By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — In the space of four short years, Los Angeles band Dirty Honey has risen from playing local clubs to sharing stages with the likes of the Who, Guns n’ Roses and the Black Crowes.

Formed in 2017, the blues-tinged rock outfit came together after singer Marc LaBelle and guitarist John Notto — who had been playing in the LA-based group Ground Zero — decided to split with that band to follow their muse and find their own path. Eventually filling out the band with bassist Justin Smolian and drummer Corey Coverstone, the quartet started crafting a gritty style of rock that echoed elements of classic ’70s Aerosmith, Sacramento blues-rockers Tesla and GnR, but still had an indelibly unique stamp.

Dirty Honey onstage; L-R: Justin Smolian, Marc LaBelle, John Notto (Photo credit: Mike Savoia)

Band friend and LA industry veteran Mark DiDia heard the band’s promise in their tune “When I’m Gone” and offered to manage them, quickly getting the foursome on bills opening for Guns ‘n Roses guitarist Slash. Connecting Dirty Honey with his brother Nick DiDia — the longtime engineer of choice for famed producer Brendan O’Brien, who worked on recordings by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine and many others — the group would travel to DiDia’s studio in Australia to track their debut EP.

The self-released six-song effort came out in the spring of 2019 and served as the band’s calling card with “When I’m Gone” becoming the first tune by an unsigned group to hit #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. Their follow-up single “Rollin’ 7s” would do almost as well, rising to #3. The radio success led to higher profile gigs, opening for Alter Bridge and Skillet on a U.S. tour as well as festival appearances and slots supporting the Who in Michigan and Guns ‘n Roses in Las Vegas.

The band was slated to play some opening dates for the highly anticipated Black Crowes reunion tour marking the 30th anniversary of the band’s breakout debut album Shake Your Money Maker in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic would derail those plans.

COVID also kept Dirty Honey from returning to Australia to record their first proper full-length album, but thanks to technology producer Nick DiDia was able to monitor and advise the band virtually through sessions at a Hollywood studio, resulting in their eponymous debut that Dirty Honey once again put out on their own imprint Dirt Records back in April.

Featuring another salvo of catchy, swaggering rock tunes that showcase LaBelle’s raspy howl and Notto’s crunching riffs, Dirty Honey is another band providing ample proof that guitar rock’s often reported demise is still premature. LaBelle recently spoke with CBS SF about the new album and his musical influences ahead of his band’s visit to the Bay Area as they open for the Black Crowes at the Concord Pavilion (Saturday, Aug. 21) and the Shoreline Amphitheatre (Sunday, Aug. 22).

CBS SF: So if I have my tour dates right, you’re in Texas currently?

Marc LaBelle: Yeah, we played Houston last night and we’ve got Austin tonight, then we’re heading home to LA for a few days in SoCal and then heading up to you guys.

CBS SF: How’s the tour been going so far?

Marc LaBelle: Honestly, it’s been a dream come true for me. I couldn’t imagine it going any better for us professionally, and just in terms of having fun.

Dirty Honey, warms up the Nashville crowd on Tuesday, July 20, opening night for The Black Crowes’ “Shake Your Money Maker Tour.” (Photo credit: Cardice Fairorth)

CBS SF: Is this the first large-scale venue tour the band has done? I know you’ve played with big bands and played bigger venues before, but is the first tour where you’re playing large amphitheaters?

Marc LaBelle: Yeah, other than festivals that we’ve done here and there, this is definitely the first big, 10-15 thousand seat venue sort of tour that we’ve done on this scale ever. We’ve done one offs with Guns n’ Roses and the Who, and we did a theater tour with Alter Bridge and Skillet and some dates with Slash and similar sized venues. But to your point, this is our first amphitheater or arena sort of tour.

CBS SF: How did you end up opening for the Black Crowes on this big reunion tour? Was there a personal connection between your band and those guys?

Marc LaBelle: Not really. I mean, we share the same management company, so that obviously helps. But at the end of the day, Chris and Rich are picking the bands. I flew out to New York when they were doing the Howard Stern Show and playing the show at the Bowery Electric that night. This is going back like almost two years already. But I really wanted to go to the reunion show and see the first one.

And I made a point to get out there in the middle of the tour and was lucky enough to meet and hang out with the guys. And Chris, the whole time was like, “Hope you’re ready to do some shows, man! Hope you’re ready to do some shows. You’re coming out with us!”

Originally it was supposed to be like maybe 10 or 15 shows of the run, like do a leg of the tour. And then, pretty quickly as time wore on, they were like, “You know what? These guys are awesome. Let’s have them do the whole thing.” They’ve been nothing but kind to us and supportive. And they agreed on us too [laughs], which is historically a tough thing to get those two guys to do. It’s flattering and good all at the same time.

CBS SF: I’m excited to see them. I’ve actually never seen the Black Crowes before. And I know a couple of the people that are part of this lineup. I’ve been seeing Isaiah in Earthless and other bands for years.

Marc LaBelle: He is f–king amazing, by the way.

CBS SF: Yeah, I honestly think he’s one of the greatest living guitarists on the planet right now.

Marc LaBelle: I would not disagree with you, and I know our guitar player would not disagree with you. He’s really amazing; a super tasteful player. He’s sort of playing around the solos that are on the records, but putting his own little spin on it. I think it’s brilliant. He’s really fun to watch.

CBS SF: I know the pandemic delayed this tour for quite a while. How did you guys spend the lockdown? I know you did at least a one show at the Viper Room that was streamed at some point. Were you able to play together? Did you try to get some writing done?

Marc LaBelle: Yeah, I think once we figured out what was safe — we kind of kept our distance from maybe March to early June. And then we made a plan to record the record. We rented a lockout and everybody got together for a couple of months, every day, just writing, rehearsing, writing, rehearsing. Then we recorded the record. We did the live stream at the Viper Room, then we did another live stream for Harley Davidson.

We remained busy. We started a video series called “The Suitcase Sessions,” where we went out into nature and played acoustic. We were just trying to be creative in any way he could and stay busy, you know?

CBS SF: How old were you when you developed your interest in music? Do you remember a point when you realized that you wanted to be a singer?

Marc LaBelle: I definitely was always interested in it. I remember being like four and loving Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. I met Aerosmith before my first concert ever, literally watched Steven Tyler and Joe Perry walk out of the radio station and jump into a limo. And that was when I kind of thought, “That looks like a fun career!” I was super young, like seven or eight years old.

CBS SF: How did that happen? Did you know someone or have family that worked at the radio station so you happened to be there?

L-R: bassist Justin Smolian, vocalist Marc LaBelle, drummer Corey Coverstone (Photo credit: Mike Savioa)

Marc LaBelle: No, the classic rock radio station was in my hometown. My stepdad pulled into the driveway and said, “Steven Tyler and Joe Perry are down there at the radio station right now. Let’s go down and try and meet them.” It was very casual. There was maybe like 50 people outside the station, and I was this little kid. And the two of them were very nice to me and sign some stuff for me and I got to see them see them sign some, ummmmm, maybe questionable things for some female fans. It was just very lucky, spur of the moment thing that honestly changed my life forever.

CBS SF: Were there any influence as far as older siblings who were into music, or was it more from your parents?

Marc LaBelle: It was mostly my dad and my step dad. Oddly enough, my dad could definitely hold a tune, and so could my step dad. which is strange when I think about it. My mom, not so much, but she tried. Everybody loved rock and roll. My dad and I used to listen to Aerosmith on hockey trips, and the Rolling Stones.

Similarly, my stepdad was like super into older Aerosmith. At a very young age, I was putting two and two together and realizing that Aerosmith from the 90s was the same group that recorded Toys in the Attic 20 years before. But it sounded kind of like two different bands. My dad was super into Tom Petty and the Stones, and my step brother was into the Black Crowes and he showed me a lot of stuff. My brother and I had a Red Hot Chili Peppers phase for sure. So family was a definitely an influence.

CBS SF: You came to Los Angeles specifically to pursue a musical career in 2012 from what I was reading in the band’s bio, but you didn’t connect with the other members until like five years later. Were you in any groups leading up to that point? I guess I was also wondering what was your earliest band experience as a teen growing up in upstate New York?

Marc LaBelle: I felt like a rock star in middle school when I played like the school talent show with a band, so it goes back pretty far for me. But me, John and Justin had been playing together on and off throughout LA for a long time. And it was kind of always a struggle to find a drummer who wanted to be in a band and was also an exceptional musician with the talent level that we were looking for.

Because a lot of the guys who we wanted to play with could go play with Christina Aguilera or whoever for five grand a week and have a nice life. Being in a band…it’s a risk, you know? Do you want to go to waste five years of your life of pursuing the thing that could never really pan out, unless you’re extremely hardworking and lucky? There are a lot of people in LA who don’t want to take that risk. So, fortunately, we met Corey who came into the fold. He really wanted to be in the band. That was really the biggest challenge for a long time.

CBS SF: Do you remember what the first song you guys wrote together was? Or, once Corey was in the picture, did you have a moment when things clicked and you knew this was the band?

Marc LaBelle: We have a couple of friends that own a weed shop on Sunset Boulevard. There was this event that takes place out in Silver Lake where like a bunch of storefronts will have music right on the sidewalk along Sunset. It’s the Summer Solstice Music Festival; very casual, not official. There’s no tickets or anything, you just do it.

We were doing that gig and Cory learned this song, “Fire Away.” We were playing this song and before we knew it, there was like 150 people just watching us on the sidewalk and on the road. Very dangerous, by the way. And he got up on his drum kit and said “I want to be in this band!” And that was kind of the moment we were waiting for; for somebody to say that sort of thing. And we kind of knew then that we clicked.

And then as we kept writing and trying to find our groove, we sort of figured out our musical direction together; what came naturally to us that we were passionate about. And that was more of a bluesy, rock and roll thing. That’s definitely my thing. I wanted to do that from day one, no doubt about it. Maybe in the early days of writing, we were just thinking too much about how to be unique, and it maybe wasn’t the best way to go about it.

CBS SF: That is one thing I wanted to talk about. It’s sort of a challenge any band that’s doing music with clear touchstones in ’70s classic rock. In your case, Aerosmith is obviously an influence, but I’m sure there’s other stuff too. I appreciate the fact that you guys might remind me of Aerosmith at points, but there aren’t songs where I’m like, “Okay, that sounds like that Aerosmith song.” And that’s a good thing…

Marc LaBelle: That’s every band that I’ve ever liked, you know what I mean? Led Zeppelin was a White version of Black blues with longer arrangements. They literally would just jack lyrics and whole songs; it was that on the nose. The Stones were the same thing, and Aerosmith was a poor man’s Stones; the Black Crowes were drawing from the same well. It just goes on and on.

But at the end of the day, if you’re really a good band, you have an X factor that you can’t quite put your finger on. You’re still guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It’s not going to sound that much different; it’s just that there’s maybe a little bit different personality because of the four people playing together.

CBS SF: Do you find it’s hard — as you look back through history — to do stuff that has not been done? Or do you try not to be too conscientious about that and just come together and play what feels natural?

Marc LaBelle: Yeah, I think mostly you just want to start a song from a good place, whether that’s a great melody or a great riff or a great lyric or title or something. So long as you have a good start, really it’s just about a great performance captured by a great recording, you know? That’s pretty much everything I love. I’m not thinking too hard about guitar tones or unique arrangement ideas or weird time signatures. Great songs will stand the test of time if they’re really great. And that’s what we strive for.

CBS SF: What is the band’s writing process like? Do band members bring finished songs they write on their own or do you guys generally work things out together?

Marc LaBelle: It can totally vary. For instance, with “Rollin’ 7s,” John had two completely separate riff ideas that he was playing with, and I was like, “Dude, those go together!” We were all together in the room for that one. And then he suggested a melody for me to sing in the chorus. That was all him.

Then there’s other times like I’ll have a whole song worked out on an acoustic, like “Another Last Time” for example, and then you bring it to the band and everybody puts their own spin on it and it becomes a Dirty Honey song.

Justin had this one riff for forever that just remained unfinished until we fit it into “Heartbreaker.” I just knew that riff was good enough to be something great. That took a long time to find that special sauce for it. But it’s persistence that gets you to the finish line. Sometimes it’s five minutes, sometimes it’s five years. But if you don’t give up on it, you’ll get somewhere. But the songwriting, it varies.

CBS SF: A lot of your songs draw on a classic blues-rock sound, but “Take My Hand” is kind of reminiscent of something Audioslave might have done. What more contemporary rock bands would you say inspired you? By contemporary, I’m thinking ‘90s forward…

Marc LaBelle: Audioslave, they’re definitely one of them. Soundgarden. I love Nirvana. The Black Keys are great. I’m super into Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar playing. But there really hasn’t been a lot of other stuff that’s really piqued my interest in terms of contemporary bands.

CBS SF: I wanted to get your take on a couple of other relatively new bands that — when people write about them or talk about them — there’s a lot of discussion about how they recall bands from the past. I’m specifically thinking about Greta Van Fleet and the Struts. The Struts have this big, stomping glam-inspired sound that has brought comparisons to Queen and maybe T-Rex. Greta Van Fleet initially got a ton of Zeppelin comparisons for obvious reasons, though they have kind of veered off into a sound that is more prog with elements of Queen and Rush. I was curious about your thoughts on what those bands are doing as far as putting a modern spin on ‘70s sounds…

Marc LaBelle: I think — of those two that you mentioned — Greta Van Fleet is probably the one I’d be more likely to listen to. I’m not super into the glam thing. I haven’t heard much of the Struts’ stuff, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a little more produced sounding. I think Luke [Spiller] is a great singer, but if you were just listening to the music part without Luke singing, I was not near as much of an identifiable band.

They seem to be more a part of the record label machine, while Greta is kind of doing their own thing. It doesn’t seem like they care what the label thinks, which is definitely more an attitude that I’m drawn to. I’ve seen the Struts live and they’re amazing. But the studio recordings are a little more polished and produced.

It’s that classic thing: if I hear Angus Young and AC/DC playing on the radio, I know it’s them. I don’t know if I could say that about the Struts right off the bat without Luke being on the track immediately. It’s not a knock on them. I’m very attracted to the energy of like four or five guys playing rock and roll. I know it’s the Black Crowes, I know it’s AC/DC, I know it’s the Stones as soon as I hear it.

But yeah, the Struts are cool. They’re an amazing live band. So is Greta Van Fleet. I’ve seen them too. We just met those guys in Nashville when we rolled through there and they were very sweet. Nothing but nice things to say about them.

Dirty Honey open for the Black Crowes at the Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Aug. 21, and the Shoreline Amphitheatre on Sunday, Aug. 22.