Live-wire club scenes, plentiful celeb-bonding opportunities, and record-company HQs tend to lure the young, ambitious, and almost famous to the East or West Coast music business, or just up the road to the singer-songwriter capital of the world. But San Anto’s Girl in a Coma is staying put.
“We’re all born and raised here, so we know everything, and everybody’s kind of raised the same almost … so you tend to find common ground,” says bassist Jenn Alva.
The band, which is scheduled to release its sophomore album, Trio B.C., on June 2, following a release party Friday at Jack’s Patio Bar, has used its local roots as a springboard to national success, earning a recording deal on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records and touring the country repeatedly, but they say they’ll always return to SA.
“It’s our home,” says singer-guitarist Nina Diaz. “Los Angeles is awesome. We love going there when we do go there, and we enjoy it, but we always miss home. We miss our family.”
They can’t be homesick just yet. Until the band embarks on a national tour behind the new album, Girl in a Coma is living with Nina and drummer Phanie Diaz’s parents on the city’s Northwest side.
“We’ve been kind of relaxing and just enjoying our neighborhood,” says Alva, hanging out on the Diaz patio, which is decorated ceiling to floor with artwork and pictures of the band.
Alva and Phanie Diaz had already been living with the Diaz’s folks, and Nina moved back in recently to prep for the tour.
“We tend to get together before a big tour because it’s easier with interviews, errands, and practice,” says Phanie.
The band says it doesn’t make financial sense for them to have their own place right now, since they spend so much time on the road and Phanie and Nina’s parents are glad to have them. And Girl in a Coma’s rent and play money is tied up in legal fees after Alva and Nina Diaz were arrested on March 22 following a much-publicized wrestling match with an off-duty cop at the Houston bar Chances.
“We had collected a good amount from this past tour, and it got wiped out due to the case,” says Alva.
The band’s attorney told them to check the specifics at the interview door (see “The Sound & the Fury,” April 1, 2009, for additional details), but they said they’re hoping the release of their new album will help them turn their finances around.
The new album’s namesake is a ’50s-era Tejano band that played the local bars in Runge, Texas, 70 miles southeast of SA. The band included Nina and Phanie’s grandfather, who used to play the group’s songs in the family garage when the sisters were growing up.
“Before he passed, he was kind of losing his memory, but the only memories that would stay would be him younger, in the band,” says Phanie. “It was like his best times.”
Much of Trio B.C. was written while the band was on the road last summer, when they made a conscious decision to further emphasize their love for the golden era of early ’90s guitar rock.
“We love Smashing Pumpkins,” says Alva.
Nina has been glued to a Smashing Pumpkins DVD she received for her 21st birthday in March. “They’re the coolest,” she says, adding Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Nirvana, the Pixies, and Sonic Youth to the list of artists who have significantly influenced her.
“I love Kim Gordon a lot, just the way she is onstage,” says Nina of the Sonic Youth bassist. “I noticed as soon as I started watching her performances, that I kind of started changing live, that I started playing and being `more` free. Usually whatever I listen to at the time somehow finds its way into what I write.”
The new album also features two tracks co-produced by Jett. The veteran rocker contributes guitar and backing vocals to “Joanie in the City,” a tune Nina says is about the tough attitude females need to have to make it in the music business — a topic Jett, a trailblazer in the late ’70s when the Runaways became one of the first successful hard-rocking all-female bands, knows by heart.
Nina credits producers Gabriel Gonzalez (a former guitarist for Sparta) and Greg Collins (whose production credits include U2 and No Doubt) with helping her dial in her guitar tone.
“Gabe did the foundation of it, but Greg Collins really helped me kind of sort of figure out what my sound is,” says Nina. Tracks such as “Baby Boy,” “Static Mind,” “Pleasure and Pain,” and “Empty Promise” find Diaz dabbling in psychedelic harmonics, phase shifting, and rich distortion effects, embellishing a big, wall-of-guitars sound with a Lollapalooza vibe.
“`Collins is` an awesome producer,” says Phanie. “He kind of opened up our minds into experimenting with different stuff and upped us as musicians.”
“It’s kind of like that part in Clueless where they fix the teacher real quick and make the teacher look cute. That’s what he did to us for the album — he took off our glasses,” says Nina. Collins also contributed slide-guitar overdubs to some songs.
“And for me, I’m really like, ‘Oh these are my bass lines, don’t touch them, don’t think about it,’” says Alva. “I think he got that vibe from me … He took what I wrote, but then we kind of just thought about pauses, and accents, and stroking, so that was really cool.”
Trio B.C. stretches the band’s already wide-ranging sound much further. Nina’s elastic vocal range enables her to mesmerize on mid-tempo songs and deliver arena-rock intensity on heavier tunes. She also swings a mean ax — still an all-too-rare feat in the male-dominated rock world — alternately complimenting her smooth vocals with melodic, chiming accents and giving them a jagged edge with rapid, angular riffage. The tight rhythm section Alva and Phanie form behind Nina aggressively propels the songs through their many tempo and stylistic shifts.
While rock bands often feel a need to stick to one clearly defined genre, Girl in a Coma blends a variety of styles, sometimes within the same song. “In the Day” features a danceable rhythm and blues vibe, while “Slaughter Lane” delves into a retro Tex-Mex blues sound before exploding into an aggressive punk-rock outro. The album ends with a cover of “Ven Cerca” by Los Spitfires, the first song Girl in a Coma has recorded in Spanish. Altogether, Trio B.C. is one of the most refreshingly diverse rock albums of recent years.
Girl in a Coma has come a long way from their first gig at the now defunct Sin 13 on March 3, 2000, when 13-year-old stage-frightened Nina Diaz couldn’t look at the crowd.
Nina was just 12 in early 2000 when she stunned the other girls, who were 20 at the time, by picking up her sister’s guitar and tossing off an original song. She had secretly been teaching herself to play the instrument for several months.
“We were looking for a singer … and she showed us this song, and Jenn right away was all, ‘Whose song is that?’ And `Nina` said, ‘I wrote it,’ and we were like ‘Wow, OK,’” says Phanie Diaz. Phanie switched back to drums, and the band was born.
Girl in a Coma first hit the road for a national tour in 2004, and by 2005 they’d been invited to England to record demos with Morrissey guitarist Boz Boorer. In 2006, TV producers flew GIAC to New York to tape Jammin’, a cable show about unknown bands. Runaway-turned-Blackheart-turned-record-executive Jett made a surprise appearance on the show to offer the band advice on succeeding in the music industry. Phanie says just meeting Jett was exciting because her mom had often played Jett tapes for the girls when they were children, and they were fans of Light of Day, the 1987 film in which Jett plays a musician in a fictional Cleveland band with Michael J. Fox.
“She ended up liking us and came to the gig that we had at the Knitting Factory that night,” Phanie says. “As soon as we were done, we met with her downstairs, and right away they were like, ‘We want you on the label,’ and we were like, ‘OK,’ real fast.”
“We always talked about it, but it just felt like it was so far-fetched that it would never happen,” says Alva.
“That soon,” Nina adds. The band’s 2007 debut, Both Before I’m Gone, reached number 23 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and number 21 on iTunes. The album’s distinctive sound merged alt-rock influences with a diverse smattering of punk, indie rock, and blues that make the trio hard to pigeonhole. After the album dropped, Morrissey — who penned the Smiths song for which GIAC is named — asked the band to join him on tour.
The Diaz’s mother, Maria Gonzales, says her attitude about the band changed about a year before Nina Diaz dropped out of high school in 2005. (She subsequently earned a GED.)
“This was why I didn’t argue with her decision to drop out. Both Nina and Phanie kept telling me making music was what they wanted to do,” Gonzales says. “Then they went to London and starting touring, and I saw they were serious. This was their passion, and they would make it.”
“Now `our parents are` really proud,” says Phanie. “They have that little shrine that they put together themselves, and they have it when you walk in you can open up the book and see all our newspaper articles … and they let us take over the house.”
Now 21, guitarist-vocalist Nina is clearly coming into her prime. She’s been the band’s primary songwriter since its inception, but Trio B.C. shows her continuing to evolve as both lyricist and composer. There’s not a filler track on the album, and the guitar scores demonstrate an increasing playfulness and complexity. Diaz says she starts to feel strange if she doesn’t answer her muse on a regular basis, and the result is a solid and growing library of work.
“The span from 13 to 18 is when the songs from Both Before I’m Gone were written, and I can’t even count how many there are, was, is,” Diaz says. “And now, I constantly have to write songs, I constantly have to have something coming out of me. At least one idea a week, or something, has to come out, a piece. Otherwise, I feel like something’s wrong. … I feel like I forgot to turn off the running water, you know?”
At the band’s SXSW gig at Maggie Mae’s in March, Nina was a charismatic dynamo, performing with a wide-eyed fervor that captivated the audience. Alva revved up the crowd with her aggressive bass playing, while Phanie laid down a rock-solid attack on the drums.
“I try to just let go, because that’s everybody’s time to just let go,” says Nina. “You go to a show to get away from your problems, not to create more or be nervous.”
Wake up, San Antonio
A flyer for an early summer Girl in a Coma gig reads “Music is in a depression; let us wake it up.” It’s a sentiment that many musicians and fans apply to San Anto itself. Alva expresses nostalgia for the Alamo City music scene of the ’90s, when she says there were lines to see local bands and good vibes all around. While performers and audiences debate why the scene seems to have deteriorated to some degree — with fewer indie-rock touring stops and a revolving door of live-music clubs — Girl in a Coma believes it can be resuscitated, and to that end they play goodwill ambassadors when they’re on tour.
“We kind of just rep San Antonio as much as we can when we’re on the road. We talk about how great it is here, and beautiful, and people are cool, and come play here — there’s people here who want to see shows,” says Phanie.
“I like that `San Antonio` is kind of a secret,” says Alva. “It does suck that we have to drive an hour and 15 minutes to see some good concerts, but fuck ’em, they’ll come.”
Girl in a Coma hits the road in June for a two-month national club tour before trying to land a support slot on a larger tour. Follow them at girlinacoma.com.
Girl in a Coma: A.D. 1994 — ‘Trio B.C.’
1994: Longfellow Middle School students Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva bond over their shared interest in a magazine article about Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
2000: After several false starts at forming a band, Diaz and Alva bring Diaz’s 12-year-old sister Nina into the fold after she stuns them with an original song. Nina becomes their singer-guitarist, while Phanie takes up the drums.
2004: The band hits the road for their first national tour.
2005: The band travels to England to record a four-song demo with Boz Boorer, guitarist for their idol, Morrissey.
2006: Si TV features the group in the pilot episode of the documentary series Jammin’. While taping the show, they meet Joan Jett, who signs them to her Blackheart Records label.
2007: Blackheart releases the band’s debut album, Both Before I’m Gone, just in time for a Cinco de Mayo CD-release show. In October, Morrissey invites them to join his tour.
2009: In March, Alva and Nina Diaz are arrested at a Houston club after an altercation with two off-duty police officers. The case is pending. The band’s second album, Trio B.C., hits stores June 2.