THE DAILY HERALD - SALT LAKE

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Thursday, 03 July 2008
Not sleepless in San Antonio
SPECIAL TO THE DAILY HERALD
There's no rest for rockers Girl in a Coma


Alan Sculley

Jenn Alva, bassist for the San Antonio-based band Girl in a Coma, had good news when she called for a recent interview.

The group had survived one of the bigger challenges a support act can face -- opening for former Smiths frontman and British pop icon Morrissey on that artist's tour of France and the United Kingdom.

Morrissey commands one of the most devout followings of any music artist, and his fans have been known to make life difficult for some of his opening acts.

"There have been some horror stories of past opening acts with Morrissey, so we were already hoping for the best, but expecting the worst," Alva said.

As it turned out, the group went over just fine with Morrissey's audiences. And chances are, if Girl in a Coma can pass the test of opening for Morrissey, the group should fare well now that it is back on familiar American soil and doing a series of shows that includes a Sunday stop at Burt's Tiki Lounge in Salt Lake City.

The group certainly has won over some notable music figures on its climb from local San Antonio band to national recording act with a very promising future.

The first of the high-profile contacts put Girl in a Coma into Morrissey's orbit.

A manager that met the trio of Alva, drummer Phanie Diaz and her younger sister, singer/guitarist Nina Diaz, passed along a homemade demo tape to a friend who just happened to be Box Boorer, Morrissey's guitarist and musical director.

This led to an invitation from Boorer three years ago to come to London and record the band's first professionally done demo.

"We all agreed to remain calm and cool because we were fans," Alva said. "Once we met him in London, he was a buddy right away and we were being ourselves and he was recording us."

As it turned out, though, Boorer wasn't the only career-enhancing contact the group made. Two years later, the group got the chance to star in a pilot for a SiTV cable network program called "Jammin' " -- a show which spotlighted promising new Latino acts.

As part of the episode, Girl in a Coma was flown to New York to play a show at the Knitting Factory in front of two guest stars who turned out to be rocker Joan Jett and her producer and musical partner, Kenny Laguna.

Jett and Laguna were merely supposed to offer advice to Girl in a Coma. Instead, they were so impressed by the band, they signed the group on the spot to their label, Blackheart Records.

One reason Girl in a Coma grabbed the attention of Jett and Laguna was that Alva and the Diaz sisters seemed experienced musically beyond their years.

Alva and Phanie (pronounced faw-nee) Diaz, both 27, had been close friends since junior high and had been trying -- without success -- to find compatible musicians with which to form a group during their high school years.

It turned out the right person was right under Phanie Diaz's roof in the person of then 12-year-old Nina, who one day asked her sister and Alva to listen to a song she had written.

"We listened to the whole thing and the first question that we had was, 'Is that your song?' " Alva said. "After we heard that song, we knew she had to be lead singer. Her voice was just so unique, and it didn't matter about her age. We were already hanging out with her anyway prior to that. So it just kind of worked out that way."

The group was soon touring, and the experience Girl in a Coma has gained through the years of gigging shows in the quality of the group's first CD on Blackheart Records, "Both Before I'm Gone."

There's a decidedly punky side to the band's music, particularly when the group cranks up the energy on churning rockers like "Clumsy Sky" and "I'll Ask Him." But these songs also come with uncommonly potent pop melodies, some nifty changes in tempos and smart instrumental parts.

As a singer, Nina Diaz is a major asset. She has frequently been called a female Morrissey, and while there is a crooning quality to some of her vocals (especially on ballads like "Their Cell" and "Road To Home"), her tone is edgier and has a dramatic, gothic quality that may remind some of Siouxsie Sioux (of Siousxie and the Banshees).

While Alva said the group is pleased with the CD, she said playing live is still what drives the band.

"Being on stage, I think that's the highlight of what we do," Alva said. "We can't wait to perform. That's what we love to do."

If concert reviews are any indication, audiences like what Girl in a Coma brings to the live stage. Alva said the band tries to bring an extra dimension to its live performances.

"To see a band live, and for them to do, if not equivalent, better [than the CD], I think, is the goal," she said. "It's a very passionate performance and a lot of energy, no matter if it's two people watching us or 3,000."