Picking up and moving your life across the country is clearly a large undertaking. But, aside from the obvious hurdles like rebuilding your social network, finding a home, and physically getting the massive amount of things you’ve collected over the years from one coast to another, there’s a wealth of tiny challenges that tend to add up too—what’s my new go-to happy hour spot; where do I buy my exotic spices; how do I drive a car, again; where do I get my hair cut now?
On the latter challenge, at least, I was lucky enough to arrive in LA with a name in-hand—go straight to Brian Girgus, owner of The New California in Echo Park, do not pass Go, do not visit the Hair Cuttery. The shop puts a no frills spin on high-quality haircuts for men, occupying a light-filled, well-designed space just down from Mohawk Bend and across the street from the LA PETA headquarters.
We got a chance to catch up with Brian recently—pictured above with his dog, Shelly Long—to talk about the inspiration behind barbershop, leaving the indie music world to open it, and cutting Lou Barlow’s hair.
raven + crow: So, first off, tell us a little bit about yourself. I know you’re local-ish, but you haven’t been in LA your whole life, right?
Brian Girgus: Local-ish…. I was born and raised out in the desert, the Coachella Valley; mostly Palm Desert and Indio. I grew up playing in bands and going to shows in LA, so I was here a lot. I moved to SF in 1996 and stayed there for 15 years. I lived in New York a couple times, once when I was a little kid and once right after I left SF and before I came back to California to live in LA. I definitely always felt a familiar sense of home in LA. My mom grew up here, so maybe I always felt it was my destiny to really live here at some point in my life….
What made you get into the world of hair cutting…or grooming in general? You guys do shaves too, after all.
It was a practical choice in some ways but I also felt it was something tangible and creative that I could do for money. So far, it’s one of the few things modern technology has managed to not be able to outsource to the robots. I’ve always been a haircutter, whether it was my own or with some friends, but the harsh realization that I was about to work in retail for my whole life unless things changed was the instigator for me to go to barber school and learn the trade. It’s a good and social trade that I enjoyed as much as I expected to, so it’s become a very natural and enjoyable thing for me to do…and I get paid.
Nice. Wait, did you really find $6000 in a used coat you bought and use that to go to barber school? I heard that from someone, but that seems too good to be true.
Yep, that story is totally true. Just dumb luck. I paid the tuition in cash. It kept me out of debt and there isn’t much better than that in life.
Ah, awesome. So, what’s the idea behind The New California, generally speaking? Like, if you had to sum it up in a nice, succinct package…
The idea is that we kind of have to re-invent ourselves if we wanna go forward. Whether it’s me or the people, the state, the government…whatever. We have to look close and be what makes us special in the first place. Maybe we have to go all the way back to the beginning—we’ve dug ourselves a deep fucking hole. There is no emphasis on quality anywhere and when there is you have to call it “artisan” and pay a lot for it and it becomes marketed and cliché. I just wanna do it well, keep it simple, and be true to myself. It’s a unique way of thinking, yet it’s so classic and traditional.
Yeah, I’m glad you’re not cutting my hair in suspenders + bow tie + extravagant mustache, man. And there definitely is a pretty laid-back vibe at the shop—did you opt out of offerings appointments just to give a more relaxed atmosphere?
Yeah, it keeps the line moving. People are always running late and I can’t sit around waiting for someone who is “gonna be here in ten minutes.” We wanna’ work. This way we don’t have to keep a schedule book or pay for some salon scheduling software. We keep it real simple. It’s for the best.
Nice. Where does the name come from—what’s the ‘old’ California that’s not this place?
There was a barbershop I worked at in San Francisco that was called the New Chicago #3. The place was a fucking pit. Just filthy and so poorly run. The name is the reminder of traditional standards of quality but actually executed, not just just paying it lip service. Plus, it sounded fucking cool.
So many years of naming bands paid off. I love your aesthetic in there—all of it—logotype, site look, and interior design. Who set all of that up for you?
Hahahaha…a commonly asked question. I paid an interior design and business marketing firm called Girgus, Girgus, & Girgus…. No, I DID IT ALL!!!!!! I am a fucking tyrant like that. A tyrant with a good eye.
Well it works. I especially love the porthole-winodws. Very nautical. Did you have any of that in-mind before you started things up? Like, did you have a ‘feel’ you wanted to put out there on first look?
I had a million ideas. It’s my blessing and curse. But you can have a million ideas and that’s nice, but a room will tell you exactly how it’s gonna be arranged. If you find one or two special things, those things will tell you exactly what other things will look awesome. I definitely wanted it to reflect my curiosities and interests. It all just laid it self out—I was the conduit.
Well-put. So, what made you leave San Francisco and set up shop here in LA in the first place?
The weather…and the price.
Fair. Okay, be totally honest here, man—I always feel like I’m walking a fine line between making conversation and just shutting the fuck up and letting a guy do his job—what do you think best etiquette is for those of us getting our hair cut? Let the barber take the lead and speak when spoken to? Fuck all and ask what you want to ask, personal questions included? Or maybe I’m being too New York about all of this and over-thinking it….
I always seem to appreciate people who can just be themselves. If you’re talkative, talk. If you’re the quiet type, well, be quiet. Generally that’s a little awkward though, so I try and talk to people. Maybe get them to relax a little bit. Somehow getting haircuts brings out something very interesting in almost everyone. It’s my job to roll with it so you just be yourself and we’ll find something that works…. Oh yeah, and keep your fingers outta the way and your head still.
Got it. Best place you’ve ever gotten a cut and/or shave? New California excluded, of course.
There was a guy named Dave in San Francisco that I liked. He taught me how to be damn near perfect when it came to cutting hair. I’ll say him, but i’ve gotten some good ones…my friend Joe at Barbershop in New York…my co-worker Lizzy is really the best though, now that I think of it. And I mean that….
Oh, yeah, she’s great. I know you all generally focus on simple short/guy’s cuts—where would you recommend someone go for more-involved-yet-still-cool ladies’ dos?
Sunday Morning in Eagle Rock. Courtney is fucking great.
Ah! No shit—Courtney cuts Katie’s hair! She’s awesome. While we’re on the small world subject, though, we know each other loosely through friends in the whole indie music scene. Are you still doing music at all?
I am but I just don’t really put it first and foremost like I always did. I just recorded a new song of my own at a studio in burbank last week and I recently played drums with Love as Laughter and The Luxembourg Signal but I don’t have a band anymore…. I guess I got sick of having major commitments to mediocre music and bands so I figured “What’s the point? I’ll just do something else for awhile.”
Yeah, I guess you just do what you love, if you’re lucky, and that changes, whether it’s music or cutting hair or design or…I don’t know, watching Full House repeats. Back on music, what’s the story behind the video of you de-shagging Lou Barlow (below)?
I’ve known Lou for years. My first band, lowercase, toured with Sebadoh a few times, so we became friends. It’s the first installment of the “____ gets a haircut” series. (Comedian) Neil Hamburger is next. I just put it up on the site.
Oh, awesome. You know, Questlove’s fro’s been looking a little out-of-sorts lately, to be honest.
I could definitely handle that dude’s fro.
Do it. Finally, any professional tips for straight razor shaves at home? Katie bought me one a ways back but I kind of fell out of the habit of using it. I loved it, but I always had a hard time keeping it sharp enough consistently to work well on my annoying combination of thin skin + dark hair. …or should I leave it to the professionals?
LEAVE IT TO THE PROFESSIONALS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The New California is located at 2203 West Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and open 11AM-7PM Monday-Saturday; 11AM-5PM Sunday. Find out more and watch the hair cutting series videos mentioned above below and on TNC’s site.