Bands found different ways to stay productive while the pandemic shut down touring. One such quarantine project found the members of Dirty Honey learning how to play a few of their favorite albums, including material by Rage Against The Machine, Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen.
“We wanted to do a different way to practice as a band, other than playing our own songs,” bassist Justin Smolian shares with UCR. “I think those are three bands that we look to and you can kind of already hear it in our sound, so we were like, well, let’s just learn it and see if it applies to Dirty Honey and what we can take away from it.”
For one, Smolian found that the “weird” bass intro on “You’re No Good,” from Van Halen II, was a tough mountain to scale. “I eventually got it,” he says, with a laugh. “But it was kind of annoying trying to get it right!”
Listen to Van Halen’s ‘You’re No Good’
The Los Angeles-based group has gotten a number of things right in the past few years, making a powerful statement as the first unsigned band to top Billboard’s mainstream rock charts in 2019, with their first single, “When I’m Gone.”
They logged road time with Slash and also shared the stage with Guns N’ Roses and the Who. While the events of 2020 wiped away their plans for that year, Dirty Honey is rebounding now with the April release of their self-titled debut album and a prime slot opening for the Black Crowes this summer.
“California Dreamin’” opens the Dirty Honey album with an initial guitar line that sounds like vintage Aerosmith and an overall feeling that gives off summer tailgate vibes. The video for the song finds frontman Marc Labelle and an unidentified female companion arriving at a desolate location, occupied by a long-shuttered liquor store and not much else.
The pair spot a mysterious door which proves to be an escape portal to better places. For anyone who enjoys a good daydream, the video offers up plenty of enticing visuals to take you away. “I was looking at a Google image of this art installation on the beach,” Labelle says. “It was just a door on the beach and I said to the director, ‘What if we go through this door and then we’re in the mountains. How do we do that?’
He told them to map out a list of places to go for filming, they found someone to make the door (“it was heavy as hell,” the singer shares), borrowed a cool car — and carefully chose a fan who was a friend of the band, to play the part of the traveling rock and roll damsel.
Watch the Video for Dirty Honey’s ‘California Dreamin”
The band’s sound comes from the “vinyl primetime era,” according to guitarist John Notto, who once said, “We try to be like the imaginary baby of all the big bands you can think of — AC/DC, Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, the Black Crowes….”
Without a doubt, they’re wearing those influences in plain view, and yet they’re writing music that charts a course which ultimately is definitively their own. As Labelle points out, it’s the “ingredients of the band” which help them put a personal stamp on what they’re doing.
“Our four musical tastes create Dirty Honey in a unique but familiar way in this new wave of rock and roll,” he says. “There’s no way any four people can sound like four different other people in another band, in my opinion, if you’re just doing what’s authentic to you.”
Their music left a big impression and he found some instructive guidance within the structure of their songs. “They’re some of the best rock and roll songwriters ever,” he says. “I think ‘Walk This Way’ is one of the best riffs ever written and I think Joe Perry is one of the greatest riff masters ever.”
The group tracked the initial sessions for Dirty Honey in less than a week and the recordings bottle the organic and casual feeling of the experience. They worked with producer Nick Didia — who also helmed their initial EP — and he encouraged them to stretch out and explore.
Certain songs, including “California Dreamin’,” came together late in the sessions. “It’s got the most improvisational playing,” Smolian notes of the track, admitting that he had to later go back to actually learn his bass parts, since they were so heavily improvised.
Album closer “Another Last Time” has a boozy late night feel and emerged slowly, with Labelle finding the initial song fragments and putting them together. “I’m sitting here, my guitar is tuned to open G,” he says, “which is a very Rolling Stones thing to do [strums the chord]. You have that open chord tuning and I had the title and this progression that I just stumbled upon.”
The sleeper hit on Dirty Honey, “Another Last Time” packs an emotional punch, one which still surprises the members of the band. “I listen to the demos of that song and it’s not amazing,” Labelle admits. “But once everybody uses their own tone and knows what they’re doing on the song, it just takes on a whole new life.”
“We had a good friend play keyboards on it and John’s good friend sang background,” Smolian adds. “Once the backgrounds were on there, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is amazing.’”
Listen to Dirty Honey’s ‘Another Last Time’
After a year away from the stage, the band will work to get their road legs back in advance of the Black Crowes run, embarking on a series of dates this month with Joyous Wolf.
They’ll do so with a better understanding of who they are as a group — and also, a good feeling about what they captured on the new album. “It was nice to feel like we actually accomplished something during quarantine and it wasn’t just a big waste of time,” Smolian says. “It actually felt like we got better as a band and we made a better record because of it.”
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