An Interview with John Notto of Dirty Honey

Header image credit: Soundground

Image credit: Forbes

Due to irrefutable neglect and marginalization, it sometimes feels as though the entire rock genre is on life support.

As many of the lionized rock ‘n’ roll heroes of decades past prepare for their inevitable farewells before riding off into the sunset, the question arises: Who will carry the torch for the next generation?

Fortunately, the genre is poised for a promising future thanks to a number of major breakthrough acts, none more notable than Los Angeles rockers Dirty Honey.

Formed in 2017, Dirty Honey, comprised of singer Marc LaBelle, guitarist John Notto, bassist Justin Smolian, and drummer Corey Coverstone, has ridden a tidal wave of success since first taking the music world by storm in the fall of 2018. On the shoulders of their hit single, “When I’m Gone,” featured on their 2019 EP, Dirty Honey became the first unsigned band to ever top the Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs chart.

The band released its first studio album to rave reviews in 2021, a self-titled, 8-track rocker which included hit singles “The Wire” and “Another Last Time.”

I recently sat down with guitarist John Notto to discuss the Young Guns Tour, his formative years playing guitar, the origins of Dirty Honey, and more.

Andrew:
John, thanks for taking the time. Right off the bat, I want to ask you about the Young Guns Tour, a thirty-four-city, co-headlining tour with Mammoth WVH that commenced just a few weeks ago. It’s vital, as both represent the new generation of rock music. Can you expand on its significance?

John:
Well, I think it’s the first of its kind in probably quite some time. I don’t think there’s been two bands there together, like you said, that are of the same generation of rock split one bill together. You know, we’ve had fans say they wish us and Greta Van Fleet would do a tour. We did have Joyous Wolf out with us, which I think was sort of like a ramp-up to this – kind of similar seating – but yeah, I think this is the first we’ve had in a while.

Andrew:
How did the video for “Another Last Time” come together? Can you share with us the blueprint for it?

John:
We wanted to do a video kind of going with what we’ve employed before, which is using one continuous shot for as long as we can. So, we called upon – actually, a lot of directors – but we ended up going with the guy that we’ve known for a long time and who did the other videos. We still have a great relationship with him and a shared vision. Like a hand in a glove, it just worked really well together.

Andrew:
What initially kindled your passion for guitar?

John:
I think I always gravitated towards guitar before I played it. My neighborhood friends and I used to have people over, and we would put on these little concerts, where we were basically dancing and air-guitaring. We charged them like a penny; all the parents would come over. Then, it just kind of expanded to playing the actual guitar, once I had a friend whose dad played guitar. He showed me a couple of chords, and I took to it pretty quickly. I just kind of understood what was happening. It was always fun and rewarding, and I could learn the songs that I liked pretty quickly. So, it went from air guitar to actual guitar.

Image credit: The Music Room

Andrew:
Are you able to recall your first guitar and some of the early songs you learned?

John:
Well, my first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor, interestingly. I think it was an Aria. It was a cream, sort of 70s-yellow Telecaster copy. It was absolutely horrible, actually. The first song I remember learning was actually “Stairway to Heaven,” but the first songs that I learned were from my friend’s dad’s band. And they were local; they were kind of a punk rock band. I don’t even think they were current at the time. So, when I took lessons, I took lessons from a guy who was in a classic rock band. So, “Stairway to Heaven” was the first one. It’s kind of a long song to tackle, but I think I had a real aptitude for it. When you really break down that song, it’s not a lot of difficult parts, it’s just a lot of parts.

Andrew:
Who were some of your most prominent guitar influences?

John:

Jimmy Page, for sure, and also, really whatever was in my mom’s vinyl collection. I think Allman Brother’s Eat A Peach was in there; the red, original first Greatest Hits of Aerosmith; these are the records that I listened to. Deep Purple’s Made In Japan was in there – that was awesome – Curtis Mayfield Live [Curtis/Live!], and Led Zeppelin II was the first record. That was the catalyst, for sure. Just finding them in that collection, in that outdated, kind of unique format, it just felt like a discovery, ya know?

Andrew:
The level at which you play obviously requires talent, but also practice and dedication. What did your regimen consist of as a budding guitarist?

John:
Well, today, my practice regimen is pretty much solely devoted to writing. I do warm-ups for shows, but I don’t even always do that, to be honest; I mostly focus on writing. A lot of times, to get me loose – mentally, and my fingers loose – I play along with some music and that gets me in a creative flowing mood and then I start writing riffs. Really, just starting to scratch together a demo. I just feel like the band has the apparatus to get creative things out. So, in a way, at this point – for the young students out there maybe ignore this – but it’s a bit of a waste of time for me to practice scales at this point. You know, it just seems more valuable to try and write something. Try to get that next riff; try to get something that sparks Marc to write, you know?

Image credit: Vintage Guitar (Image One)/Spotify (Image Two)

Andrew:
Take us through the formation of Dirty Honey after meeting Marc LaBelle through the band Ground Zero.

John:
Ground Zero was a cover band, and there were a few songs that Marc had written by himself in junior high, and they had made a recording of those songs. But none of those songs are in the Dirty Honey repertoire. It was pretty much a cover band, your typical, play your three hours at a bar. It was pretty much a 70s, somewhat 80s, but mostly 70s rock ‘n’ roll review; Aerosmith, [Led Zeppelin], [Jimi] Hendrix, [Eric] Clapton, Cream. I met Justin [Smolian] through other circles because I was also trying to make money playing professional guitar. I really clicked with Justin; we used to have fun jams together at this other drummer’s house. Eventually, I got Justin into the band, and then we got that drummer into the band. And then that drummer quit. There was a bit of time there where we were a three-legged dog. We even had a producer that would hire drummers to do what we thought might be our first album. It all fell through and seemed a little dire there.

At one point, we just played covers on the weekends, and kind of dreamt about being big, but just couldn’t find the unit. And then we met Corey [Coverstone]. The first time it was the four of us, we played on the street in Los Angeles. It was part of some street festival. Everybody just plugged in and played in front of this weed shop and blasted into traffic. It was amazing. It was one of the funnest gigs I’ve ever played in my life. As a guitarist, I was elated to turn my amp up to ten.

Andrew:
As it turned out, the street gig ultimately served as a crucial component to the band’s success. Considering the trajectory of Dirty Honey, I’m not sure everyone is aware of its humble beginnings.

John:
Well, I read a good quote from, not a hero of mine but still a respectable musician, CeeLo Green. And he said, “It took me seventeen years to become an overnight success.” It didn’t take us seventeen years, but the point is still there that the iceberg goes a lot deeper under the water than above the water. There were a handful of years there where it took a lot of shuffling and patience and sticking with it, even when there really wasn’t any room on the table that it was gonna go anywhere. Then when we finally got a great drummer who was willing to be in a band – which is tough in Los Angeles, because great musicians generally get those good jobs – so when we finally had the unit, that’s when the overnight thing started to happen. It took less than six months for us to get into a professional studio. Then in six months, we had a professional video; in a years’ time, we had Mark DiDia. Then, once Mark DiDia was in play, I mean, it was a couple of months that we were opening for Slash, playing Aftershock, and making a record in Australia. So, that part was a whirlwind and exciting. Honestly, everything from the fall of 2018 to COVID hitting was like a whirlwind, wildest ride of your life kind of thing.

Andrew:
When I’m Gone” essentially broke the band and made Dirty Honey a household name, but even more remarkable is the fact that the band achieved that level of success without being signed. What factored into that decision?

John:
A couple of things. We weren’t going to take some deal that wasn’t very good, just to have a deal. And part of that was the faith in the team that we had already. Mark DiDia spent his life working at record labels. By the time he was in our lives, he’d basically had experience in almost every department. He doesn’t claim to be able to do everything, but he’s got a pretty 360-degree understanding of what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, and he knows people. So, we have a very small team, but it’s very committed. We were very cautious and careful about breaking that by bringing in a label and then all of a sudden having foreign cooks in the kitchen.

Image credit: Americana Highways (Image One)/Orange County Register (Image Two)

Andrew:
Hypothetically, under what conditions would the band sign with a label? What would move the proverbial needle?

John:
Well, certainly, passion would be number one. But we’re spoiled; we’ve got that with Mark DiDia. He was very passionate once he heard “When I’m Gone.” And then, I think, after that, he was very passionate that we could continue to make great music. That was a big boost for us. So, that would be the first thing; we’d wanna know that somebody at that label really cared about us. And, you know, secondly, nothing talks like money. But it’s hard to say.

Andrew:
Take us through the creative dynamic within the band during songwriting sessions.

John:
I think a lot of it comes from guitar riffs. Marc has written a couple, Justin’s written one, and then I’ve written the rest. In some ways, we’ve got to have a riff that everyone’s hyped on. Particularly Mark; he’s gotta be hyped on it. It goes from there. It’s usually a strong musical element that leads to the vocals.

Andrew:
The band continues to do things its own way, all the while encompassing the essence of classic rock ‘n’ roll. From your vantage point, John, what’s been the primary driving force that has propelled the band to prominence?

John:
I think it’s been the fact that we’re song focused. We’re focused on the song. We’re obviously a rock ‘n’ roll band, so we know that it’s always gonna have that sound and that swagger. But it’s like, how do we take the swagger and rock ‘n’ roll sound and put it into a song format that somebody who considers themselves a rock person will go, “Wow, that’s really good.” I think a lot of times bands or artists kind of become retro rockers; it kind of becomes a guitar player taking long solos every night. I think we realized strong songs are for everybody. You know, I still get to take solos, so it’s all good.

Image credit: Chris R. Smyth

Andrew:
Dirty Honey performed a terrific rendition of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” for the 2022 Winter Classic. What events led to the band’s involvement?

John:
Interesting question. It was very organic. It kind of came through some backchannels of a friend of a friend of a friend hearing about our band through a podcast; I think it was Spittin’ Chiclets. Then our manager and someone from TNT had a conversation and made it happen. A lot of hockey fans are primarily rock ‘n’ roll fans, so it’s a synchronistic relationship.

Andrew:
Last one. While you’re on the road, will you be actively writing? Can we expect any new music in the near future?

John:
Well, we’re definitely always writing. You know, we took a trip to Joshua Tree before the tour; kind of a retreat. We got some ideas. You know, we try to squeeze it in as best we can at soundchecks and stuff. There are always plans. The sign that’s always hanging over the front door is, “What’s the next album?” We never took that sign down.

Image credit: Guitar World

Interested in learning more about John Notto and Dirty Honey? Hit the link below:

Be sure to check out the full archives of Shredful Compositions, by Andrew DiCecco, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/shredful-compositions-archives/

About Post Author

Andrew DiCecco

Predominantly known for his NFL coverage, Andrew DiCecco is a Pennsylvania-based journalist with a profound passion for Rock music and its illustrious history. What initially began as a childhood hobby collecting CDs eventually evolved into a full-blown absorption into the world of Rock and Roll. An aspiring rock historian, Andrew seeks out every autobiography and documentary on Rock artists imaginable to further his knowledge to go along with a growing collection of vintage albums and magazines. Andrew’s musical preferences include, but are not limited to, Def Leppard, Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Foreigner, and Journey. An innate appreciation for guitar heroes, Andrew cites Vito Bratta, Eddie Van Halen, John Sykes, George Lynch, Dave Meniketti, and Neal Schon as some of his personal favorite players. Andrew is also a regular listener to SiriusXM’s <i>Trunk Nation</i> with Eddie Trunk, his primary source of inspiration.
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