John Notto of LA’s Red Hot Retro Rockers DIRTY HONEY (Exclusive Interview)

L-R: Corey Coverstone/drums, Marc Labelle/vocals, Justin Smolian/bass, John Notto/guitars (photo- Richie Davis)

The power of rock n’ roll comes not from what you play, but how you play it. It’s the FEEL of the music, the texture, that makes a good song great. John Notto is the ax-slinger for the LA rock revival band Dirty Honey, and he seems to really respect the emotional roots of rock music. In our exclusive interview, he talk about influences, authenticity, and playing what you feel. Check it out:

Rob Gomez- Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us! “When I’m Gone” is getting really heavy play in my car right now! Obviously, this single has taken off, and your EP is getting a lot of great reviews. Did you guys know how special this was when you were recording it?

John Notto- I love that! Yes and no… I think the part where we felt special was on some of the songs that weren’t finished when we got in the studio, and the magic goosebump moments we had happened in the studio. That’s when we were like “Holy crap! Some of those were really special!” I think “When I’m Gone” is one of the older songs. Sometimes, you do so much stuff that it’s hard to know, like “Am I great, or am I just joking?” *laughs* So we went in with “When I’m Gone”, (and) we knew we had that one. Songs like “Heartbreaker” and “Rolling 7’s” came together in the studio, and that’s when we gave ourselves goosebumps, so to speak. 

RG- Definitely! I saw you recorded this EP in Australia with Nick DiDia. That must have been a hell of an experience! What took a band from LA to Australia to record their first big EP, and what was it like working with Nick?

JN– Well, what took us there was… well, he was on the list of guys to talk to and in no particular order, we hit other guys up, but it didn’t work out. We talked to him and he’s great. He understood where we were, and more importantly, he understood where we wanted to be and how to get us there. He helped us out, and he gave us a favorable deal up front. In terms of it might seem like it’d be more expensive to go to Australia, we were able to divvy it up to where we were able to go. 

RG– He was reasonable.

JN- Yeah! I mean, I’m not saying he was cheap, (because) he wasn’t, but worked with us. And his resumé, of course! It just beat paying a studio in LA three grand a day up front, or whatever it is. It’s crazy! But as far as being in Australia, it was paradise. It was a total retreat away from our problems, away from our duties…

RG– …women outnumber men. It’s a great place to be!

JN- Amazing!

RG- You guys have played with some all-time greats like The Who and Slash, with two guitar heroes that are synonymous with their respective generations of rock. How did it feel to share a stage with musicians of that caliber? Were Pete Townshend and Slash big influences of yours?

JN– Slash, especially. Pete Townshend I love as well. He’s not as direct of an influence on my playing, but you know… it’s the Who! Everyone knows at least a handful of their songs, and I think some of their anthems are some of the most important anthems in rock, period. Leading up to it, the walking to soundcheck, watching them do their soundcheck, it’s goosebumps. You get misty-eyed, you pinch yourself, you look at each other like “Are we here?”, especially with the Who. But then it came time to play, and it was like “Alright, we’re here. We got called for a reason.” And you just believe in that reason and you just go hard and do what you do every night… and try not to step on Pete Townshend’s pedalboard! *laughs* 

RG- That’s trial by fire, right there! You’re in front of proven acts like that, and that really shows you where you’re at. 

JN- Yeah. You don’t believe it at first, and then when you’re there, you tell yourself “You better believe it, because you’re here, so go!”

RG– Show ‘em why you’re there!

JN- Yeah, exactly!

RG- Now you guys are going on this tour with Alter Bridge and Skillet, arguably two of the best hard rock bands of our generation. Is it exciting to bringing your brand of rock, which has a classic, bluesy edge to it, to a young crowd that may have never seen an act like yours live before?

JN– Definitely! I mean I definitely want to bring this to as many young crowds as possible. 

RG– Absolutely. There aren’t too many bands around like you guys right now are playing harder alternative rock, like Alter Bridge. You guys really bring that classic, bluesy rock with you, and that’s something a lot of young people have never seen before. 

JN– Yeah! And I think they’ll like it. I mean, I like it, so why would they! *laughs* I think playing in front of the alternative crowds and hard rock crowds, they still like us, even though we’re sort of swimming upstream, so to speak. We played Heavy Montreal on Slayer day, and it was a sea of dudes in Slayer shirts. Dudes were throwing up the devil horns to us, just rockin’ out! I didn’t know what to expect, so I think it’s good to play in front of that crowd. 

L-R: bassist Justin Smolian, vocalist Marc LaBelle, drummer Corey Coverstone (photo- Mike Savoia)

RG- You guys are the evidence that rock music isn’t dead- these wailing, soulful vocals from Marc, your gutsy, heart-ripping guitar solos, and this airtight groove from Justin and Cory… you guys are really a throwback to a better time for rock music. Are you guys consciously trying to be a shot of adrenaline for the industry, or is this just what you all have always wanted to do?

JN- It’s definitely what we always wanted to do. We’ve always been putting in the extra shot of energy, even when we were a cover band. It’s just how we play. This is how we express ourselves, by flipping out, jumping around, playing it hard! Even when people saw us in bars, playing classic rock hits of the 70’s. People were like “You guys actually FEEL like what it must have felt like (back then).” Because you know, a lot of cover bands will play the parts right, but kind of just do it. 

RG– Just go through the motions. 

JN– Yeah! And I think with a lot of the throwback stuff today, there’s a lot of pageantry involved in it, because it looked so glamorous back then. It’s enticing to get bell bottoms, crazy shoes, and crazy shirts and pretend like you’re Freddie Mercury, but if that supplants the hard-hitting, the believability of it, then it’s not worth it. We’re not a schtick. We’re just dudes in the wrong time period! 

RG- Hell yeah! And that’s the thing… I think a lot of people our age that didn’t get to see Queen, didn’t get to see Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith or any of those bands live, can’t appreciate that they walked the walk. They didn’t just look cool, they came out and played. They delivered! 

JN– Yeah!!! Before we started getting really good at songwriting, the thing that kept us going was like “We can play!”  Not in some way like “Oh, we’re the greatest musicians in the world!”, but we play hard, and like you said, (we play) these soulful searing guitar solos. We just had to play our own version of it. 

RG- Yeah, that’s it, man! And let’s face it- you don’t play rock music in a rock band in front of a lot of people if you’re not a little bit cocky. You gotta be! You just have to be. It’s part of the resumé! I’m not buying it if you’re not walking with a little strut! *laughs*

JN- Yeah! I like that *laughs* That’s what it is!

RG- These songs are really well written, and they play to the strengths of the band- great hooks and grooves, really solid solos, those wailing vocals. How do you guys go about writing? You mentioned you do some of it in the studio, but is this something ya’ll have been at for a while?

JN– Well, I mean, we write alot. We’re very much children of our generation. We’re sending each other memos all the time. The iPhone is an integral part of it! I send riffs around all the time, and Justin actually plays guitar, so he writes riffs, too. Once we get this kind of swirling pool of things that have been upvoted enough, we play them as a band, and you can see that the adjustments are made in increments. Generally, it’s the music first, but not completed. We don’t have the whole song written, musically, and then add the vocals. Marc feeds off guitar playing alot. He’s a guitar-head, he plays guitar, so I think in our fantasy world, I’d be the singer and he’d be the guitar player. *laughs* But, we both love our respective positions. I think he really gets inspired when he hears a great riff or a great chord progression, cuz then he’s like “Yeah, I can do something with that!” and then it kind of goes from there. Cory, a lot of times, steps in at the last, and he’s kind of added last. Sometimes it’s just his natural instinct of the groove, or his thing just makes the difference. It’s kind of crazy. I’ll give you an example. “Rolling 7’s” was a riff I had that I hadn’t played for anybody. I was working it up ’til I thought it was presentable, because I don’t jump too early! I’m a firm believer in “don’t shout what you’ve found”, you know what I mean? *laughs* I was holding on to it, and one day in rehearsal, I just start noodling with it, just seeing if people look up. Cory just started playing it, but he was playing it slower, and he was playing it with a swing, and that made me adjust completely. All of a sudden, we had the groove and the feel that you hear on the record. Now the point I’m trying to make is that I had this, like, cocaine-speed riff, and I’d never played it for them, because I never wanted them to hear it! But look what accidentally happened in rehearsal when Cory starts playing it. So that’s just kind of what happens when there’s that final touch… when everyone actually puts their hands on it. 

RG– That’s everything lining up there. The planets are aligning and getting everything just right. That’s a sign of good collaboration there. You’ve got good band members that work with you. 

JN– Absolutely, yeah! You’ve got to deal with different opinions, but yeah!

RG- You’ve got different opinions, you’ve got people to talk you off the ledge, like “Hey, man, I know you think this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it’s not!” 

JN- *laughs* Yeah, yeah! You don’t want to hear it, but it’s true! It happens. 

RG- That’s what it’s all about. What are some of the biggest influences of the band? Who were ya’ll listening to when you decided this is what you wanted to do?

JN- Well, Justin is a big 90’s rock fan, sort of that heavy alternative. I think in an alternate universe, or if he ever does a side project, it’ll be ,like, slooow stoner metal. *laughs* He loves that stuff! But he loves the big bands of the alternative wave, like Stone Temple Pilots and all those guys. Guns N’ Roses! He and I are big Guns fans, of course. Marc is a huge Aerosmith fan, but he’s also a big songbook fan. Like he loves Billy Joel. I think he likes pop music more than he lets on to us, for whatever reason. *laughs* But I think what he loves about it is the trimming-of-the-fat element that exists in pop music. Like, it’s a clean verse, it’s clean singing… 

RG- It’s very efficient form of music. 

JN- Yeah. So like a Bon Jovi type…. and if you listen to Guns, they’re following that formula! If you listen to us, we’re doing it too, but it tastes like 70’s Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC. What I bring to the table is that I’m a lover of all things 1968-80. I just love the funk, the soul, R&B. Zep, AC/DC, Queen, Aerosmith. Of course, you love the Beatles. I love Pink Floyd, love all the textures.  I think Cory is actually a jazz-head. He’s very modern kind of guy, but his big rock influence is Alex Van Halen. He’s a big Alex guy. He loves Alex, big time. He’s a craftsmen about what he does, so he really loves the guys that are really assertive and clean. So that’s the stew you’re kind of hearing. 

RG– You guys will be here in San Antonio October 19th. I’ll be there, taking some pictures. Have you guys come to Texas yet, or are the San Antonio and Dallas gigs your first venture down here?

JN– Actually, we’ve been there once. We’ve been to Dallas and to Houston, as well, I believe, on our very first tour. It was a small three-band tour with Goodbye June and Red Sun Rising. I think in Dallas, we played the Gas Monkey (Live). We also played San Antonio at some festival associated with the college… I believe it was in the spring. 

RG– Oysterbake?

JN- Yes! Yeah, it was Oysterbake. It was a good time. 

RG– Oysterbake is pretty cool, man. It’s one of my favorite festivals there. Well, that’s good man. What’s next for Dirty Honey? What do you guys got coming up?

JN– Well, we got that Alter Bridge tour. We’re really excited. We think, if all goes well, we’ve got like three singles off this first EP. We’re gearing up to hit the world with the second one and push the second one. Then, we’ve got some really exciting stuff that we can’t announce yet coming after August. We’re really excited about that stuff. It should be announced soon. Like I said, we’re really writing our butts off, and the goal is to get back in the studio in the first part of the new year. And our management… if I know two steps ahead, they know like, five steps ahead. *laughs* They probably have something coming up that I don’t know about!

RG– They’re not showing their whole hand! *laughs* Well, John, it’s been great talking to you. Dirty Honey is an awesome band. They’re great for rock music, they’re great for young people that are interested in rock music, and we’re just a huge fan of that. Is there any advice you have for any young people that want to pick up an instrument and start a band?

JN– Yeah. Play all the time and learn only the music you love! You want to add stuff, add it later. You want to add music school stuff, add it later. Stevie Ray Vaughan said “You feel it first, then you learn how to do it.” So, if you feel it, learn how to do that. If you don’t stop the feel, you’re good. 

RG– Amen, man! A fellow Texas, we like that too! Thanks again, John, and we’ll see you in San Antonio! 

JN– Alright, man! See you soon.  

Dirty Honey Live – L-R: Drummer Corey Coverstone, bassist Jusin Smolian, guitarist John Notto, vocalist Marc Labelle (photo- Mark Savoia)

Don’t forget to check out Dirty Honey on Facebook, Twitter, and on their official website! Tickets for the show in San Antonio can be found here.

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