"That's what Axl was most interested in, me getting eaten by a bear": Dirty Honey are ready for the big time, as long as the wildlife doesn't get to them first

Dirty Honey studio portrait
(Image credit: Katarina Benzova)

Marc LaBelle is a natural wanderer. A California resident with a generously stamped passport, the singer has seen a lot of the world, much of it from a motorcycle. The Dolomites in Northern Italy. France and Spain. Rome through Bari and into Croatia and Slovenia. New Zealand. Australia. “A ton of Canada.” Alaska. During time off he and a friend go hiking in Wyoming and Montana, where they photograph grizzly bears. 

All that comes before you factor in his travels with Dirty Honey. Extensive support tours with their heroes Guns N’Roses, as well as Kiss and Rival Sons, plus their own headline runs, have hurtled LaBelle and his bandmates across the globe with barely a moment to draw breath. 

The rush of this experience pours into their second album Can’t Find The Brakes, a treasure chest of energised classic rock’n’roll, imbued with diverse moods not seen on 2021’s shit-kicking self-titled debut. It’s the product of a high-octane period, stirring pensive Zeppelin-y textures into the meaty Sunset Strip boogies that first turned heads in their direction. All that, and they’re still unsigned. 

But it was the grizzly bear photography – and the close shaves it’s entailed – that Axl Rose wanted to hear about when LaBelle joined him backstage in San Diego last year for a three-hour, tequila-fuelled hang that left the Dirty Honey frontman wondering how it all got this far. 

“That’s what Axl was most interested in, me getting eaten by a bear…” he chuckles, a few hours before the band headline a gig in Kansas. “It’s interesting because up in Alaska you can get really close to these bears that are salmon fishing, and they don’t really care about humans, they just want to eat salmon. In Montana and Wyoming there’s a different threat there, especially if they’re near food and they think you’re going for their food… But it’s all good.” 

Completed by guitarist John Notto, bassist Justin Smolian and drummer Jaydon Bean, Dirty Honey bottle much of that risk and exhilaration on Can’t Find The Brakes. Bears aside, they’re not short on inspiration: the fast pace of road life; the highs and lows of the past few years; the thrills that rock stars crave, and the cost at which it often comes. 

“So many musicians have problems with addiction, because they’re always chasing the high of being on stage,” LaBelle muses. “I think on some level I’m probably doing that as well. I’m just choosing a slightly healthier ‘drug’, maybe, of choice.”


Can’t Find The Brakes came together in a more Zen environment than its title might suggest, with producer Nick DiDia (Alice Cooper, Stone Temple Pilots, Audioslave, Bruce Springsteen) in his studio just outside Byron Bay in Australia. Looking out onto mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows, kookaburras flying past, the band enjoyed a period of fervoured, face-toface creativity denied by the pandemic. There was also a lack of distraction, afforded by the time difference, helpfully separating them from emails and voices in California. 

“We rented a house, we walked on the beach every day at, like, five in the morning, got coffee and breakfast, we’d go to the studio, and do that six days a week. So it was a really fruitful, creative environment.” 

For all the idyllic surroundings, the inspiration for the songs on the album came from a range of settings. Dirty Honey aren’t like a lot of bands in this regard; they make an effort to see the world outside the tour bus – the people, places and things that really build it. LaBelle likes to keep a bicycle handy, and slip away to explore the back streets of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, London and wherever else he finds himself. 

“You’re either going to tour the world and experience it, or you’re going to tour the world and see, like, the side of the bus, the inside of a green room, and see a show and not do anything,” he says. “That’s really dangerous, I think, for artists, because you write yourself into a corner. Maybe for a small period of time you can write about being on the road and being an artist. But it doesn’t lend itself to connecting with people that aren’t on the road two hundred and fifty days a year.”

Accordingly, some material came from observation, stirred into fiction on the hard-grooving likes of Won’t Take Me Alive – titled You’ll Have To Kill Me First, on Notto’s original demo – and the title track, both heavy, upbeat rockers undercut with internal demons. 

Elsewhere it’s more autobiographical: the stirring, acoustic-based Coming Home (Ballad Of The Shire) finds them reflecting on years of travel, and the heightened, often bittersweet feelings that come with that; Roam alludes to the struggles of sustaining relationships on the road. Like most bands, Dirty Honey leave people behind. Bassist Justin is married, as is drummer Jaydon. They all miss relatives and friends. Relationships are put under strain by the often-demanding business of living. Meanwhile, LaBelle lost a family member to brain cancer and a friend to ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) while out on tour. 

“They definitely influenced the record in one way or the other, my attitude towards life,” LaBelle says. “Because you definitely realise how fragile it is, and it’s not permanent. You only really get one shot, so you might as well put everything you have into it.” 

Back home, Gibson CEO Cesar Gueikian – a longtime DH fan – sent him a guitar he knew LaBelle wanted. It was a well-timed gesture. “I sent him a note during that. I was like: ‘I’m literally in hell right now, and the only time I’m happy and smiling is when I’m playing this guitar, you know, and I was searching for something with the new record.’ But yeah, Iturned to music to find some sort of comfort or peace in a bad situation. Which definitely helped.” 

He shrugs, a light going out. Some things can’t be helped. 

“But it was still bad.”

Originally from upstate New York, LaBelle grew up nomadically. His parents separated when he was four, resulting in a childhood divided between homes and siblings. 

“I was the youngest most of the time, always begging everyone for attention, and being insecure is definitely in my background,” he says with a laugh. “At this point it’s a very American family history. I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s always felt pretty normal.” 

During college he moved to Florence on a lacrosse scholarship, where he ended up singing AC/DC covers in a bar. From there he moved to Los Angeles, initially working as a location scout for TV series including Sons Of Anarchy and New Girl, and Al Pacino movie Danny Collins. Hollywood deities like Pacino became humans, normalised in a way that perhaps shows through LaBelle’s level approach with rock’s own A-listers. 

“You can definitely tell when he’s having a good time,” he says of Axl Rose. “On stage I think all those guys are not shy about hiding their emotions. And he’s smiling and stuff on stage, genuinely asking people in the front row: ‘How are you doing?’ He’ll give ’em a big smile. When you see them play, you know, twenty times in a year, you can tap into that stuff pretty easily.” 

It was meeting guitarist John Notto, on the covers-gig circuit, that led to the formation of Dirty Honey. LaBelle learned to be a commanding frontman and hasn’t looked back. These days he lives in the Venice area of LA, a relative “oasis” of arty types in the city. On days off he goes surfing, absorbing the waves and listening to conversations in the water. He doesn’t miss the TV industry. 

“I lived in that world, and it isn’t for me,” he says. “I felt more anxiety living and working in the TV and film industry than I ever did in the music business, because it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Dirty Honey group shot

Dirty Honey L-R: A taste of Honey: Justin Smolian, Marc LaBelle, Jaydon Bean, John Notto (Image credit: Dirt Records)

Still, living in LA the anxiety of that world is never far away. That hunger, frustration and fear, bubbling through the fixed smiles of aspiring movie stars and rock stars waiting tables across the city. There’s a little nod to that in You Make It Alright, a delicate, brooding piece of southern rock sunlight, on which LaBelle sings: ‘I’ve been faking my way through life’. Does he relate to that line? 

“Of course,” he replies, at once. “I feel like that every day, honestly. Fake it till you make it, that’s kind of what we all have been doing. And it just goes back to growing into being a lead singer. Nobody really knows what they’re doing when they start. You can’t anticipate how you’re going to feel if you’re about to stand in front of a couple of thousand people and expose yourself, both lyrically and performance-wise. You have to fake a persona until it really becomes authentically you, and you find your groove in it.” 

With Can’t Find The Brakes, Dirty Honey seem to have found theirs. It’s classic rock’n’roll done right, revitalised and ready to raise the roof, or break your heart, or face uncertainty. The tones in LaBelle’s vocals reflect this, and the insecurity that hovers between his friendly, confident answers. Off tour he still escapes the city for motorbike adventures. He hikes in Montana with his friend there. He photographs grizzlies. The search, for something, continues. 

“I could totally live in Wyoming and Montana,” he enthuses, when quizzed on his ideal home situation. “I’ve always dreamed of living in New York again, in New York City. And I could easily live in Italy. Any major city in Italy, I’d be totally happy. If I had several million dollars right now, I would have a really nice apartment in LA and a place in New York and I’d have a place in Florence, Italy. And that would be my life.”

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.