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News at Cowboymod

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Running with Scissors

Alexandra Lister talks to James B Salter of Jericho’s Cowboymod Emporium.

James is cutting the hair of a client and talking passionately about music. (He always talks passionately about everything, but especially music.) They discuss Neil Young and move seamlessly onto Paul Weller, one of his idols. It is a Wednesday evening, the door is open onto the street and there is the hint of the new season in the air. Joss Stone croons ‘I Put A Spell On You’. James is sporting his usual incongruous get-up: faded bootleg jeans, battered cowboy boots and a purple shirt with strings of necklaces and one pair of lens-tinted glasses after another, regalia more compatible with Shoreditch or Brick Lane than Jericho’s villagey Walton Street, but at No. 33 he holds court, as he has for the past fifteen years.

But tonight this interview is going to go a little differently. Tonight James is cutting my hair and it can’t hurt to admit that I am a little nervous after the cool cuts and sharp bobs I have seen leaving No.33 in the past. (My hair is long, very long). “Too long”, James says with a barelyveiled look of disgust. Out come the scissors and I notice a chalky slogan scrawled across the mirror above my head. It reads: I pick up my scissors for the art of hair. Oh god. Here we go.

As my curls fall to the floor, James explains his attitude toward his work. “If I was a multi-millionaire I couldn’t give this up, I just couldn’t. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t cut hair. Even after thirty years, I still believe I have something of value to give.”
He interrupts himself midstream to explain his modus operandi regarding my hair, and how it should be cut. He speaks with such conviction; I can’t help but believe him.

So does he think that hairdressing has gone downhill? Is he the classic ‘old-hand’ who shakes his head and laments that the golden days of hairdressing are gone?

The ‘biggest kicker’ in hairdressing, James says, is that people shortcut. “You’ll go to a salon and they won’t blow-dry your hair, because they don’t know how to, they’ll just use straightening irons. I believe there has to be an amount of accuracy in haircutting, which is created by a good foundation on wet hair. He explains this by saying “I do a basic accurate haircut on wet hair, then chop and texturise it after the blowdry, to create a fluid hairstyle”. James is renowned for his haircuts growing out very well and some clients have no need to return six months at a time. But return they do, coming from as far afield as Brighton, Newcastle and even America, to make sure they get the James-cut.

What advice would James give to kids today starting out in hairdressing? “If you can’t draw a straight line don’t pick up a pair of scissors. You can teach people to cut a pattern but you can’t teach them to be creative with it, that’s a gift” I have to admit James’ emporium is looking good. There is the usual rock & roll detritus and Weller-mania - photographs, tickets to gigs and handwritten lyrics scattered amongst Ian Fleming novels and weather beaten leather satchels, a Nikon camera slung over the mirror. “I like to give people a cool place to come into”, he says, “…an experience. It’s all about making you feel happy and special when you walk out the door. And it’s personalized. I mean you could fit… five, six, seven hairdressers in here. But that would be selling out, right? You’ve got to feel happy in your soul.”

The thing I like about James is his tireless energy and effusive enthusiasm for life and his work. You never know whether you are going to get a whirling dervish or quietspoken humility. He looks out onto the street as a group of spectacled students push rusting bikes along the pavement. “For me, Cowboymod is everything I’m about. It can be anything from leather, dirty jeans, chaps, boots and hat - right the way to mod subculture and Italian chic, encompassing everything in between. So it could be a gipsy, bohemian haircut or a totally coiffed look straight out of Dynasty. It’s the whole spectrum… in hair, fashion, clothes, art… It is all about individuality. But at the end of the day I have to be true to myself and my convictions, and whatever I do, I will do it to the best of my ability and be honest and true to myself.”
This diligent and conscientious attitude towards his work lends James a professionalism it would be rare to find at any other salon. “If I’ve doneyour hair and you’ve paid and got to the middle of the road and I look at you and think it’s not right, I will run out and get you and say ‘sorry, sit down, let’s try harder’”. James believes he can improve upon any haircut by any hairdresser. “Hair is unique. Your Mum might tell you how her hair was when she was younger which is different from the way it is now; it’s changing all the time throughout your life. And I love that challenge: trying to better myself, all the time, trying to better your look and the way you feel when you leave.”
But perhaps it is more than that. When James talks about his family, his voice becomes softer and I sense that a settled and happy home life is a key factor behind his current sense of stability and optimism. Of his marriage he says: “It will forge my life. My life now has meaning because I have my wife and son.”

James waves goodbye as I head towards Jericho, ruffling my new haircut, which I couldn’t be more pleased with, impressed not only by his ability to rejuvenate but also by the fact that he listened, which most hairdressers do not. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I leave feeling invigorated, coiffed and decidedly lighter. The sun is beginning its descent and I glance back to see him walking away towards his jeep with his tailored coat flapping behind him on the breeze, a jaunty spring to his step.


Interview by alexander lister photos by greg burke


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