Dirty Honey Is Moving at the Speed of Sound on ‘Can’t Find the Brakes': Interview
There's a moment in the guitar solo to "Can't Find the Brakes," the title track off Dirty Honey's brand-new sophomore album, that epitomizes the young rockers' speed-of-sound rock 'n' roll fantasy.
You'll know it when you hear it. John Notto's guitar goes "ooh—EEE—ooh—EEE—ooh," a wild fluctuation achieved with the help (and gear) of producer Nick DiDia, whose extensive recording resume also includes Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. Notto had passport issues that delayed his entry into Australia, where Dirty Honey recorded Can't Find the Brakes, and he was under the gun to re-record his guitar parts.
"We're sitting there and I was like, 'What if Angus Young and Tom Morello had a baby?' And then Nick pulled out that pedal," Notto tells UCR. "That little part where I use that was the first take, so it's a little out of tune because I was just going for it. And I wanted to perfect it and really do it, like, in tune or whatever. And Nick wouldn't let me. He was like, 'No, that won't be cool.'"
Dirty Honey doesn't have time for second-guessing. The Los Angeles quartet — Notto, singer Marc LaBelle, bassist Justin Smolian and drummer Jaydon Bean, who joined the group for Can't Find the Brakes — has been on a whirlwind-like upward trajectory since becoming the first unsigned band to top the Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs chart with 2019's "When I'm Gone," off their self-titled debut EP. Opening slots for Black Crowes, Guns N' Roses and Kiss followed, along with another self-titled full-length album in 2021.
Listen to Dirty Honey's 'Can't Find the Brakes'
'Can't Find the Brakes' Adds New Shades to Dirty Honey's Sound
Now they're stepping into their own as bonafide headliners, filling large clubs and theaters across North America on their current trek. On stage and on record, Dirty Honey is expanding the breadth of their songwriting. Can't Find the Brakes features plenty of riff-rockers, such as the title track, lead single "Won't Take Me Alive" and the slinky "Get a Little High," but they coexist alongside the acoustic ballad "Coming Home (Ballad of the Shire)" and the expansive, jammy album closer "Rebel Son." They've added subtle new shades to their sound, but there's still no mistaking their vintage hard-rock flair.
"I was already chirping the whole time, like, 'We've got to really ... the old shit's the old shit!" Notto says. "To me, the EP and the LP were really like one album, because creatively, we were all in the same headspace and the same spot. There was no talk of, 'How do we go further? How do we expand?' There was none of that. We were actually very much like, 'Alright, let's keep driving this truck down this lane' kind of thing. And then, for me, once that was over and we were touring on it, I just felt like, 'I don't have as many of those riffs in me anymore. I want to go somewhere else.'"
Dirty Honey decamped to DiDia's studio in Byron Bay, Australia, to record Can't Find the Brakes, marking the first time they had the benefit of making an album in person rather than remotely. "We got to spend almost a month over there doing it with Nick," Smolian tells UCR. "We finally had enough time, because we've always been rushed on all the other albums, always like seven to 10 days making them."
'It's Gonna Be Dirty Honey and It's Gonna Kick Ass'
The bassist echoes Notto's sentiment about widening the scope of their songwriting on their sophomore album. "Everybody in the band is so talented. We are not just a riff band," he explains. "We can play funk, we can play R&B, we can play blues, we can play acoustic, bluegrassy stuff, whatever. And we really want people to know that there is a lot more to us than [hums the 'When I'm Gone' riff]. ... Whatever we do, no matter what style, it's gonna be Dirty Honey and it's gonna kick ass."
Bean also makes his presence abundantly clear, not only through his tight-yet-loose drumming but his vocal harmonies, which add a new layer to the band's sonic stew. "I don't know if it was necessarily planned, per se, but I just started throwing them in there, and everyone liked it, so I kept doing it," he says. "I don't think we're necessarily pushing it too far in terms of ... doing something in the recording room that we can't necessarily pull off live, because John takes some harmonies as well. And if there's a big gang part, Justin hops in on it, too. We didn't want to go barbershop quartet with it. But, you know, adding a little bit of spice with some thirds and some fifths in there ..."
Smolian chimes in: "Definitely makes those choruses hit a little bit harder."
Watch Dirty Honey's 'Won't Take Me Alive' Video
Dirty Honey's Constant Quest for Improvement
Dirty Honey also put those vocal harmonies to good use in concert with a cover of Van Halen's "Could This Be Magic?" that proved short-lived. "Marc grew to hate it so much we're not [doing it] anymore," Notto laughs. "I think we did it for like the first six shows or something. And now we're doing a bluegrass, double-time version of 'Honky Tonk Women,' which is also going over great."
It's just one of the many ways Dirty Honey continues to fine-tune their live presentation. Notto, in particular, is blessed and cursed with being a devout tone shaper, in constant pursuit of the perfect guitar sound. It's made him one of the most buzzed-about young guns in the rock guitar world, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of his own enjoyment.
To illustrate this point, Notto mentions the band's recent dinner with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. "It was this really impactful thing he said to me. He was just like, 'My mom used to try to show me off to people and be like, "Tell them how many hours a day you practice."' And he would be like, 'Mom, I don't know. I don't have an amount. All I know is I just love it so much, I just want to always be doing it.' ... He just kept talking about how much he fell in love with something. And that's all he could say was his biggest advantage, was that he loved it so much.
"So that really resonated with me, you know, that he was in love with what he did more than he was aware of anything else," Notto continues. "I was like, 'Oh, that's the most amazing thing I've ever heard.' It's pretty rad. So yeah, I hope to live that way."
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin