For years now, there have been a multitude of voices proclaiming and lamenting that “rock is dead!” While you might be inclined to believe these declarations when you see events like the Grammy awards shuffling these categories off to the pre-television ceremony, it's a far cry from the truth, and there are plenty of artists out there that are still fighting the fight to prove that rock is alive and well. One of the newcomers on that battlefront is the Los Angeles-based Dirty Honey. Last year, without any support at all from a record label, the band's single “When I'm Gone” hit number one on Billboard's mainstream rock chart – a first for a non-label act in the charts nearly-40 year history! Their latest single, “Rolling 7s,” is steadily climbing the same chart, and is leading the charge for the band's current headlining tour.
Ahead of that tour's stop in St. Louis coming up this Friday night, I had a chance to have a conversation with bass player Justin Smolian.
Justin Smolian: Hey Mike how's it going?
Mike Sorensen: Doing all right, and yourself?
J: Good, man! Just got into Detroit, and I got to the venue, Saint Andrew's Hall, where we're playing tonight, looks awesome.
M; I know it's going to be a great show. I appreciate you taking some time with me today.
J: Yeah, my pleasure.
M: I know you guys are doing the headline thing right now and that's great. I got to see you all with Alter Bridge and Skillet last year in St. Louis and that was a great show as well.
J: Oh cool! Yeah, that was such a fun tour to be on. Myles and Tremonti are just awesome dudes. (Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti, of Alter Bridge -MS)
M: Yeah, I've not met them, but everything I've heard about them they seem like they would be a lot of fun to hang out with and be on tour with.
J: Yeah, they're just like genuinely nice guys, and very humble and down to Earth. Tremonti was like “Come on guys come jam with me! We'll warm up together!” and we were like, “What?” Didn't expect that and yeah Myles has been super cool, like, even wear our merch on stage. We couldn't ask for more supportive guys. They give us tons of advice on how to manage our careers. It's really been a blessing, everything that's happened to us.
M: You guys managed to hit number one with the single last year (“When I'm Gone,” Number One on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart) without an actual record label so I think you're on the right track with the career so far. So, congratulations on that, as well!
J: Thank you very much! Yeah, the new single as well, it's doing really well. It's gonna crack the top 10 this week, I think. We're real excited everything. There's just momentum that keeps gaining, a snowball effect. We're selling out a lot of shows on this tour. It's just been cool, man. An awesome time in all of our lives right now.
M: Last year, along with Alter Bridge, you guys also opened shows for The Who and Guns N' Roses, to name a few. That's three really different eras of rock music, but it didn't seem like you had any problem winning over any of those crowds. Did it feel the same way from the stage?
J: I think Guns N' Roses was probably the hardest, because they had us go on well over an hour before Guns, and Guns is also notoriously late. At The Who show, by the time we finished playing, it was completely packed at that arena. And with the Alter Bridge tour, because Alter Bridge and Skillet were kind of co-headlining, and they were switching off each night, it would always be a packed house and we would open the show. And then, actually, sometimes the one that would play last, some people would leave because they came to see the other band, so we got really lucky on that tour.
But we're just a good, old-fashioned rock and roll band! We're just trying to build on everything that all of those bands have done. We've listened to all those generations. We're all nerds, we like to go back and listen to what our heroes listened to, and then find out what those people listened to. It's been really cool, the fact that we have, like, seven-year-old kids that love the music, and then we have people that are 65-year-olds coming up after The Who show. We got mobbed after The Who show! We didn't think anybody cared if we walked through the crowd, but there were so many people stopping to take pictures, and our record had only been out for eight weeks at that point! It was really cool.
M: Yeah, it was an amazing set when I saw you! One thing I did notice at that show in St. Louis, during the first number there was a little bit of a malfunction with your guitar strap.
J: Oh!! It was that show! Yeah, that was fun! That was cool.
M: But you did not miss a beat, you kept playing, you worked through it. That's something you would expect to see from a more veteran band. It just struck me and really stood out, you didn't run off stage or anything. Is that something that you think about ahead of time, or is that just something that you have to handle it as it comes up?
J: I've never had that happen before, so that was definitely an instance that we just hand to handle it. Luckily we have a great tour manager, he's always watching us like hawks from the side of the stage. So he was immediately running and grabbed my spare bass. But I was like “I can't change basses right now!” because I'd have to unplug and everything, so he took the broken strap off my bass and put the new one on.
It's actually pretty fun when things like that happen, because the crowd gets really behind us. I felt like after I got my strap back and started running around, it felt like people were yelling and screaming. The very first or second show of that tour, John's (Notto, guitarist) amp went out, like the second song. I kept playing, and I have a really thick sound I like to use with my bass. But they brought out the spare head and changed out his guitar head, and once his guitar came back in, it somehow timed perfectly for when the solo came in, and the whole audience went insane! It was so cool!
It's really cool when the audience sticks behind you, when you have a problem but you keep going, and like you said, people like that stuff. You've got to be in the moment.
M: I've seen shows where, honestly, it was more veteran acts that they've had issues, and they did not handle it as well as you did. So, again, kudos, it played brilliantly and you handled it smoothly.
J: Thanks, man! Yeah, I remember I saw Van Halen, they did one of the first late night performances, on The Tonight Show or something, but they did it on the streets of Hollywood, right down the street from where I live. Me and my brother went down and saw it. David Lee Roth was spinning his mic stand, and he hit himself in the nose and maybe broke his nose, it was bleeding everywhere! They stopped the show and got it all taped up. I was thinking “God, that would have been so rock and roll, if he's just kept going!” That's the kind of stuff that...the show must always go on! You don't stop!
M: Right, absolutely! And like you said, the crowd eats that up, because it's real. It's one of those things, it's real music, things happen, and you just carry on.
J: Right, like “Oh, I stopped playing, but for some reason, the music's still going.” No, we have no tracks, actually, so there's no stopping.
M: I know that's becoming a bigger issue with bands and acts out there, so knowing – exactly what you said with your strap issue, that you couldn't stop because the music would stop – that's a big deal, and I, personally as a fan, appreciate the real!
J: Thanks, man, I appreciate that. That's what's been good so far about this tour, is I feel like we have so many people that come out, and they're real fans also. I know people say we're playing real music, but they're real passionate fans of music, and they come out and see a show and we've won them over. They might not have known about us before, like when we performed with Alter Bridge or Slash. We've just had some of the best fans! We've been doing some meet and greets, and people bring homemade merch. I don't think any of us expected it to be like this, especially since we don't have a record label. It's been crazy. Like I said, it's been a snowball effect.
M: Well, I hope other bands are paying attention and taking some notes, because everything you guys are doing, you're doing it right. It's sounds great live, it sounds great on the album, it all just works for you.
I know you were talking about all the bands you grew up with, all the influences, do you remember what album you...I'm not sure how to word this...that you heard for the first time, rather than just listened to, that made you as “okay, that's what I'm going to do!” instead of just listening as a fan?
J: Oh, Guns N' Roses, for sure! “Appetite for Destruction.” I have this memory, actually, and I was really young, probably seven or eight, and I was on vacation with my dad. We were visiting my grandparents back east, and we took a cab ride, and the last song before we got out of the cab was actually “Knockin' On Heaven's Door.” And it was the Guns N' Roses version, and I loved it, and I remember asking my dad “who is that?” and he said “Oh, that's Bob Dylan,” who originally did the song. I didn't find out until I was a teenager and I got “Use Your Illusion,” and I said “Oh my God, that's the song I heard when I was a kid!” I remember it striking me before I even knew what it was or could even play an instrument, ya know?
But definitely “Appetite,” because there's just so much swagger and attitude on that album! That's what's always connected me with rock and roll. We're all pretty studied and accomplished musicians, but I've never been one to pace the crazy technical guitar players. I've just always been about those people that just have that raw emotion, and I think Slash definitely captures that. Same school as Jimmy Page, another great guy.
M: And that comes through with Dirty Honey, too! I know I said it a minute ago, but it's just a real sound. It doesn't sound overproduced and tracked 400 times. It just sounds like you guys are just playing the music.
J: Yeah, “Rolling 7s” was one take for drums, bass, and I think even the rhythm guitar. We cut the record in Australia, and we made demos before we went over there and sent to the producer. And when we got there, he took these drum hits that we had in the middle as a bridge and goes “just put that at the end!” and rearranged the song. That was the first time we even tried playing that arrangement, and he was like “that's it, I got it!” and he kicked Corey, our drummer, out of there! Corey said “I don't even know the song!” But capturing the energy of the live performance, and maybe not knowing what's happening next, because it was a new arrangement, we were all really listening to each other, and maybe even leaving space for someone to fill. We got a really great recording, and we couldn't be happier with our producer, Nick DiDia.
M: On that same note, the recent additional single that's not on the EP, the “Last Child” cover that you did from Aerosmith, There's the behind the scenes video that shows that being recorded basically live in the room. Do you guys record that way often, is that a preference for you?
J: I mean, John's probably always going to cut the guitar solos separately, and the vocals, because so much is changed, while you're in the studio you re-write parts. Marc will re-write lyrics in the studio. But for that one, we wanted to capture that super-live feel. It was supposed to be a live performance, also, but Dave Cobb, who produced that track for us, he's amazing, Grammy Award-winning. He's done Chris Stapleton and Rival Sons, he's amazing, and that's how he told us they did those records, like Chris Stapleton live in the room with the band, and Dave actually sits in the room with you while he's producing and while you're tracking.
Not with us, but with a lot of bands, he'll play guitar because he's a great guitar player. We played it through one time and he was like, I think we did five or six takes, but the first one, he was like “That's it!” and we were saying “Wait, wait, Dave, we were just running it through once!” And I think we used a lot of that take!
It's been a crazy twelve months!
M: Bringing in Dave Cobb, was that a sound, that “outlaw country” sound, was that what you were going for?
J: I think he's known for capturing that live performance, that live sounding record, where it's produced but it's not over-produced, and not too many instruments, and there's space for everything to breathe. For me, Chris Stapleton, that record that he made - “Traveller” - is definitely my favorite record of the past ten years. When I heard of the opportunity, I said I definitely want to do that! Marc's a huge Rival Sons fan, and he actually reached out to Dave Cobb years ago, before we got management, before we got anything, just randomly said “hey, would you consider producing us?” But back then it was too expensive for us! But now the opportunity came up, it came full circle. He's just the man! He really knows his rock and roll history, and he's got cool, unique recording techniques. We recorded at RCA studios, which is a legendary Nashville studio where Elvis used to record. There's so much history there, it was just cool to be in that room.
And we were all super tired that day! We were supposed to fly in the night before, but our flight got delayed like ten hours from LA. So instead of getting in at 7pm the night before, we got in at 5am and got like four or five hours of sleep. I remember, if you watch the video, I played with my sunglasses on, I was so tired during that! But it sounded great! He got a good performance out of us!
M: It really does! It's a great song that you guys picked to record, too. It's a classic, just pure rock song.
J: Yeah, I think it's a good fit for our band because we like sexy rock and roll, but we also all funk and R&B fans, so we like to play a little groovy, too, but still rock? That was a big part of what we were going for.
M: Jumping back to your originals, like you mentioned, “Rolling 7s” is still going strong. I know there's still a couple of tracks from the EP that haven't been released as singles, are you looking at releasing those, or are you already looking forward to the next record?
J: I think we're going to do one more single, “Heartbreaker,” as the next single after “Rolling 7s.” But we are going back in the studio. We're going back to Australia to record with Nick. But I don't think the next...EP, or full album, we're not sure what it's going to be yet… You know, it's going to take a couple of weeks to record, then mixing takes a while. You've got to do a lot of prep work to release an album properly, so I don't think that will come out until maybe summer. But we're not even sure yet, so don't quote me on that!
M: Right! I know the whole industry has changed, anyway, and some people have said they may never put out an album and just keep releasing songs at a time. But I know there's something to be said about actually tracking a whole album and making a story out of it. Not a concept album, but telling a story with the songs.
J: We have a real filter on what we put out. So we write a lot of songs – we wrote a lot more songs even for the first EP that we either just didn't record or decided not to record immediately. But if we have a full-length album, if every song is amazing, then we'll put out a full album. But if we have ten or twelve songs and feel that six or seven are amazing? Then we'll just put those out. We'll see how much writing we get done, and see how they sound once they get recorded.
M: Just like that, with you having that freedom to choose, being out on this headlining tour now, do you feel you have more freedom on tour, or do you feel more pressure as the headliner?
J: Oh, no, we love being headliners! It's so fun. I mean, it's super cool to open up for your heroes, and I definitely freaked out when I found out we were going to open up for Guns N' Roses. But you have more time to play as the headliner. You get longer soundchecks. We've had time to write music at our soundchecks on this tour! You know, when you're an opener, especially opening for someone like Guns N' Roses, those people aren't there to see you, they're there to see Guns N' Roses, and we're trying to win them over. These shows, we're selling them out, and everyone's singing the lyrics to the songs. And we're like “how do you even know that?” so it's just crazy. Sometimes we do singalongs, and we don't have to work as hard because people are actually there to see us, we're not trying to win them over.
M: Before I let you go, I have to ask: Marc has that great “Mad Hatter” top hat that he wears. Is that something, when you guys aren't on stage, do you guys hide or mess with him, or is that off limits for you?
J: No, he keeps that pretty closely guarded!
M: I had a feeling that might be the case!
J: He did leave it the other day, and I took kind of a, remember the Addams Family, a Cousin It photo, where I covered my face with my hair and put it on, it looked awesome. But they're pretty strict with that. I think he did misplace it once, but none of us were messing with him, and he was flipping out! Because they're not, like, $50 hats. I don't even want to tell you how much they pay for those hats!
M: I can imagine! I'm going to let you go get ready for the show tonight. Is there anything that you want to let fans know, or want to add, about the tour, about the future for Dirty Honey?
J: If there's anything we could say to the fans it's that we're so grateful that they've made this tour so much fun, and we're going to bring it every night. We're looking forward to hitting every one of these cities, and thank you to everyone that's coming out!
This Friday night – Valentine's Day! – Dirty Honey brings their Rolling 7s Tour to the Old Rock House in St. Louis. You can head over to https://www.dirtyhoney.com/ to grab up what tickets might be left and to keep an eye out for other dates, new music, and everything you need to know about the band! And stay tuned right here for coverage of the show!