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Dirty Honey Are Keeping Sunset Strip Rock Alive — But Only the Good Parts

It’s a few hours before showtime for Dirty Honey and singer Marc LaBelle is backstage at Nashville’s Brooklyn Bowl, wearing sunglasses indoors. The rest of the band is seated against the wall next to him, all in a row, to field questions about their latest album, Can’t Find the Brakes; changes within the group (they have a new drummer); and whether it’s possible to live the rock star lifestyle in an era where everyone is always watching and judging.

The sight of LaBelle obscuring his eyes in the green room of a bowling alley suggests the answer is yes. Whether the long-haired vocalist is nursing the aftereffects of a late night on this winter day or just leaning into the archetype of the tortured artist, he looks every bit like the last rock & roll star on earth.

He and Dirty Honey sound like it, too. Since the release of their self-titled debut EP in 2019, the L.A.-based band has unapologetically waved the flag for bluesy hard rock, the kind that dominated the Seventies, was revived in the mid-Eighties by groups like Guns N’ Roses and the Black Crowes, and largely petered out in the Nineties. Dirty Honey went on to tour with both the Crowes and GN’R and, like the opening acts that came before them, found audiences that needed, well, a little warming up.

LaBelle still winces at the memory of kicking off the Black Crowes reunion tour in 2021 at an amphitheater in Nashville.

“I was fucking miserable,” he says. “You’re playing the first of 40 shows, coming out of Covid, and we started the gig and it’s maybe a quarter full of people sitting on their hands. I was like, ‘This fucking sucks. This is going to be my whole summer.’”

Chris Robinson, who’s since become a friend, brought him back down to earth. “He said, ‘Motherfucker, I opened for Metallica when ‘She Talks to Angels’ was one of the biggest songs in the country, and people were throwing shoes and beer bottles at me. Did anyone throw a shoe at you last night?’” LaBelle recalls. “He said, ‘Just close your eyes and have fun,’ and the next day, I had a blast. Same exact situation, different mentality.”

It’s those slight adjustments, be they mental or musical, that have helped make Dirty Honey one of the most self-aware, and successful, rock bands to come out of the Sunset Strip. Once the epicenter for vibrant, trendsetting, and often decadent rock & roll, beginning way back in the Sixties, the 1.7-mile stretch of nightclubs and bars like the Whisky a Go Go and the Rainbow devolved into a breeding ground for unoriginal ideas in the late Eighties.

Dirty Honey, who moved to L.A. to chase GN’R-type success in 2017, were determined not to ape what came before. Their 2023 LP Can’t Find the Brakes, despite hints of a throwback sound, makes guitar rock relevant for a pop-dominant century. There are elements of vintage Led Zeppelin, but tracks like the fierce “Won’t Take Me Alive,” the power ballad “You Make It All Right,” and the risk-taking journey “Roam” show a band rooted in the present.

“I liken it to Amy Winehouse’s success. At first, the haters were like, ‘Oh, this is just Sixties girl-group stuff, regurgitated,’” says John Notto, the band’s gregarious lead guitarist and self-described “disciple of Slash.” “But if you actually listen to her records, they’re very modern. Modern bass choice. Modern drums choice. Modern sound. And I think that’s just liking what you like, but being alive now and following your meter to something real.

“So, for example, riffs that I write that are inspired by Guns N’ Roses, I don’t give it the green light until I’ve changed it enough,” he continues. “What else can I add to it? Otherwise, I’m just being a tribute. Once you embrace that, it doesn’t matter that you’re influenced by 50-, 40-, or 30-year-old music.”

LaBelle, Notto, and the rest of Dirty Honey — bassist Justin Smolian and new drummer Jaydon Bean — admit that at first, their audiences largely consisted of older fans who came up during rock’s heyday. But now, similar to fellow rock revivalists Greta Van Fleet, they’re seeing increasingly younger faces in front of the stage.

“You know, rock & roll isn’t pop culture right now,” LaBelle says. “It’s kind of an underground thing with kids that is actually fucking cool. And there’s a whole fashion element to it that we’re seeing, especially in Europe. We go play Milan and it’s a fucking show.”

Notto credits some of the band’s new audience to the decision to lean into ballads on Can’t Find the Brakes. “Roam,” “Coming Home (The Ballad of the Shire),” and the gorgeous “You Make It All Right” are each irresistible in their own way. The band recognized their cross-generational appeal while writing them.

Finishing “You Make It All Right,” in particular, was “magical,” LaBelle says, while Notto recalls friends texting him after he sent them the demo. “It was like, ‘Me and my girl are crying’ and ‘I got goosebumps, man,’” the guitarist says. “Moments like those should make it on the record.”

Even if their management disagreed at first.

“We had to fight to have that happen. There was a little pushback, like, ‘Three ballads? Guys, it’s a rock band!’” Notto says. “So, we started listing albums that had three ballads. I think our big evidence was Aerosmith’s Get a Grip. And they were all the hits!”

But the power ballad is about the only trend from Reagan/Bush-era rock that Dirty Honey will abide. Smolian compares the look-alike groups of the time to “boy bands,” and LaBelle says flatly that, aside from GN’R and the Crowes, he doesn’t much like the music made back then. He’s especially turned off by the retrograde lyrics of the time. “The misogynistic lyrical content was never really my thing,” LaBelle says.

Instead, the band gets a kick out of more innocent wordplay. While recording Can’t Find the Brakes in Australia with producer Nick DiDia, they misheard him say “Ballina Shire,” where the studio is located, as “Ballad of the Shire.” It became the parenthetical subtitle of “Coming Home,” making it seem if not Zeppelin-inspired, then at least Tolkienesque.

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“When I thought of the song, I was like, yeah, it’s got a Zeppelin-y, New Zealand mountain thing happening,” LaBelle says with a grin. “But it’s not that at all. It was literally an accident.”

You can almost see his eyes light up.

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