The silent seconds at the beginning of a weekly Vinnie and the Hooligans band practice feel like an eternity. One by one, they quit their side conversations and lean into a loose huddle among the shiny, emerald-green barber chairs at King's Club Barber Shop in Dana Point. The eyes of buxom pin-ups and such big-band greats as Count Basie and Glenn Miller stare down at them from posters mounted on wood-paneled walls splashed with lamp light and old-timey ambiance. Quietly, the band members lock eyes and wait. Tattooed forearms tense up, and white-knuckled fists clench around instruments. No one seems to be breathing until Vinnie Carlini snaps the tension with one strum of "To the Grave," the hardest, fastest song in the band's catalog. Sitting in a wooden chair holding an acoustic guitar in dirty white jeans, a white shirt and white Converses, he stomps his left foot and calls out the cadence.
"Eye contact!" he yells. "Ready, boys? One, two, three, four!"
Since last April, the South County band have filled the shop with noise every Tuesday after sundown, a ritual that patrons walking in the small circle of local businesses know all too well. For an hour and a half or more, this old-school, all-male sanctuary becomes a bastion of blue-collar war music; pirate-style drinking songs; and anthems about lost love, hard living and death. But when these tales are funneled through a five-piece string band, including the red-faced growl of Carlini, they inspire crowds to become light on their feet, no matter how heavy the subject matter.
Songs such as "Sticks and Stones" and "Desperate Man" exist somewhere between the pastoral twang of the Lumineers and the driving cow-punk of Social Distortion. Since they've started, the hype around their sound has steadily stretched beyond the comfort of the shop walls. Last August, they even opened for the Reverend Horton Heat after being a band for all of five months. But more than fame, they're really just looking to light a fire under your ass with their tunes.
"We wanted to have songs in which we were gonna abruptly shove good music down people's throats, whether they wanted to hear it or not," says violinist/mandolin player Max Esposito.
It's only right this barbershop band would start with Carlini meeting accordion player Scott Young, who was Carlini's barber for two years before they discussed playing together. Even then, it almost didn't happen. Carlini gave him a CD of songs to learn, but it was two months before Young would listen to it. "As soon as I did, I felt so dumb because every song was a hit–it was crazy," he says. (Those songs would later become their first recorded output.) Before long, Young recruited longtime friend and standup bassist Miguel Gonzales, followed by Esposito (who works just down the road at another barber shop called Golden Crown) and his roommate, banjoist extraordinaire Mike Pham.
The scrappy nature of their sound is reflective of their ability to play pretty much anywhere. When a conventional show won't do, they often set up on street corners in Laguna Beach or organize the occasional flash-mob performance at a local dive bar. Young admits that the idea of loud, tattooed, punk-rock-looking dudes bum-rushing bars in South County doesn't always go over well.
"We did one flash mob that did great," he says. "[But] we did another and got kicked out after three songs [because] the owner was so fuckin' angry."
For a band who thrive on rowdy, working-class party music from the days of old, causing a little ruckus isn't always a bad thing.
"We definitely want that energy when we play," Gonzalez says. "I don't think I could just play bluegrass or whatever. I need something that's going to get me super into it, and I want that element of danger in the crowd and onstage, like a chair could be thrown against a wall and broken at any moment."