Interview with Justin Smolian of Dirty Honey

Justin Smolian chatted with us about their live shows, searching for their sound, his classically inspired bass solos, and what he tries to avoid on stage.

In November 2018, L.A. rock band Dirty Honey was a completely unknown band recording their debut EP in Australia. Over the course of the last year, they have opened for The Who, Guns N’ Roses, and Slash, and made history as the only unsigned artist in Billboard’s near four-decades to hit #1 on the magazine’s Mainstream Rock Chart with “When I’m Gone.” 

Justin Smolian, Dirty Honey’s energetic and creative bass player, helps us understand all that was involved in finding the band’s signature sound and delivering captivating performances. He talks about his early mentors, taking risks, luck, starting mosh pits at shows, and his wish to remain humble and grounded.

LH: I followed Dirty Honey’s rise, as “When I’m Gone” made it to number one on the charts, but I was most impressed by your live performance in Harrisburg, PA. Since that day I’ve been trying to understand what made your performance SO good. A lot seemed to be in the interpretation of the music. I was wondering, how do you plan your live shows?
Justin: Other than the order of the songs, we don’t really plan it. All of us are really into improvisational music like jazz, funk, and R&B. And that’s one of the things that keeps it interesting. We don’t play the songs exactly the same every night. We like to leave room for different licks to come about. Or, in the song “Break You” we have a section where John does a solo, but Corey and I improvise every night and make the changes on the music underneath him different. That’s one of the ways that we keep it interesting for us, also, because we’re playing the same songs every night. It’s a different experience for us.

LH: Do you plan the order of the songs in rehearsal and see how they flow?
Justin: Yes. And, honestly, we don’t really rehearse that much. [laughs]

LH: Dirty Honey formed in 2018. Since then, what have you found has worked best to bring your live performance to the next level?
Justin: Definitely playing every night has just made us tighter. Since we were doing it every night, we became more confident and we started taking more risks. We all take individual solos now, at every show. We didn’t do that when we first started touring. That stems out of trying to find transitions between songs. It started off with playing a really short drum solo before our ballad, “Down The Road.” It just kept expanding on that. My bass solo came out of Marc announcing this every night, and I’d play a quick lick. One night, I just decided to go crazy, and they were like, “Well, you’re doing a bass solo every night, now.” The same with the guitar solo.

And also, opening up for some of these bigger bands has taught us how to work the big stage better. Me, especially, I love running around on stage. When we started, we opened for Slash and Alter Bridge. Having that big stage for me to run around on was just great. Everybody jumps on board and you actually have to learn how to play while running around. That’s a thing I had to practice. I’d be running around and I maybe hit a note a little tiny bit late because I was trying to run to some other side of the stage and jump. But that’s something I definitely got better at over the past year. It’s just learning how to really perform and be an accurate musician, at the same time.

LH: On the flip side of that, has anything happened in a performance that made you say “OK, let’s just not do that anymore”?
Justin: I’ve fallen a couple of times. And I hope I don’t do that again! There’s definitely a video of me just completely eating it. Actually, Corey used to video. Had a drum cam, and he caught me. It was our first show of the Alter Bridge tour. I ran across the stage, and I had bought these new boots. They didn’t have any grip on them. I just totally fell back on my butt. I hope to not repeat that. Even though, I did it one more time. And I fell off stage once.

I ran and I tried to jump up on the speaker. I got on the speaker but I overestimated it and I just fell forward. But I landed on my feet, and I fell into the audience. But I kept playing! Everybody loved it! But I was like, I prefer that not to happen again because I’m probably bound to hurt myself, eventually. They sent the video to me, and I was like “Oh, thank you, but please don’t actively promote that!”

LH: It also stood out to me in your live performance that you grab the audience’s attention easily and don’t lose them throughout the show. Is this a conscious effort to try and keep up the energy and hook the audience?
Justin: I wouldn’t say I’m actively thinking about it, but that’s what I get off on as far as performing – the interaction with the crowd, seeing them pumped up and getting more into it. We started off like a bar band playing in Santa Monica to packed college bars. A big part of that was keeping the college kids interested, and we were mostly playing covers, then. We’d play “Highway to Hell” and I would just straight up run into the audience, and run into people, so that they would start a mosh pit. I love the energy that a crowd could create. And that’s one of my favorite parts of being a live performer.

I think Marc is a great front man and we’ve all stepped it up individually trying to make it a better performance. It’s also something that opening for these bigger bands taught us. We’d show up and a lot of the people in the audience wouldn’t know who we are, so we’d have to win them over. Being exciting on stage and just giving it 110% all the time—when we started doing our own headlining shows, that really translated. When people come in and they know your songs, and you’re still giving it the same amount of energy, then it creates this frenzy that’s happening now.

LH: You opened for the bigger bands, got to play for their crowds and, like you said, you tried to win them over. How did you create your own fanbase?
Justin: Like you said, we had gotten a lot of fans from touring with other bands. A lot of people saw us with Slash and with Alter Bridge. And a lot of people heard about us when we opened for Guns N’ Roses and The Who. Radios were a really big part of that also. You probably know, we’re the first band to go number one without a record label. That got a lot of media attention, and got us in a lot of important magazines. We got Billboard and Loudwire, and a lot of people picked up that story. That helped a lot.

We’ve also gotten on a lot of playlists like Apple, Spotify, and YouTube. It’s really been hitting the market or the audience at every angle that we can. And we have a really great team. We have an amazing manager [Mark DiDia]. He’s one of the best in the business. We have a great agent. We have a great publicist. So we’ve been really fortunate to have a great team who’s put together a great strategy for us, that’s really been working. 

A lot of it has been word of mouth, too. A lot of people have just been thirsty for a new rock band to come out. We’ve had so many people come up to us after the shows that were like, “Oh yes, I found you on this, but then I told five of my friends and they’re all into it, and then they told all their friends.” And now there’s a whole group of them at our show. That’s really cool. That happened organically.

LH: Did you have any mentors in this process? Another band, or other musicians?
Justin: I don’t know if the band, in particular, had a mentor. Definitely having Slash take us out on our first real tour was pretty huge. He didn’t really sit us down and talk to us, or anything. But just knowing that he’d heard our music and picked us and showed us to all his fans, that was huge. I definitely had some teachers that were mentors. My first bass teacher, he was a guy named Luke Castro. When all I wanted to do was punk-rock music when I was 12, he would come in and he would play me funk music, and he would play the jazz, and he’d also play me rock music, of course. But he expanded my ear and that’s a big part of the Dirty Honey sound.

We all grew up listening to rock music. All of our parents made us listen to classic rock, when we were kids. We all also studied jazz, and classical, and funk, and R&B. And I think that’s a big part of our sound. It is just all that together, in the format of rock.

LH: I was going to ask about your sound. I’ve heard that it takes about five to seven years for a band to find their sound, and Dirty Honey seems to already have a radio-ready sound. How has it developed?
Justin: We have to thank management a lot, and our producer, Nick DiDia, for that. A lot of people said to us, when we first went in to make our EP, [that] we almost had two different bands happening at the same time. I don’t know if you know our song “Fire Away.” We actually had four songs that we recorded when we made that. We made it back before we got with management. We just did that on our own time. We produced it ourselves. And that was more of a modern rock sound. There’s a song that’s not out anymore, called “Falling For You,” that was very Muse inspired. And then, we also have a lot more traditional blues based rock and roll. When our manager heard “When I’m Gone,” he’s like, “That’s a hit single! Try and write more songs in that vein.” We still have a little bit of both going on. I think “Scars” is more in that old vein. Our producer helped us out a lot. Helped us hone in our sound.

When we went to make the record, we didn’t have all songs finished. “Rolling 7s” and “Heartbreaker” both got finished in the studio. I don’t know, we just got really lucky, and like I said, we’d played in bars for years before Dirty Honey was really a band. It was just John, Marc, and I, and just random drummers playing covers. And, of course, we were playing Guns N’ Roses, and AC/DC, and Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin every night. So, that really came through in the writing, because that’s what we’d been playing every weekend for years.

You have to be true to yourself. When we were first starting out and trying to find a sound, and they were like “Well, just do this!” [meaning] more of the classic rock or blues based thing. We were like “Well, that’s just really easy!” We were almost avoiding that because it was too easy for us. And then we did it, and everybody loved it. “Oh, well we could do this. No problem!”

LH: Which song changed most during production?
Justin: Probably “Rolling 7s” changed a lot. That outro we have in it, where there’s a drum solo, that was initially the bridge and the melody was a little bit more complicated. Marc was originally singing the guitar line. He was going like, “When you need a little lovin’”[singing], following over the guitar notes. When we recorded it, it seemed a little bit busy. It just ended up being “Tina, duh, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah” [singing]. And that just made it way more singable and fun. That changed a lot.

And “Heartbreaker” was pretty much done, but there’s that whole outro that Marc sings, that wasn’t done before we got in the studio. It was mainly produced by Nick DiDia, but he has a partner named Bernard Fanning, who came in and helped tweak melodies and lyrics a little bit. He was a famous singer from an Australian band called Powderfinger, so he helped in that regard. That whole [singing section] at the end of “Heartbreaker,” we didn’t have before we got in the studio. I think “Rolling 7s” probably changed the most, when we recorded it.

LH: I have a few bass specific questions. In concert, you do these virtuoso melodic solos, with great phrasing. And you play the bass like a regular guitar. I’m curious, what got you to your current style?
Justin: It’s being forced to take a bass solo. I could slap, but I’m not like a Victor Wooten, flashy slap guy. I just wanted to find my own sound. I studied classical guitar in college. I have a degree in classical guitar performance. I played a few pieces that involve what’s called tremolo, which is where you use all four fingers to create a really fast sound. I was just like, “Hey, what if I try and apply that to the bass?”

I’m very influenced by Rage Against the Machine and Christopher Wolstenholme [Muse], I’m a big fan of his tone. I was like, what if I combine these tones of Tim Commerford and Muse? And then put it together with a classical sense? I think that created an interesting sound. And, I was also like, I got to be true to the bass! So, let me put a funk thing at the end of it! I’m a big fan of Flea, and Larry Graham, and Bootsy Collins, and all those old school funk guys. I wanted to just touch on everything that has inspired me over the years. Classical music, funk. I do like some rock bending in there, also. I try and get everything that I know how to do and put it into one.

LH: It sounds amazing. It was very surprising.
Justin: Thank you very much.

LH: What made you love the bass and pick that as your instrument?
Justin: I started bass when I was 12. My first guitar I got when I was 10, but I didn’t really play it. My dad’s best friend was a famous guitar player from this old band called Sha Na Na. They were the band in the movie Grease and they played Woodstock. They were really famous in the 70s and 60s. He gave me a guitar lesson when I was 10 and it was way too advanced. I played for, like, a week and then my friend left my acoustic guitar in the rain. It got ruined. Then, my friends started a band when I was 12 and I wanted to play. My dad was like, “Well, you should play bass because you’ll always work if you’re a bass player.” And so, I just listened to my dad and started doing that.

I wanted to write songs shortly after that, so in about six months to a year after that: “Dad, I want a guitar again, so I’m going to be able to write songs.” They got me a guitar and when I got to college I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to study music and I’d played bass in the jazz band at my high school. I took a classical guitar class in college because I was learning some Zeppelin songs with finger picking and I thought that could help improve it. I did better in the class than most of the people that were already majoring in classical guitar. The head of the department, who was teaching the class, was like, “Hey do you want to be part of the program?” And I was like, “Sure, why not?” That’s it. It was really like that. I didn’t think too much about it, but I loved it.

But towards the end of my degree, I was like, the only way I was going to have a career out of it is if I became a professional. You go all the way, and you get a doctorate, and you teach at a university. And that’s just something I had no desire to do. I wanted to be a performer and I wanted to write music. And I was really lucky.

I grew up in Los Angeles and I played bass for my high school choir and we did a recording my senior year. The choir director took us to a recording studio to get mixed. The owner of the studio was like, “Who’s playing bass?” And he was like, “This 18 year old student.” He gave the guy that owned the studio my number. He actually ended up calling me and giving me my first paying gigs when I was 18. And that’s when I realized, my god, I could make money doing this. Why would I go get a regular job? And I’ve been working ever since then. I never stopped working.

LH: Your first headlining tour was a great success in many ways, with sold-out shows. At what point in a musician’s career does fame occur – when fans start merging your stage persona with who they think you are in real life? Has this started happening to you?
Justin: It has. I don’t feel like I’m famous, but on the last tour, it happened a couple of times. I went outside to smoke a joint with this fan and he was like, “Oh my God, this is the closest I’ve ever been to a famous person.” And I was like, “I’m not famous, dude.” It happened a couple of times, now, where people were like, “You’re famous!” And I’m like, “I don’t feel famous. I’m still living in a one bedroom apartment in Hollywood.” It started happening after the song went number one because that’s when we started getting more media attention. But I honestly don’t feel like I’m famous and I hope I never get that feeling. I always want to stay humble and grounded.

LH: Does an increasing fanbase and popularity in rock music always bring a level of fame? It does not seem to happen so much in classical music or in ballet.
Justin: Yes, it’s a more popular form of music right now. Classical music is more about just the music, and not about the performer. It’s about interpreting other people’s music. You only really become famous if you’re a composer and then it’s not usually until after you are dead. Whereas in rock music, it’s about playing your own music and really expressing what you feel; and it’s the same in the performance. And it’s about doing these interviews. It’s about making music videos. That’s why people become more famous in rock. It’s the same in pop. It’s more about the whole package, not just music.

LH: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I never thought about that. I was wondering why the most famous ballet dancers don’t have fans following them around.
Justin: I think in ballet it’s also because it is of a higher society. It is so expensive to go see a ballet. Or, it’s pretty expensive to go see an opera. Not very expensive to turn on YouTube and watch our music video.

LH: Dirty Honey was planning to record in Australia and do a European tour. The current circumstances have changed some of these plans. How are you planning to move forward?
Justin: We’re supposed to be in Australia recording right now, but that got canceled. So, we’re trying to write more music. That’s the only thing you can really do right now. It seems like a lot of our dates are getting canceled, at least through May. We’re just crossing our fingers that the stuff we have booked in July and August and September will happen because we’ve had some really cool stuff that we haven’t announced yet, that we’re super excited [about]. We’re really just hoping that they’ll still happen. But for the time being, we’re just going to write more music. We’ll probably do a live stream and just try and stay connected with our fans and stay productive. It is what we can really do at this point, and wait and see what happens next.

LH: A lot of musicians and artists have lost work due to concerts being canceled. How can fans help in these times?
Justin: Just show up when we come back. I’m not a person to ask for handouts and be like, “Oh, please give us money.” I don’t want to do that. But we’re just hoping that when we come back, people aren’t scared to go out to a concert. We also hope people will still have money to buy a ticket. The best way they could support us is that when we come back, they come back, also.

LH: To conclude, do you have a message for the readers of Loud Hailer Magazine?
Justin: Stay dirty, and we’ll see you on the road, soon!

About Csilla Kajtar 3 Articles
Csilla loves dancing, music, and photography. She is originally from Romania, lived in 4 different states in the US, and likes to travel, Spain being her favorite destination.