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Interview: Girl In A Coma
Thu, 14 Feb 2008 13:06:27

Wide awake and ready to rock

If you're looking for validation of a band's promise, then being signed by Joan Jett after one meeting and opening for Morrissey should probably cover it. That's exactly how the three Texas ladies of Girl In A Coma got their auspicious start in the music business. Sisters Nina and Phanie Diaz came together with their friend Jenn Alva, while still in High School, to form the outfit and blazed a path to success through steady touring, powerful songwriting and a touch of television magic.

Drawing comparisons to Moz himself, waves of fuzzed-out guitars lay the backdrop for their brand of punk-tinged power pop. We sat down with Alva to discuss their early years, and the big breaks that helped set them up for what's sure to be a very long career.

I'm really digging Both Before I'm Gone. It's an awesome debut. You guys should be totally proud.

Thank you. Yeah, we love it.

I'm sure. I've been reading so much about you. How did you, Nina and Phanie get to be friends back in the day?

Well, Phanie and I, we went to middle school together, and we were just talking about Nirvana, and we wanted to start a band. So, we just kept in touch through the summer, and ever since then. It's been about 14 years that we've been best friends, and of course Nina is her little sister. So, I saw Nina kind of grow up, and that's kind of cool, and now she's our lead singer, so that's funny.

It's funny because sometimes little brothers or sisters try and tag along, and you push them off at first. Were you guys ever trying to ditch her in the early days?

Yeah, because Phanie and I, every Friday, we would go to the thrift store. One time Nina wanted to go, I think she was like seven or eight, so we took her, but we told her, "It's a walk, it's far." "No I want to go," [she said]. So we went, and then we were walking back and she wasn't keeping up, and we were just like, "Man." And I was getting after Phanie too, because she was leaving her way behind, like blocks behind. And I was like, "Dude, wait for your sister," and we were all pissed and she was crying, and she needed to go use the restroom, and we told her to go in the yard. We were just being mean [laughs].

The way you should be at that age, it's good for her, whatever doesn't kill her makes her stronger. So you were blasting Nirvana on these Friday night, pre-thrift store trips. Were there any other bands that you guys were totally into back then?

Uh, yeah, I mean, we were into the mainstream. I mean, there were a few underground bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear, but at the time MTV was so addictive when it came to videos—when they used to play videos. We were into The Smashing Pumpkins and, you know, Hole as well. Phanie was buying all the imports, and we were just jamming out to them mainly.

Do you think that maybe some kids are missing out on catching some of those bands because MTV, like you said, doesn't play videos anymore?

Right, absolutely. It's funny, because I was just thinking about it the other day. Videos had such a big impact, even if you didn't like that genre of music. We were jamming out to Tom Petty's "Last Dance with Merry Jane?"

Oh, everybody was.

Yeah, so that was the video. And I was thinking about it, I was like, "Do you think if there was no video, that we would even know all the lyrics?" It's fun, it's a good song, you know what I mean? It's just one of those things; videos just had such a big impact. It was not just music, like talent with just music, it was like, oh there's another art there. Like, this video's amazing, or so abstract, or whatever. Videos were great. I mean, we do videos now, but it's not the same as it was.

You have to hunt them down on YouTube, and there's a zillion of them, and it's tough for them to become big cultural movements, like you said. When you guys were hanging out back in the day, when did you first decide to pick up some intsturments and start banging it out?

Well, Phanie already had a guitar when I met her, so she was already taking lessons and stuff. I lied to her, and said that I could play bass, and I had a bass. She was like, "Cool." So when it came time to get together, I was like, "Oh I don’t have one." So she and I pitched in and got a bass guitar, and she showed me how to play, and she also showed Nina how to play.

Did the other kids in your school know that you guys were in a band?

Yeah, we did some stupid article for the school paper, but we exaggerated and said, "Oh yeah, we wrote like 20 songs and we'll be turning out for the school talent show, and we're trying to play a party." It was really silly; it was all a lie. We hadn't written any songs yet. Phanie was mad that I even went that far, because I was in journalism I got an opportunity to write an article about it.

That's the first step to becoming an artist, learning to hustle. Sometimes that means stretching the truth.

Fake it till you make it.

Exactly! Nina was younger than you guys, were you really surprised the first time she got on the mic and let loose, because there's just a real maturity to her voice and to her delivery.

Absolutely. She was doing covers, and we were like, "Oh that's cute, she's got a pretty good voice." But I think it really happened when she stopped us and said, "Hey, before you guys leave check out this song," and we were on the porch at her house, and she plays it, and she sings it so magnificently, because it's not anybody else's song, it's hers. We heard it and were like, "Is that your song you wrote?" And she's like, "yeah," and Phanie and I looked at each other like, oh my God, because Phanie and I were, at the time, looking for a drummer. We were trying to start a band again, and we were like, "Wow, you gotta be our lead singer." We didn't care about her age. Her song was just magnificent, it was great. After that, the age was only a problem when it came to playing at clubs, we didn't care anymore. She's pretty mature too, Phanie and I would always fight, and she would calm us down. She was, at times, more mature than we were.

Well you guys forged her in the fires by making her walk by herself blocks behind you, so she had to grow up fast. Was Girl in a Coma the first name you guys agreed on? Were you rocking The Smiths and decided that was what it was going to be, or did you go through some others first?

Um, well we knew that we wanted to pay homage to The Smiths or Morrissey, just because we were fanatics at the time. So the first one we came up with was Ordinary Girls, but that was kind of boring for us. Then I just said, "What about Girls in a Coma, like, we're not completely biting it." That's what we were thinking, even though it's a pretty big bite [laughs]. So, we all agreed, and for a while we were Girls in a Coma. Then maybe two years into it, we changed it to Girl in a Comaa, because we were getting e-mails that said, "That's not really proper English and blah blah blah." Even though it really could be, because they could be sharing one coma, but we just changed it.

[Laughs] When you were first starting out, you built this huge fan base just through touring around Texas, and all through the Midwest. Were you guys out there by yourselves when you were first doing this, or were you chaperoned?

[Laughs] When you were first starting out, you built this huge fan base just through touring around Texas, and all through the Midwest. Were you guys out there by yourselves when you were first doing this, or were you chaperoned?

No, it was just us. I borrowed my brother's minivan, and we booked some dates with a band called Colter, and then we did our own after that. That's how it kind of started. On the first tour, we played to like three to 10 people, unless it was a weekend, and they were just already there. The next tour it doubled, those same people came back. They kept in touch. That's why we toured every year, because we knew that, "Ok we've got so and so there, and they are going to invite this person," and it just kind of grew. So the shows started getting big, not as big as our hometown of course. As for California right now, which is our favorite place to tour, that's popping right now. We've got a lot of fans over there, and we played Bozeman, Montana and there were at least two people [laughs]. So, it's cool, it's a lot of fun to see how it grows, and that's how you have to do it, it's still old fashioned. We are privileged to have the Internet to book tours, instead of mailing out demos and stuff, but it's still an old fashioned way of thinking. Don't have high expectations that a lot of people are going to be there, you know? Hope for the best, and if not, we play like we're playing for a thousand people none the less. We have fun.

You can hear that in the lyrics, you can hear it in the music, you can hear it in Nina's voice. It really comes through. It seems like there's a real honesty to what you guys are doing. It doesn't sound like you're out for glitz and glam, it sounds like you're out to rock a crowd, make some music and express yourselves. Part of that is building that organic fan base.

Right. That's just a bonus. All we said we ever wanted was to make a little money, and be happy. What we're doing, it's like a minimum salary type of thing, and we're happy doing it.

I kind of read the story, but how was it that you linked up with Joan Jett and her label?

We did a TV show for CTV, and they wanted to do this show where it's kind of this documentary following the band around, and the surprise element was to introduce us to one of our role models. So, they told us to write down who we were inspired by, and Joan Jett happened to be one of those people. Of course she said yes, and she was just supposed to go and give us advice and leave, and that's the show. But She and Kenny Laguna ended up really liking us, so they signed us pretty much on the spot, on the television show; it was just amazing. Every band dreams of being signed on the spot, and it's twenty times better because it's Joan Jett, you know what I mean?

For sure.

Kenny Laguna, I mean, he's done so much too, so it was intimidating, but it was just the greatest thing. Now Joan's there and she's a sweetheart, she loves music. She helps us out, and the record label's awesome. It's just the perfect record label for me and the girls.

That's perfect. It's awesome that you guys have video documentation of that entire process, and you can go back and watch it come together.

I know, that's great. Yeah, and as for me and the girls, we try and film as much as possible, so we have a lot of footage from the past till now.

I saw also that you guys went into the studio with Erick Sanger and Gabe Gonzalez, the guys from Sparta. What was it like working with them?

They were our buddies, so when it came time to getting a producer and engineer we pretty much told Blackheart [label], "Listen, we've got these guys, they're really good, we'd like to work with them, please." And in the back of our minds it's like, man we really want to work with our buddies, because if we go up to New York it's either going to be Kenny Laguna or somebody that they know, and it's going to be hard. It's going to be intimidating, and we didn't want to change anything, and we knew that Gabe and Erick always wanted to do it. So, Blackheart's so cool and laid back they're like, "Yeah, let's give em' a shot." It was a pretty big chance on their part, them just taking our word for it. When it happened, and we worked together, it was amazing. We just had a lot of fun. Usually, Phanie and I hate the studio, and we just like to play live, but because it was with our buddies, it was just idea after idea. It was just great. So, when we sent the tracks over to New York, and we went over to mix and master it with Kenny he was like, "Pretty good." He's a tough guy, and he doesn’t give compliments that much.

He knew you were onto something.


Talk a little about your SXSW experience last year; you guys got a good amount of noise coming out of the festival. What was it like playing down there?

Well, we're from San Antonio, so that's only about 45 minutes away from Austin. So every year at SXSW we played outside, we weren't registered. So we were just excited that we were registered, and it was real, and we were in it. We were playing at Emo's with Joan Jett, and The Dollyrots and The Vacancies, our label mates. It was a huge crowd, and we played well. The Vacancies and Dollyrots did such a great job too, and then at the end Joan came up and played with members of The Vacancies and Dollyrots, and Nina got to play guitar up there with her. It was a really fun, great show to be at.

Talk about the day when you guys first heard that you were going to be opening up for Morrissey. What was it like when you got that call?

That day we were in New York getting ready for the day. We had a show that day at a little venue, and we were like, "Man driving sucks in New York. And where are we going to park, I hate parking." It's just crazy in New York when you have a vehicle, and if you don't, New York is awesome. So we are getting ready like, "Ugh," and then all of the sudden, I go get something for lunch for Phanie and I—we're doing the Vegan thing—and I come back and Phanie's like, "Guess what? We're going to open up for Morrissey." I was like, "That's fucking great." I guess I misunderstood like, oh it's going to happen Monday or something, but no it was that night. We canceled all our gigs, and were doing the rest of the dates, and it was just amazing. We were all in shock. I think one of the big reliefs was, oh cool, we'll just drive our van over there and they'll park it for us. I think that's when we were like, "Yeah!" It was just a weird thing, and we knew that Morrissey’s audience was very particular about the opener. I think with Christian Young, the opener before, maybe half liked her and half hated her. So we we're going into it like, ok what's it going to be like for us, and the minute we got on stage some guy screams, "Hallelujah!" Then the second show was amazing, and word got around after all the Morrissey fans talked to each other. So, after that, from those three days in New York, the rest of the shows down South were just incredible.

Then Nina gets the “female Morrissey” moniker that I keep reading all over the place. If you’re going to be compared to somebody, that’s not a bad place to start.

Right, yeah. She kind of gets embarrassed about it though[laughs].

I can imagine. Talk a little about being from San Antonio. What’s the scene like down there? I mean, you are three strong Latin women, does it influence your songwriting, or the way you guys go about this at all?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that that has its own influences, but San Antonio alone does too. That’s why I like LA, it’s similar but not. San Antonio’s like this Tex-Mex, kind of, beautiful art and culture mixture. As for the music scene down here, we’ve got a lot of great bands. San Antonio has gotten labeled as this Metal town. There’s good reason, there’s a lot of Metal bands, but there’s a lot of other great bands to, and I think all they have to do is tour and then they’ll put San Antonio on the map, because they’re that great. The music scene is up and down, probably kind of like anywhere. Summertime, it’s fucking great; it’s popping. Summertime the kids go out, the shows are huge. When the kids are in school and weekdays kind of suck, venues close sometimes, then re-open. So the scene is a roller coaster ride here, but I mean, the bands that are here are amazing. They’re definitely something to check out.

Are you guys going to do a huge, nationwide tour behind the album?

Yeah, the album came out in May last year, 2007. We pretty much toured until December with a couple small breaks back at home. So we’re going overseas. We’re going to play some more dates with Morrissey, come back, and then go back towards the West Coast again. Maybe hop on some other tours. That was a lot of fun last year. Playing with Social Distortion and The Toadies. It was just really great, because those are icons, and for them to be giving us compliments like, “Yeah, wish you could do the whole tour with us,” that’s great.

—Chas Reynolds