultimate gift. If we can perform for the rest of my life, that’s the best life ever for me.”
One thing is for certain, with their first full-length release on the way, and with any luck, extensive touring coming this summer, Dirty Honey is primed and ready to have a big 2021. At the very least, the fans will have new music to savor. The best case scenario will have LaBelle, Notto and company tearing up the boards on stages across America and maybe beyond. First things first, while enjoying the singles being trickled out ahead of the record’s release, look forward to April 23rd, for a dipper full of brand new honey!