Interview: John Notto and Justin Smolian of Dirty Honey (New Album: Dirty Honey)

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After garnering national acclaim off of their 2019 EP, hard rock band Dirty Honey are finally set to release their first full-length album on April 23. Originally scheduled to record the album in Australia in the spring of 2020, Dirty Honey were forced to put their plans on hold after the travel restrictions were implemented due to Covid-19.

In a conversation with Parklife DC’s Chris Smyth, Dirty Honey guitarist John Notto and bassist Justin Smolian explained how the forced downtime actually helped them become a better band, and in turn allowed them to create a better record. The pair spoke about the entire preproduction and recording process, which famous musician was recording in the studio beside them, and their plans for potential upcoming tours.

Listen to audio of Chris’s interview with John and Justin of Dirty Honey:

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(This transcription has been edited for length and clarity)

Chris Smyth: Hey, this is Chris Smyth of Parklife DC and I am speaking with John Notto and Justin Smolian of the band Dirty Honey. Guys, how are you doing?

Justin Smolian: Great, man.

John Notto: Whooo!

CS: I really want to talk to you about the upcoming, self titled Dirty Honey record. But before we get into that, just last week, up on your social media accounts you put up a video of Corey, your drummer, mountain biking and it appears that he broke his arm. Is that what happened? Is he ok? How’s he doing?

JN: He’s ok. He has a nice clean fracture in his wrist.

JS: A hairline fracture.

CS: He’s going to be good for whenever touring start again eventually, I’m guessing?

JN: No, he’s fine.

JS: Yeah, he’s out. (laughs)

JN: We’re told he’ll be ready. He just has to not move his arm a lot.

JS: The maniac had a cast put on last night and then said it was too tight and went back and had it sawed off. He was at the ER until 5 in the morning.

JN: He has to get another cast now.

CS: Might have helped a littler earlier in this pandemic, but I guess get it out of the way before you do hit the road.

JS: At least it wasn’t a week before we went on the road.

Watch Dirty Honey perform “Break You” for Lockdown Live at The Viper Room in July 2020 via YouTube:

CS: You guys were originally scheduled to record this record at this time last year. You were supposed to go to Australia and record the album. But then all of the restrictions were put in place and you couldn’t do that. I assume that was your plan for the next month or few, so when did you guys decide this isn’t going to open up anytime soon, we have to get this thing recorded?

JN: We were thinking about it as early as May, I think. Because I think people were still sort of fantasizing that….

JS: Hey, we’re gonna go in July guys don’t worry. (laughs)

JN: I’m sure it’s going to open up in July, no question. And then it didn’t, of course. And then it was like, maybe we’ll do a fall routing, but no. I don’t think we booked the studio until late August, maybe September. And the booking was for October, I think. So it took a while.

JS: The other thing too, all the studios were closed in LA. You couldn’t do anything for those first couple months. So we rented a rehearsal space kind of incognito. We weren’t supposed to be doing it, but we did anyways. And really just got the record to a better place and got a couple more songs in there. So we’re grateful for that. That’s been the one positive out of the covid situation. We definitely made a better record than we would have.

CS: That leads me to my next question, because in a normal setting you would have just gone there last year. You had a set amount of time before you were going to go back out on the road so you kind of had to get it done. How did this extended period of downtime effect the song writing process? What developed? How did it change what it would have been versus what it became?

JN: I think personally for me I honed in more on riff writing and also just my own process at my house, when the guys aren’t able to be there, which is, I think, important to presenting material. And I think overall we had more tunes to choose from by the time we hit the studio. We realized we were going to have a stronger showing than we would have.

JS: I think we got better as a band too because, to be honest before all this really took off we didn’t rehearse that much. And for us to be like, we have this rehearsal space that we are paying for, lets use it. You know you play on the road every day, you’re doing your shows, you have soundcheck but you don’t really rehearse that much. And so, the fact that we got to play all of these songs a ton before we went into the studio, and also we spent a lot of time just jamming. Corey and I and John would just jam before Marc got there and we’d just play tunes that we liked or make up riffs. I think it just made us a better band and I think that really comes across on the record.

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CS: That sounds great. Now, at the very beginning of 2020 you guys were playing shows, and some of the songs that are on this album you were playing for the first time to live audiences. So a couple of them were out there. When you went into the studio to actually record this, how much was already developed at this time last year, and how much more came during the recording process?

JN: During the recording process? When we hit the studio we had all the tunes done.

JS: But the period leading up to it between stopping touring and actually hitting the studio we developed…

JN: We probably only had an EP going into the quarantine and we went from 6 to 12 options, I think. So we doubled our money.

JS: There were starts for most of the ones, but there was a lot of undeveloped ideas that we got to explore that we wouldn’t even if we had gone to Australia because you’re obviously on a time crunch being in the studio there. You don’t have time to play a riff over and over and over again as a band for a week to make it feel right, like we had the opportunity to this time.

Watch a vide on the making of the single “California Dreamin'” by Dirty Honey on YouTube:

CS: When you were actually recording you guys released a behind the scenes video of the making of “California Dreamin’,” and there’s shot there where it looks like all four of you are playing together at times. How did you actually record it? Did one guy go in and lay down their track and then the next? Or was some of it actually recorded with all four of you in the studio together?

JN: Oh no, that’s how we record, all four together.

JS: Yeah, John does his solos afterward.

JN: No, I do my rhythm and soloing at the same time.

JS: What am I talking about. I don’t even know. I’m always so high I don’t what’s happening. (both laugh)

JN: It’s pretty amazing what I do, and we didn’t show that in the video because it’s a secret. No, that’s how we do all the basics for sure, bass, drums and guitar. I mean, we only had 6 days this time. For the first EP we had 12 days and did 7 songs. This second thing we did 12 songs in 6 days. So it was pretty much like choose the guitar tone you really think you’re going to use and try to bang out a take. And I think, because of what Justin said, because of the time spent preproduction, and the time spent in that rehearsal space, we were just better, so we were able to pull that off. And we were definitely sure of how the compositions go when we got into the studio.

CS: So there was no messing around. It was we’re gonna come in and we’re gonna knock this out.

JS: Yeah. With the EP we made arrangement changes in the studio. I don’t feel we did any of that on this record. It was all before we got to the studio we had it figured out.

JN: The time before was so new. It was a new relationship. We just kind of flew down there and we did changes. We did preproduction in those first few days. This time was different. The dollar was being spent with every minute so we made sure all preproduction was done before we walked into Henson studios.

JS: It’s a great studio. John Mayer was recording next to us and he’s got it locked out for like a whole year. And he’s like “You know, I’ve got these songs but a month later I want to change the feeler. You guys know what that’s like?” And we’re sitting here going, “No. We have 6 days to bang out a record.”

CS: So how was that when your producer is in Australia? Obviously, this year virtual communication has improved vastly from where we were a year ago. So was he just on a zoom link or whatever just watching you guys live and be able to tell you in real time? Or did you have to record stuff, email him and get responses?

JN: Oh, no no no. We had multiple angles baby! (laughs). The real functional app is a plug in for pro tools and it’s made by audio movers, and that allows us to stream over the internet in real time, what we’re recording in pro tools. We can talk to him. We each had talkback mics where we’re playing. And he had a talkback mic, Nick, and he’s talking into our ears, into our headphones. And the zoom we’re just using for visual confirmation. And we can each sign in on our phone, so we kind of had, Nick was in each of our booths. So it was pretty seamless. And we were actually pretty worried because we really like the in person experience, but it was pretty seamless.

JS: It went way, way better than we ever thought it possibly could have.

Watch the official music video for “California Dreamin'” by Dirty Honey on YouTube:

CS: That’s awesome. And when you’re so strict on time, the fact that it worked out so well is a major bonus. So why don’t we get into a few of the songs. You’ve released two so far. You put out “California Dream'” and you put out “Tied Up.” With “California Dreamin'”, it’s your first single, it’s also the title of an extremely famous song by The Mamas And The Papas. Was that a concern?

(Editor’s Note: The interview was conducted before Dirty Honey released “Gypsy,” their third single from the album)

JS: Uh, yeah, a little bit. But it just sounded so awesome we were like fuck it.

JN: Marc, he just sort of spit it out and it worked. And we were like, well, we’ll have to change that. And then I think he just decided no I’m not going to change it, it’s too good. We’ll just spin the lyrical content so that it’s not the same take on the California dream.

Stream “Tied Up” by Dirty Honey on YouTube:

CS: And lets get to “Tied Up” which you guys just released a week or two ago. I like it, I think it’s really cool. And Justin I actually want to throw this towards you. Towards the end of the song your bass line totally changes. You come out of the solo and you throw in this funky little beat that you throw in there a couple times. How’d that develop? How’d that change as the song developed? I thought that was really cool, and the first time I heard it I caught it and was like, has that been happening all song? And I went back and listened to it, and nope, he changed it at the end.

JS: I think it just came from playing it live, and I kind of like to always change the bass lines towards the end of the song just to try and make it more exciting and interesting. I just wanted to play a little bit more, honestly, and I thought putting in a little bit of a walking bass line in it kind of gave it a little bit more emotion and energy towards the end.

CS: I like it. Like I said it caught my ear right away and I thought it was really cool. And I want to talk about a song that you haven’t released yet. It’s my favorite song on the album. It might be my favorite song you guys have written thus far, it’s “Another Last Time,” the song that ends the album. I think it’s a great album closer.

JN: Thank you, man. I like to think that I influenced the placement of the song at the end of the record. I was really harping on my manager on the EP, to end the EP with “Down The Road.” But he didn’t do it digitally. But when it came time to do it on the album, on the vinyl, we added “Break You” so there was a nice flow and I was like “You got to end with the ballad! You got to end with the ballad!” It’s a great send off. It’s like a nice warm, fuzzy ending. So I’m glad you feel that way, and actually another interviewer said the same thing, said it was the perfect ender.

CS: I don’t know in the day and age of streaming if album openers and closers are a thing that people still listen for. I do, and like I said it might be my favorite song by you guys thus far, and I thought it was a great close to the record.

JS: And it was fun because we had a good friend play keys on it. And a good friend of John’s sang background vocals on it. And that was kind of a nice element to bring in too that we haven’t really touched upon as much.

JN: The guy who played keys on it plays keys in a funk band called Lettuce. I don’t know if you are familiar with them.

CS: I don’t believe so.

JS: Sick!

JN: They are sick. It was cool because it’s Dirty Honey plus some extra sound, so that’s really nice. It’s expanded a little bit.

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CS: I’ll leave you guys with this. Vaccines are getting out there. Places are opening up. Clubs are opening up. Are you able to start planning a tour? Are you looking at that? Are there too many changes between state to state? Where are you guys on that?

JS: We are definitely looking at it and trying to figure out the best option. It’s all very TBD, to be determined at this point. See if the economy and the nation actually opens up as fast a Biden says it’s going to. But we are just itching to get out there, and I tell you, as soon as we’re allowed to we are going to be out there playing shows for people.

JN: Yeah, that’s for sure. We’re in a unique position where we’re not, because we’re not huge yet, it’s easier to wind up our tour. So we can do a little blast if we want.

JS: Yeah, we’re not traveling with TVs or big sets or anything.

CS: Sure, you guys can just roll into a club with your amps and your guitars and go. I guess, as you said it’s still pretty fluid, are you looking at doing your own tour? Are you looking to jump on someone else’s tour?

JN: I think a little bit of both. I can’t commit to anything in terms of telling you what it is, but all the match ups, both the headlining and the support are exciting and perfect match ups I think.

CS: So it sounds like you’re in talks with other bands about possibly doing support if and when things open up.

JN: Oh absolutely, yes.

CS: Ok then I’ll have to keep my eyes out for all of that.

JN: For sure, yeah. Keep your eyes out. We like to have a contingency plan so that the second states give the green light we are all ready to put it in motion.

JS: We want to be the first ones in the door.

CS: Well, just like I said to Marc a year ago. Whatever you guys have planned, please bring it through DC so that we can check you out as well.

JS: We’ll do our best.

**
Visit Dirty Honey online for more music and tour dates (as announced)!

Meanwhile, here are some more photos of Dirty Honey in concert, copyright and courtesy of Chris Smyth.

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