• About A Band: Sur Back

    Caroline Sans’ mother frequently jokes that her daughter started dancing before she could walk. Caroline, though, estimates she was about three when she began taking ballet lessons, an intense love affair that took her from her home in Jupiter, Florida an hour-and-a-half south to Miami several times a week for classes, skipping summer vacations to go to extensive training camps. Then, years later, as she was preparing her audition piece for an arts high school, she found herself more inclined to use her vocals as a form of expression as opposed to the choreography to which she’d grown familiar. 

    “It was this weird shift where, after about 12 years of training, constant blisters, and the gradual accumulation of POINTE magazine clippings around my room, I no longer wanted to be silent on stage,” Caroline says. 

    So she joined the theatre department in high school and began taking her knack for poetry and started to put melodies to it. By college, Caroline was experimenting with beats and production, creating woozy and warbly, baroque-pop compositions under the moniker Sur Back. 

    Over a year in the making, her debut EP, Kitsch blends instrumental mystique and pop sensibilities. Her vocals slink and trickle in unexpected melodies, creating pirouettes in the vein of St. Vincent. Underneath, ambient productions augment her vocals, oft anchored by a drum loop like opener “Occam’s Razor” or deliriously drowsy synths and guitars on lead single “Trophy Daughter.” All the building blocks for a pop song exist, doused in curiosity and intrigue — just how Caroline wants it.

    “Right now, I'm really interested in blending the ‘kitsch’ in pop and electronic music with the high-brow nature of classical music that I grew up dancing to,” she says. “Instead of simply attaining something cerebral, I want to magnify the surface study that is pop and build it back up from a molecular level.”
    Photos by Wrenne Evans

    Your name comes from a phenomenon observed by Sir George Back. What about that phenomenon, the green ray, was so significant to you? 
    The first time I heard about the green ray, it was from a relative in Hawaii as we looked out at the sunset. About a year later I was reading about the Eric Rohmer movie, Le Rayon Vert, and the similarities between the main character, Delphine, and I when we learned about the green ray were too similar to ignore. I had been looking for a moniker for a while and hearing that the green ray triggers this profound moment of understanding within the witness and the people around them seemed to me like the perfect thing for my music to aspire to. Sir George Back was the first person to record a sighting of the green ray, so I started reading his journals and playing with an interpretation of his name. "Sur" means "steer" in Turkish, so Sur Back alludes to the hope that my music will "steer back" its listeners to their own moments of individual and collective understanding.

    You mentioned once that you fell out of hate with pop. How did that happen?
    Being a teenager — especially at an arts school — was a constant struggle for originality and the more inventive you were, the better. I definitely went through that obligatory phase of loving music that I hoped no one else was listening to. But when I started trying to make electronic arrangements for music that I had written on the guitar, I realized that there was nothing embarrassing about embracing pop music — it has no room to worry itself about being cool when it's so busy trying to be inclusive, which is really the most admirable and magical thing a song can do.

    When did you start making music? 
    I started writing poetry really young, so the lyrical aspect was always there for me. I took piano lessons when I was small, but other than that I had no idea how to make music. In middle school, I got a little Casio and started re-teaching myself piano by learning Vanessa Carlton songs my sister and I could sing along to, and then in high school, I started learning guitar. I didn't start working with electronic music until college when I began craving a bigger sound, and it was a really primitive process where I would just record vocal loops and Casio drum beats into a loop pedal and then export each part into GarageBand. A year or so into college a friend lent me Ableton and that was a real blessing for my production needs. I watched every tutorial I could find until I could make something listenable. 

    You directed the video for “Trophy Daughter” — had you been experimenting with video for a while?
    When it comes to visuals I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. I always have to get a bunch of outside approval before I feel confident about it, unlike with my music. I made the “Trophy Daughter” video with a camcorder and iMovie as kind of a cathartic exercise when I was finally done producing the EP, and it was refreshing to experiment with my music in a more performative way, but I don't pretend to be skilled in that medium!

    What about the themes that song touches on: do you feel there’s a pressure on young girls to be the “ideal” daughter?
    I think, especially in conjunction with the video, “Trophy Daughter” seems like a celebration of achieving that ideal, but as easygoing as the song is, it's really about being your "own reformative trophy daughter," and that can be something different for everyone. For me, it's personal — hoping to find success and make people proud in an impractical industry — but it's also as broad as my ideas on feminism and how it relates to other social movements. As a white, cis woman, I'm aware of the problems I face, but I'm also aware of how small they are relative to those in other movements that don't have as much support. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can use the relative success of feminism to further the Black Lives Matter or Trans Lives Matter movements, and I think the answer lies in reclaiming the sexist maternal archetype and using its penchant for nurturing to include and protect people that don't have the luxury of respect. I believe understanding leads to empathy, which leads to positive action, and that's what the narrative of Sur Back is striving for.

    Your music features beats, guitars, keys, unique melodies — how do you balance all of the parts? 
    I'm really not sure how everything comes together in the end, but it usually starts out as a real struggle and gets easier as the song starts to flesh out. If I'm starting with production, I'll come up with a beat I really like first and try to manipulate that so there's a lot of variation throughout the song. Then I'll move onto synths and strings and record the vocals and guitar solos last. Most of the songs I wrote for this EP began with the vocals and guitar lines, and I worked backwards to produce the arrangement behind them.

    Kitsch has been a long time coming. What went into making it?
    Figurative blood, sweat, and tears! I think everyone making art deals with these oscillations in self-esteem, where one day you think you've made a masterpiece and the next you wonder if you should just quit. A couple of the songs went through three different versions before I was happy with them. Especially it being the debut EP, I'm constantly wondering whether I'm going to ruin my shot at a first impression. As long as I can listen back to it in a few years and learn from it, I think I'll be able to glean some of the understanding that my project is devoted to.

    Listen to Sur Back
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