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Dirty Honey's Justin Smolian - Photog - Will Wittmann 2_hi

When Dirty Honey first assembled in 2017, the four-piece Los Angeles rockers quickly established a close musical bond, a distinguished sound, and a common goal, which led to them writing a batch of songs that they were raring to unveil. Things seemed to be progressing easily, though the true task would lie in getting their music heard by the masses and establishing a loyal fan base, which any artist will tell you is the difficult part. 

But keeping their easy streak rolling, the quartet’s first single "When I’m Gone," became the first song by an unsigned band to reach No. 1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. Proving that it wasn’t merely a fluke, their second single, "Rolling 7s," went into the Top 5 just as rock stations and streaming services began heavily pushing their music. Their fan base grew by the minute and before they knew it, they went from playing on sidewalks and in parking lots to touring with The Who, Guns ’N Roses, Slash, and Alter Bridge, and being featured on festival stages across the country.

Dirty Honey’s quick route to success is confirmed upon hearing their self-titled debut album, which is a hard rocking collection of hits that pays homage to their classic rock roots. The band takes pride in playing loud and never holding back on their musicianship, and while the songs are driven heavily by guitars and vocals, the heart and soul of their music comes from their southpaw, deep-grooving bassist, Justin Smolian. 

Influenced just as much by Bootsy Collins, James Jamerson, and Flea as he is John Paul Jones, Paul McCartney, and John Entwistle, Smolian shows his love of funk and classic R&B with his pocket riffs, fat-bodied tone, and his crafty, impressive runs. Going beyond simply serving as the backbone to DH’s music, he kicks his playing into high gear on "No Warning," "California Dreaming," and "The Wire,” where his standout bass moments take center stage amid epic choruses and heavy bridges. 

Smolian’s creativity and love of taking risks within his playing are a big part of why his band is experiencing the kind of stadium-sized success they’ve achieved in such a short span. And that’s exactly why they’re going to keep rolling the dice and riding this hot streak.  

What was the writing process like for your debut album?

We were supposed to go to Australia in March of last year to record another EP, but lockdown happened two days before we were going to get on the plane. We had 4-5 songs that we had written on the road during a previous tour. We took the pandemic as an opportunity to write and workshop a bunch of unfinished ideas. We rented a lockout for two months and we were in there as much as we could be. By the time we went into the studio, we were so prepared that we knocked the whole record out in six days.

How did you come up with your bass lines for these songs?

I always try to serve the songs first while still injecting my personality into them. I had been trying to work a hammer-on style bass line into a song for awhile, à la the intro for "Around the World" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers or "It's So Easy" by Guns N' Roses. I was able to do it on the verse of "Gyspy," while also adding some John Entwistle-style licks. I usually have the bass parts mostly worked out before entering the studio, but I always leave room for moments of improvisation in every song. That way, I can improvise when we play them live, which makes it much more fun for me. I also think it makes the track have more energy when you’re playing on the edge of your seat.

You play a lot of deep grooves with tasteful, added fills, like in "California Dreaming" and "The Wire.”

I am a huge fan of funk and rock and roll. I love Bootsy, Larry Graham, Flea, along with Paul McCartney, James Jameson, John Paul Jones, Duck Dunn, and a ton of other players. My favorite bands are all two-guitar groups like Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, and the Stones, where the guitars are weaving in and out with each other. Since we’re a one-guitar band, I try to take on the role of the second guitar sometimes and play countermelodies to the guitar or vocals, while also trying to keep a deep, funky pocket going.

You play some awesome runs in "No Warning." How did that song come about?

With “No Warning,” we actually cut several versions of the song. We ended up deciding on the most swampy version, which I was stoked about because it gave me more room to stretch out.

What gear did you use?

I used my SLJ custom PJ bass for all the tracks. It is made by an amazing luthier named Seth Lee Jones, who is out of Oklahoma. It’s basically a ’63 J-Bass neck with at '61 P-bass body with Bartolini Pickups. For my amps, I split my signal. I used my Aguilar AG 700 head with my SL 212 cabinet for my overdriven tone and an Ampeg SVT for my clean tone. I also went direct through a REDDI, and the sound is a combination of those three tones. The overdrive I used on the whole record is the Xotic Bass BB Preamp.

Smolian's custom made SLJ Guitars PJ Bass (@sljguitars)

Smolian's custom made SLJ Guitars PJ Bass (@sljguitars)

What is your ideal bass tone?

My ideal tone is a dirty, overdriven sound while still being very present and clear, and not losing any of the low end. Our producer worked on some of the Rage Against the Machine records, so we got to talk a lot about how Tim Commerford got his bass tone. Tim and Flea have some of my favorite bass tones ever. Being the bass player in a hard rock band with only one guitar player, you have to fill a lot of room sonically, especially when the guitar player is soloing, so that's what I’m trying to do.

Being a left-handed player, has it always been difficult finding basses you want to play and purchase?

It's honestly a nightmare. That's why I had my custom bass built for me. I wanted a vintage Fender and I looked for years, but they tend to go for at least 50% more than a right-handed ones of the same year, if you can even find one. If anyone finds a pre-CBS left Fender Precision, let me know because I still want one!

Dirty Honey's Justin Smolian - Photog- Will Wittmann 1_hi

How and when did you start playing bass?

Bass was my first instrument and I started playing when I was 12. My dad gave me all his old CDs of Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Doors, and Nirvana, so that's where it began. I remember my dad telling me that if I played bass, I would always be working. I had a great teacher when I was kid, Lou Castro, who turned me on to funk and R&B music. I then played bass in my high school jazz band.

How does your experience playing classical guitar translate to your bass playing?

Playing classical guitar definitely gave me a couple of unique techniques that I use and it taught me how to pull a lot of different tones out of your instrument, acoustically. I also studied a lot of Bach while learning classical guitar, which gave me a deep appreciation of counterpoint, so you’ll hear me playing countermelodies to the guitar or vocals all the time, especially live.

How much of your sound comes from your hands?

Coming from a classical guitar background, I believe a lot of the tone comes from your hands. I’ll adjust the angle on my plucking hand a lot to get tones. I will also play melodies in the higher register a lot when I can hit a lower string with my thumb. I’ve started incorporating four-finger tremolo into my bass solos. That being said, the bass, amp, and pedals I use also contribute a lot to my sound.

Justin Smolian _ 8 36 14_sm.lo

How does it feel to be the first unsigned band to go all the way to #1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart?

I don't think any of us expected the song to go to #1 considering we were unsigned, so we were all ecstatic and don't take the accomplishment for granted at all.

Would you urge up and coming bands to take the same route that you guys have? What are the benefits in your opinion?

We are very fortunate to have a great team behind us. Our manager, Mark DiDia, ran labels for years and has been super insightful as to how to navigate the business. I think signing to a label is right for some acts and not right for other acts. I definitely recommend building your band up on your own as much as you can, so if you do sign with a label, you have more negotiating power. At the end of the day, you need somebody powerful in the industry to champion your band.

You guys are known for your explosive live shows. Describe a Dirty Honey concert from your perspective.

Like I said, at our core, we are a live band. I love connecting with the crowd and running around on a big stage. We often judge our shows, not on how we played, but how hyped we were able to make to the audience. If you come to a Dirty Honey show, know that we’re going to get in your face, doing everything we can to get you out of your seat and to have a good time.

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Who are your greatest bass influences?

The list is very long. The people I mentioned previously were my earliest influences. I grew up in Los Angeles, so I was very fortunate to be able to go out and see some really great modern players like Ethan Farmer, Brandon Brown, Leland Sklar, Jerry Jemmott, and others. Also, I think MonoNeon might be the greatest bassist who has ever lived; I am constantly in awe of his playing!

What's the best advice you've been given about playing bass?

Developing your own voice on the instrument is the most important thing you can do. There are always going to be players with great technique, but having your own style of playing will always set you apart. –BM


Hear Him On: Dirty Honey, Dirty Honey [2020]


Bass SLJ custom PJ Bass, Fender Precision, Gibson SG Bass, Epiphone Jack Cassady Bass

Rig Aguilar AG 700, Aguilar SL 212

Effects MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, Electro Harmonic Nano POG, Exotic Bass MIDI Controller, EBS BassIQ Triple Envelope Filter, Darkglass Vintage Ultra Overdrive, MXR Sub Machine Fuzz, Strymon El Capistan dTape Echo, Strymon Mobius, TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Pedal Tuner

Strings Dunlop or D’Addario Medium Gauge

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