One of so-called post-rock's more addictive and compelling instrumentalists, southpacific was on the indie music map for only a few years, releasing two albums of broad, sweeping noise set to beats bordering on the minimalist. They weren't exactly everyone's cup of tea, either: Some critics complained that they were too derivative of deconstructionists like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, while others argued that they were just plain boring. But there's no such thing as bad publicity, someone once said, and the fact that opinion on southpacific was so polarized hints at the particular skills they displayed throughout the late '90s.
The group's nucleus, Joachim Toelke, Graeme Fleming, and Phil Stewart-Bowes, met as friends in the spring of 1996 after Toelke moved to Ottawa after recently returning with empty pockets from the United Kingdom. Fleming spent most of his early musical career in his basement, melding the sounds of Bailter Space, My Bloody Valentine, and Swervedriver into a style that southpacific would later call its foundation. Fleming already had a few recordings (as many others did) under the name of Saturnine. Meanwhile, Stewart-Bowes and Toelke were deep into the British flavors of Seefeel and Bowery Electric. The diverse musical interests of its various members gave southpacific a cross-genre feel that immediately registered with a public quickly tiring of bubblegum pop bombast. Ironically enough, southpacific started playing shows in 1998 with a female singer in tow, but unloaded her when they found out she couldn't sing in key. The band pushed on, hoping to land at a label like Creation, which was deep into classic rock by the time southpacific garnered attention as the newest math rockers (à la Tortoise) or space rockers (à la Slowdive) on the block, much to the band's chagrin. They admittedly borrowed some of both genres' characteristics for their compositions, but all of them chafed at the comparisons, especially Fleming, who hated space rock with a passion.
After a well-received live show, a friend of the band sent Bailter Space's label, Turnbuckle, a cassette. Turnbuckle responded positively and signed southpacific up for the band's first album, 33. Most of that initial release was recorded in a ski chalet that belonged to Fleming's parents, a perfect setting for an album full of aural soundscapes. Even after finding out that they had done everything backwards, the band was satisfied with Fleming's magic hand in the recording process, and 33 was released to minor acclaim in November of 1998. There was enough momentum behind southpacific following 33 that Turnbuckle generously pulled out the checkbook and allowed the band -- which had relocated to Toronto -- to log some time in an actual studio. But creative differences and annoyances dampened the recording process: Many of their sonic experiments were watered down because of technical issues (amps humming too loudly, different recording gear) and group friction (the band deferred much to Fleming, who had the luxury of recording at home, rather than in an expensive studio), leading to a good deal of stress and conflict.
Then the ceiling came down. The buzz that had been built up on the strength of 33 dissipated once Turnbuckle abruptly folded. Rather than hitting the shelves in its stated release date of February 2000, southpacific's best album, Constance, was delayed months, by which time the anticipation had all but disappeared. Although the album was promoted heavily on the university circuit and received excellent airplay, it shuffled from distributor to distributor until it landed some time later at Symbiotic. By that time, Fleming decided he had seen enough and left the band, and Toelke and Stewart-Bowes soon followed suit. Toelke moved on to form Frihavn, while Fleming went back to the chalet and recorded a slew of songs that he refused to let anyone listen to. But although the members remained friends, southpacific itself remains just a memorable footnote to the continually unfolding post-rock exegesis. ~ Scott Thill