San Antonio’s Girl In A Coma began their journey when vocalist Nina Diaz joined the band at age 13. Best friends Jenn Alva and Phanie Diaz met in junior high school art class, bonding over a mutual love of the Smiths, Nirvana, and skipping school. All they needed was a singer. Enter Nina, Phanie’s little sister. Nina blew them away with her mesmerizing vocals, a powerful voice some critics have compared to Bjork, Patsy Cline, and the band’s hero, Morrissey himself.
Over the last decade, they’ve release several records via Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records and have played with and been championed by Morrissey, Sia, Tegan and Sara, The Pogues and Amanda Palmer. In addition, Robert Rodriguez asked them to compose one of the key songs for his film Machete. All the while, they have been building one of the most impassioned and diverse fan bases in music.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with bassist Jenn Alva while she packed for a tour with Alkaline Trio to discuss Tex-Mex, Babes in Toyland, Polish rock festivals and J.C. Penney’s. Here’s what she told us…
Any self-respecting music nerd hears the name Girl in a Coma and thinks The Smiths? Why not Girlfriend in a Coma?
Originally we were going to be called Ordinary Girls after Ordinary Boys, but we thought it might be a little to plain. And then we thought of Girlfriend in a Coma, but we didn’t want to bite it all the way. I don’t know. So we took Girls in a Coma and then later changed it to Girl in a Coma. I don’t know, maybe we aren’t making that easy for everyone…people sometimes think we might be a tribute band or something. We’ve been around for 10 years trying to make a name for ourselves…
Did Phanie always know that her sister had those kind of vocal chops?
I think when she was 12 she showed us a song and we realized how good she was. She had shown us songs before that, when Phanie and I were young teenagers, and we would just make fun of each other. It wasn’t until a few years later that we realized, “Wow, she’s really that good.”
Your located in San Antonio and it seems to have had a profound impact on your sound and how you approach music. Can you tell us about how influences from rockabilly to punk, tejano and rancheras lend themselves to a commonality that appeals to you?
San Antonio is full of art, culture, and is this big melting pot of things. We have so many different tastes in music. Aside from family playing different types of music for us, this stuff is all around San Antonio. They also do that with food. They take Mexican food and have made it Tex-Mex, which is something that San Antonio specializes in. I think it is similar to what we do as musicians when it comes to writing. We enjoy different styles of music and we blend it to whatever we want to blend it to. It has a lot to do with where we are coming from, so yeah.
Who would you say your most prominent influences are?
It is probably ‘90s rock in general. We grew up in the ‘90s. We saw Babes in Toyland in concert and that was really what pushed Phanie and I over the edge. Wow, that are three chicks up there doing this. It only took that one concert that pushed us to want to start a band. And the whole Riot Girl movement. Everything on MTV at the time. We loved Super Drag and that’s had a huge impact on us. Especially Regretfully Yours. We played it like crazy. And there’s Morrissey and ‘80s rock. But mainly I would say Riot Girl, punk, a lot of that comes into what we write.
In the northwest there has been a huge movement to create punk rock summer camps for girls and those sorts of things. Have you ever mentored another all girl band?
We have done girls rock camp. There is an all girls group here in San Antonio and I was involved in doing a video for them. We help out in different ways like that. Our main advice for any band is to practice. You don’t want to be the typical all girl group and only know three chords. I mean, that’s cool I guess, but you have to have higher expectations. People will have already pigeonholed you with an all-girl sound. You really have to prove the haters wrong. We see bands like that all the time and you’re like, “Really?” Just for one second think about musicianship and go from there. A lot of people are already judging you.
Magazines like Decibel still do Women in Rock issues of the magazine. Do you take issue with being pigeonholed in that way? Do you think gender should be topical with regards to your music?
Ofcourse we take issue with that. We deal with a lot. Besides being girls, we are Latina, Phanie and I are lesbians. People just feel better if they can place you somewhere, but that is dumb to me. You want to support all aspects of your community. Whether it be the gay community, or the Latin community and all that. But at the same time, it’s like, “We just play music.” Whatever. And the label of “Women in Rock” is irritating. It should just be, “These people play music.” So, yeah.
We sometimes feel like…we don’t want to preach. We feel like we can do more by just playing. And people, even females, are like, “Why are you not feminists? You could be doing so much more.” But, once you start acting like that then there’s another category people can throw you in. We saw Babes in Toyland and all they did was rock out on stage. They didn’t have to say anything. That influenced us enough to play music. So at the end of the day, you can take it where you want to take it, but we just like to play.
This year there has been a lot of attention around musicians who have come out as gay, like Frank Ocean who is getting ready to have this career changing album drop. Or Tom Gabel with a more established band like Against Me! saying that he is going to live as Laura Jane Grace. Do these things cause you to reflect on your own experiences?
Well yeah. I think it is great. It is good, because it is good music. If you think about some “gay music” it may not be the best music. It might be crappy techno or something. The more people who come out who are in great bands the better I think. Then again it goes to what we were talking about…like all the Against Me! fans who were enamored of the band, but who may have dropped out. That’s just ridiculous. We are all for it. We don’t hide it. Phanie and I are proud so…
Did I read that you played at a huge Polish rock festival overseas? What was that like?
Yeah. That was unreal. It felt like a quick trip. They asked us to play and there were some other American bands there too. It was like 300,000 people. We played in the evening. It was intense. I wish we could have learned more of the language. Their language is incredible hard to speak, and we already struggle with trying to speak Spanish. To speak Polish is a lot of syllables and sort of blows my mind. But, we went on stage, played, they moved around. It was something to experience absolutely.
I imagine you guys were blown away when you caught the attention of Joan Jett and Blackheart records considering your similar backstory of being young school age friends who started at such a young age?
I think that’s part of what she loves about us. She sees a lot of similarities with her and The Runaways and just starting off. She’s given us a lot of advice whether it is music-related or life-related. One of the big things she’s said is to enjoy every minute of it because when you get to a certain point, you can’t go back. We are a hardworking band, and we’ll see other young bands in San Antonio and realize that they have a lot to learn and go through. We can’t experience the joys of our first shows anymore. We played thousands of shows. So we get what she’s saying.
We really appreciate our fans. Our fans are just incredible. Some people might think that we only play girl shows full of lesbians or whatever they might think. But there are so many types of people that come out. It is the gay community, it is the Latin community, it is people who just enjoy girl groups, and all other kinds of people. They are all cool. Every day we think about how lucky we are. But we also try to stay busy. We tour a lot. Blackheart is a great label for us, and they’ve supported us thus far. So it has been great.
It is probably hard to impress you guys these days considering you’ve captured the attention of people like The Pogues, Frank Black, Social D and Morrisey, but playing with a well-established band like Alkaline Trio is nothing to sniff at either. Are you stoked for that run?
We are super excited. It doesn’t matter…from Morrissey to Alkaline Trio. I mean, just to play on the same stage with other great musicians is awesome. It is always a great experience. It is a challenge for us to play with as many other different styles of music. Whether it be SIA or Alkaline Trio or Blue October. We want to see who will like us. That’s always a challenge that we like. So we’re honored and can’t wait. We’re excited
With three records under your belts already, writing and pre-production are old hat to you guys. Have you started any of that for the follow up to Exits & All The Rest?
Yeah. Nina is always writing. We’ve been at home for a month and a half and have written three or four songs. She’s got a full album’s worth already. As a band, we’ve been touching about four of them. We are always writing, whether we’re here at home or in the van. Nina grew up travelling so much that the van is her sanctuary. She’ll go in there and write. I mean, we’re still touring off of Exits & All The Rest. We’ll probably do another video and discuss what is going to happen with the new record and stuff.
Will you return to Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead) for that?
I don’t think so. I think Mike was perfect for that album. We like to try and work with as many producers as we can because it is a learning experience for us. From working with Dave Gonzalez, which was a huge learning experience, to working with Greg Collins…man, I learned so much as a bass player from him. It is good to learn and to see different approaches to recording and experience different ideas. I think if anything, we may do a song in particular with Mike, but as for the whole new album, we’ll probably go a different route.
Recently you released a cover of Martha & The Vandella’s “Heatwave.” Where did the inspiration for that come from?
There was no inspiration. We were asked to do something for J.C. Penney’s, which we were totally down for because they’ve been so cool and had recently had a gay couple on the catalog. That’s the song they wanted. We did it. That was that. I don’t think we want to do covers anymore.
So there’s no songs that you haven’t covered that you’d like to?
All of Adventures in Coverland…that was a fun project with Blackheart. It’s not a horrible thing. We enjoyed doing it. But that was all the songs we loved and all the groups we liked. That’s why it is such a weird album. There are so many different styles of music on it.
I was reading today about a run-in you had with the police in Houston in 2009 and was thinking maybe you’d cover “Fuck Tha Police.”
(Laughter) No. We never felt like that in the first place. It was a big misunderstanding. (Laugher) I think Phanie might like to do that one…
So, it’s an election year and some bands will be making comments in support of, or playing shows to support candidates. Do you guys every do anything like that?
I think we got approached to do something for Obama four years ago. We were totally down. We will vote for him again. We’ll be on the road, but we’ll mail in our ballots. We are big fans of our Mayor here in San Antonio. He knows of our group, and he and his brother like our group. If he wanted us to do anything, I’m sure we would. We aren’t as political as other bands, but we vote.
(For a complete list of Girl in a Coma’s tour dates supporting Alkaline Trio, go here: http://www.girlinacoma.com/shows.)