Better hope Girl in a Coma is on your side in a bar fight. Photo: Josh Huskin
In a world where bleached blondes in heels singing high-fructose garbage are rapidly polluting the airwaves, Girl in a Coma is here to save us with a healthy dose of rock n’ roll. Based out of San Antonio, Texas, the trio is comprised of Nina Diaz on vocals and guitar, her sister Phanie Diaz on drums and long-time friend Jenn Alva on bass. Together, they exude a sound all their own, breaking through the borders of any specific genre and picking up the pieces to combine them into the inimitable Girl in a Coma.
Though Girl in a Coma have the talent and drive to gain rock star success without a fairy godmother, the band’s propulsion into stardom is a true Cinderella story—a brown-eyed, guitar-clad Cinderella with an attitude, that is. I gave Phanie a call in San Antonio just before the band set out on tour in support of their latest and fourth release, Exits & All the Rest, out Nov. 1 on Blackheart Records, to hear her side of the tale.
Playing in bands together since the late ’90s, Alva and Phanie recruited Nina in early 2000 after hearing her sing and play guitar. “Even though there was an eight-year difference in our ages (she was 13 at the time and Jen and I were in our 20s), we decided it didn’t matter, she was talented and we’d make her the lead singer,” says Phanie. Making a name for themselves around San Antonio with their energetic live show, the band was recognized by a cable television network and invited to be in a documentary about up-and-coming bands, which landed them in New York in 2005. “The show was supposed to end with Joan Jett showing up and surprising us with advice, and that would be the end of it. But what happened is that she came to our show in New York and she really liked us, and as soon as we were done with the gig, she signed us to Blackheart,” Phanie says.
The opportunity paved the way for national, international and even celebrity recognition. Since then, Girl in a Coma has played gigs with Joan Jett, done an impromptu performance of “Cherry Bomb” with Cherie Currie of The Runaways at last year’s SXSW and been personally asked to play as openers for Morrissey’s 2007 tour (you may recognize the name Girl in a Coma from The Smiths’ song “Girlfriend in a Coma”), to name a few. “It’s crazy, it always just blows our minds that these people we grew up listening to want us to go out with them now, it comes full circle,” says Phanie.
Girl in a Coma wouldn’t be where they are without their wide-ranging influences, a combination of genres and musicians that Phanie attributes to the construction of their unique sound. “Jenn’s a big rockabilly fan and she’s obsessed with Elvis and Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline. I grew up listening to riot grrrl and punk … we introduced Nina to bands and Nina finds her own bands. She’s really into Jeff Buckley right now and Björk. I think each of us hanging out with our own groups, discovering bands and coming back to each other and exchanging music had a lot to do with the blend of our sound,” she says. The band members’ Mexican and Tejano roots are also prevalent in their music, an ingredient that’s highlighted in many of their music videos, featuring border-town imagery. Phanie credits San Antonio’s rich culture and musical diversity: “There’s a big embrace of music here and I think that influenced us to kind of go everywhere with our music. We don’t pigeon-hole ourselves and think, ‘This is the kind of rock we are and this is all we’re going to play’ … You hear rock, but then you hear that Tex-Mex sound.”
Aside from playing music difficult to categorize, the band’s members also set Girl in a Coma apart from other musicians. A trio of females, all Latinas and two-thirds gay (Alva and Phanie are openly queer) playing rock n’ roll? Way to stick it to The Man. The group did it with the full support of the community, however. “We didn’t know, starting this band and being three Latinas going on the road, how proud this city [would become], and our background and our culture really embraced it and pushed us forward,” says Phanie. She describes the culture she grew up in as traditional and patriarchal, with women as the caretakers rather than the “strong, up-front force,” transforming their musical success into groundbreaking cultural inspiration. “We didn’t realize how important it was, what we were doing,” says Phanie. “[We didn’t know] what doors we were opening until we had little Latina girls coming up and saying, ‘Oh, you look like me and you’re in a rock band and it’s cool and I can do it, too!’”
It’s difficult to imagine anyone imitating Girl in a Coma’s diverse discography, though. From their studio debut, Both Before I’m Gone, through their collection of iconic covers in Adventures in Coverland and now their latest, Exits & All the Rest, Girl in a Coma is a band’s band. The new record is not one to be ignored. Recorded in analog and produced by Mike McCarthy (Spoon, …Trail of Dead), Exits & All the Rest is a little less rough than some of their previous work, but what it lacks in angst, it makes up in sincerity and conviction. “We had a crazy year, a more serious kind of year. Each of us personally going through stuff, and Jenn had lost her mom, so a lot of the songs on the record are just more serious,” explains Phanie. “I think being able to sit together in a room versus being separate and using ProTools and all that—sitting together, facing each other—we were in this mood together, and I think that had a lot to do with this new sound that came out on this record.”
The record is definitely one you’ll want to see played live—their shows are, after all, what set in motion their inevitable success. Phanie attributes this to the band members’ closeness: “I think people can see our chemistry and our connection when we play on stage. It’s kind of like being born with two twins and we can finish each other’s sentences. We know what we’re feeling on stage without saying anything and how to attack songs together, and I think people can see that.” Of course, a band made up of sisters and a best friend isn’t always going to be cupcakes and rainbows. “We can get into some really bad fights and kick each other’s asses, but at the end of it all, because we’re so close, we know that nobody’s going anywhere,” says Phanie.
There’s no doubt the future looks bright for this group of talented musicians, and they have no plans to stop. The band hopes to one day tour with The Pixies and Sonic Youth. Phanie also says that Nina has been itching to collaborate with Faith No More lead vocalist Mike Patton. “That’s a big goal for Nina. She meets people who know of him and she’s always like, ‘Can you let him know that I love him and I want to do a song with him,’ so hopefully the word will get around eventually,” she says. The band looks up to Sonic Youth when thinking of their long-term career goals, though, and their ceaseless years of hard work touring and releasing albums. Phanie concludes simply, “That’s what we want to do, have a bunch of records under our belt and play shows.”
Check out Girl in a Coma at Kilby Court on Nov. 25 to get a taste of something good and new—don’t just take Joan Jett’s and Morrissey’s word for it.