In the early 1990s, when the music world was all up Seattle’s ass, Barry Thomas wasn’t wearing much flannel. He was inspired by a vastly different tune, something that sounded more like lounge music, and soon enough, his band Love Jones was capturing the fancy of music fans in Louisville and beyond.
Love Jones became the nominal leader of what was dubbed the “cocktail nation” of bands, which included outfits like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The quintet moved to Los Angeles in 1992, then scored a deal with Zoo Entertainment/BMG, eventually releasing two albums and touring incessantly but never quite becoming major stars.
The music machinery treated them rather rudely, in fact, and while they didn’t make a pile of money, they didn’t lose a lot, either. (Their best payday came from placing their song “Paid For Loving” on the soundtrack to Jon Favreau’s film “Swingers,” for which Thomas served as musical director.)
All told, they came out of the experience with lots of great stories and their dignity — and friendships — largely intact.
Frontman/percussionist Ben Daughtrey and singer Jonathan Palmer remain on the West Coast. Daughtrey is a freelance film editor who’s gained a foothold in the world of reality TV; his latest gig is working with “Extreme Home Makeover.” Palmer is a substantial presence at Columbia Records, where he is charged with placing the label’s music into other media. Guitarist Chris Hawpe is in Louisville, working as an audio-video TV producer, and drummer Stuart Johnson still plays music for a living.
Love Jones is slowly recording new material and gets together for the occasional show, although their annual Derby gig won’t happen this year.
Thomas, now 45, returned to Louisville in 2005, and eventually set out to combine an older and a more recent passion.
Thomas’ father, Hal Thomas, was a developer (and former president of the Homebuilders) who eventually got into installing high-end swimming pools, and both Barry Thomas and Daughtrey recall working for him before they started the band. Out in L.A., Thomas found work with a handyman company that enlisted actors and musicians who needed flexible hours.
That job exposed Thomas to a different sort of homebuilding ethos, driven both by tastes and topography. He was inspired by the modern architecture of the 1940s and ’50s that was all over Southern California.
“I’d look up at those homes in the Hollywood Hills, and I was fascinated,” he says. “That stuck in my head.”
Back in Louisville, he decided to try his hand at new home construction. But his iconoclasm compelled him to not fall in line with Louisville’s penchant for traditionalism. There would be no French country chateaus or neo-Victorian McMansions.
Instead, Thomas built a Hollywood-style, high-dollar modern structure into the side of one of Louisville’s steepest residential hills. The house on Rollingwood Trail in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood was going to be his own, but Thomas decided to put it on the market. True to form, he’s swimming against the tide on this one. He’s selling a $320,000 house with an unconventional contemporary design, in the South End, during one of the tightest housing markets in recent memory.
Par for the course, it seems.
Current economic news as it relates to borrowing money is relentlessly downbeat.
In Louisville, new home sales are down (off 25 percent in 2006 and about 7.5 percent in 2007), while existing home sales are down slightly, although prices are holding their own. Thomas flatly says he would have been unable to secure financing in this climate.
But the house is built, and it is spectacular, personal tastes notwithstanding. A long row of high windows on the front of the house illuminate the interior with its open floor plan. Large windows on the rear look north, downward on trees and straight out toward the city. To the left is Iroquois Park, to the right Louisville International Airport. You can pick out Churchill Downs, and the UPS planes coming in at night create an odd sort of entertainment. A small catbird’s window in a master bedroom full of north-facing windows provides a straight-on view of downtown. That’s but one of many nice small touches imparted by architect Keith Plymale.
To build on the steep incline, Thomas spent twice what he’d normally spend on a foundation, adding extra steel and concrete.
The house also has musical touches, so to speak; a handful of area musicians lent their expertise. Singer-songwriter Warren Ray painted. Alex Tench (Cornbread Mafia) did tile work and trim carpentry. Patrick Hallahan (My Morning Jacket) helped hang kitchen cabinets. Danny Flanigan (singer-songwriter, Hopscotch Army, Rain Chorus) did masonry work, and Scott Darrow (Hopscotch Army, Cooler) made furniture. Peter Searcy (Squirrel Bait et al) was Thomas’ right-hand man/site supervisor.
Everyone and their mother will tell you Louisville is conservative in most things, including housing styles. Chuck Kavanaugh, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Louisville, notes that experimentation is more common in condo projects, or perhaps in home interiors. There’s not much risk-taking otherwise.
Ronetta Henson, who owns Victory Homebuilders, is known for pushing the boundaries of design, and she, too, said that tends to manifest itself more on the inside of houses.
Both were surprised to hear about Thomas’ efforts, but supportive and curious.
Daughtrey isn’t surprised his friend would go against the grain in his latest venture, and he hopes his hometown stretches out and embraces something that’s ultimately not that radical.
“It’s super-ambitious,” Daughtrey said. “I’m amazed he did it — building a house is no small feat, and to build something that cool is to be applauded. I respect him — as a creative person, you’re not supposed to listen to what your friends tell you not to do, you do what your heart says, for better or worse.
“I think Louisville can be provincial. There are prejudices toward the South End that are unfounded — it’s too far from everything, etc. In L.A., it’s an hour to get anywhere. His house, from anywhere I’d wanna go in Louisville, is 15 minutes, tops.”
Thomas notes that beyond pushing the boundaries of taste, he’s doing it in interesting times. He has options on two adjacent lots.
“I’m trying to build houses in the worst housing market in years,” he says, smiling wryly. “Am I smart or foolish? I guess we’ll see how that goes.”
For more information, go to www.louisvillemodernhomes.com and click on the info button. Contact the writer at [email protected]