MY YEARBOOK

Return to Girl In A Coma

 

Girl in a Coma: An Interview with Jenn Alva
The badass bassist talks about the band’s new music, tour and her coming out story.

By Kate Heath

When Joan Jett wants to sign your band on first listen to her label, you know you’ve got something good. Such was the case for Girl in a Coma, the Morrissey-idolizing San Antonio trio made up of sisters Nina Diaz (lead vocals, guitars), Phanie Diaz (drums), and their friend, Jenn Alva (bass, vocals). These riot girls are now set to release a three volume EP entitled Adventures in Coverland, a digital follow-up to their 2009 sophomore album, Trio B.C., featuring covers ranging from the Velvet Underground to Richie Valens to David Bowie. Below, Alva chats with myMag about her Elvis epiphany, transgender legend Amanda Lepore and her love of peanut butter.

Check Adventures in Coverland, which will be released in three successive weeks in April, beginning on April 13, 2010.

Former Runaway Joan Jett cherry picked you for her label, Blackheart Records. What was that experience like?
What happened to us was every band’s dream. Joan saw us and then she signed us on the spot that day. She’s busy a lot, but when she is around she’s just so proud of us. She definitely gives us advice, and it’s right. She’s a smart woman too, very educated.

Did she give you any life advice?
Besides the obvious, ‘You’ve gotta keep doing this. Enjoy it, it’s going to go by fast,’ the main one that I think about a lot happened during SXSW one year. We were doing interviews and it was very busy. I was kind of like, ‘Uh, I’m tired.’ Then she was said, ‘Try the 10 minute nap.’ That’s where you just rest your body against the wall and close your eyes. It works.

You just got back from performing at SXSW where you played “Cherry Bomb” with Cherie Currie on vocals. What was that experience like for you?
That was amazing. We’re big fans, of course. We get very spoiled with Joan. To see Cherie Currie, and to actually perform with her, that was just incredible. It’s one thing meeting your heroes, or even opening up a show for them - like how we did with Morrissey, but to perform on stage with them is completely different. As soon as she got up on stage it was just like, ‘Alright, let’s do this! Rock and roll!’ It felt so good.

Have the Runaways impacted you as a musician and as a band?
Yes, for years, even before we got signed to Blackheart Records. We adored that they were all girls. We realized that they had their own struggles like all girl groups back then. We have it a little better these days, but just a little bit.

Your band name, Girl in a Coma, is a reference to The Smiths’ song “Girlfriend in a Coma.” Since then, Morrissey has called upon you guys to play on a few of his tours. Were you nervous at all when you first met him?
Oh, yeah. This was different from Joan. [Our introduction to] Joan was an amazing experience, but we were obsessed with Morrissey, like talking to posters and stuff. [We’d talk about] what we would do if we ever met him.

It was like these baby steps of getting to Morrissey. We had a manager who knew Bozz [Booer], his guitar player. We met Bozz and we became great friends with him. After that, it was kind of like Bozz was so incredible maybe we shouldn’t meet Morrissey, because what if he’s mean and what if he ruins it?

We were on tour in New York stressing out with all this craziness when we got a call. They said, ‘Would you like to open up for Morrissey?’ And we said, ‘Of course!’ What happened from there wasn’t like, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen when we meet him?’ That just went out the door. It was just like, ‘Oh OK, it’s time to work. Let’s see how many of his fans could be our fans.”

When we did see him, he was pretty good about giving us some time. We just left it at that, we really didn’t want to bother him. We really didn’t want to talk to him. He makes us very nervous. We then went overseas with him, and at the last show in Paris he came in our dressing room and gave us a bottle of champagne and talked about music. That was incredible.

Who were some of the other artists that inspired you when you were growing up before you guys formed the band?
I think we were 14 when we went to see White Zombie. [The opener] was this act Babes in Toyland, which I’d heard of before. When Babes in Toyland came on it was so weird because our eyes were glued to them. We were just like, wow, we need to start a band like right now. That’s what really pushed us to start the band.

You will be releasing a three volume EP in April called Adventures in Coverland, which feature cover songs that range from “Si Una Vez” by Selena and “As The World Falls Down” by David Bowie to “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline and “Femme Fatale” by The Velvet Underground. What inspired this collection?
The idea came from Blackheart. They just kind of said, ‘Do you guys want to do some covers?’ And we’re like, ‘Of course, yeah!’ So the next hard part was the list of songs. We were deciding what we could do to change it up a little bit and not completely mess it up. You do covers and you’re getting two opinions. You’re getting Beatles fans and your fans, and they’re judging you. Nina started with the rearrangements. For a lot of the songs I didn’t want to listen to the bass line, I rewrote a few bass lines. We did it that way because we wanted to make them our own.

Was there a particular song on these EPs that you really enjoyed playing?
Yeah, the Selena cover. We really had to change that song. It’s a lot like the original. It’s a Spanish song, and it’s got the traditional Tejano sound with horns. Nina had to recreate it, so she kind of took a little from the horns and a little from the guitar to make it her own. The bass line that I wrote is very Latin, and that’s just from being around it all the time here in town. We live in San Antonio, and there’s a lot of Latin culture here. We play a lot here in Texas, and more people here know about Selena so they just freak out.

Can fans expect any new music videos from you for the songs on the EPs?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t know which ones we’re going to do first, but we’re going to do something.

One of the coolest videos your band’s made is “Road to Home” from your 2007 album Both Before I’m Gone, which features legendary transgender performer Amanda Lepore. What was it like working with her, and why did you think she’d be a good fit for this song?
It was our first video with Blackheart. I think it’s just how the business goes sometimes where they’re just like, ‘OK, go! What do you want to do?’ And you have to think of it today. We already had an idea and Nina said, ‘I’d really like a transgender person singing my song.’ So our record label knew Amanda and called her and asked her. She had to learn the song in one day.

We just thought it was so cool. So we’re all waiting for her to get there, and she gets there and is just a sweetheart. She has a very soft voice and is just professional. She got up there, did it, talked to us for a little while, and we’ve kept in touch after that. It was pretty incredible. I love that video. I think it’s a great first video.

Why do you think Nina wanted her to sing that song in particular?
Nina doesn’t like to tell people what she wrote the song about, she likes them to figure it out or have their own meaning. That song in particular is about coming home from tour. But she wanted it to just represent anything; anything could be home, and then the feeling of really yearning to be home.

You’re openly out in the gay community. If you don’t mind, I would really love for you to share your coming out story with our members. We have many young teens and adults on our site who often write in about how to come out because they’re still struggling with their sexual identity. I think your personal story is really inspiring.
Yeah, of course. I came out in 1999. High school was great for me; I really didn’t have any horror stories. I mean, I obviously looked like a lesbian, but I was very social and had a lot of friends in different cliques. I knew I wanted to tell my parents, and I’m sure they had their suspicions already. I wanted to tell my mom first because my dad’s real cool. They’re very old fashioned with a very Latin background. I didn’t know what to do.

Eventually, it was getting to be like, When am I going to tell her? When am I going to tell her? So I had a dream of my grandmother who had passed in ‘97. In the dream, my grandmother said, ‘Go ahead and tell her. She’s going to love you anyway.’ So when I woke up and said that I’m going to tell her on my 19th birthday, which was a few days away. What happened was that I chickened out and I just enjoyed my birthday.

Two days later my mom was lying on her bed and I lied next to her and sighed. She said, ‘What’s the matter? Do you have something that you want to tell me?’ She already knew it was coming. It took me awhile to tell her, and I didn’t tell her I was a lesbian. I just said, ‘I think I like girls, but I like boys too,” which is not true. [Laughs.] She’s said, ‘That’s no problem. I love you, I’m always going to love you.’ It was really good. My mom’s an older woman, she had me at 42. She took it really well. She told my dad for me and we talked.

The only thing that sucked was that they were so weird with it after that. Whenever I would do something wrong, they would just shake their head and say, ‘We don’t even know what you are,’ and it would really hurt me.

It’s kind of funny now. I remember walking into the living room and Ellen was on TV and my mom was like, ‘I just don’t like that woman.’ I went to my room and was just like weird. All it took was the first girlfriend who was luckily really sweet and very polite to my mom. That helped. Then it just kind of got normal. Ellen is her favorite television show now. She doesn’t miss it, she adores Ellen.

So that’s how I came out. It was tough for awhile, but it was something that I felt had to be done. You really have to test the waters. You really have to throw these small things out there like, ‘Oh, what if I was with a girl?’ and see how they react. Of course, they might be ignorant at first. But if they love you, they’re going to have to accept you.

It seems like both Adventures in Coverland and your last album, Trio B.C., which was inspired by Nina and Phanie’s grandfather, a drummer whose 1950s Tejano band, are a return to roots for you guys in terms of inspiration. Would you say that’s true?
What happened before Trio was that we did a show in L.A. at the Henry Ford Amphitheater, it was a very important show. They hired us to do songs in Spanish, but like rock and roll songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Nina learned these Spanish songs, and that was her first time singing in Spanish. Doing these songs inspired all of us. It inspired drum beats from these ‘60s songs, it inspired these cool, rockabilly walking bass lines, and just singing in Spanish inspired Nina.

After we did that, we kept a couple to play live for fun. The one we really liked was “Ven Cerca,” so we put it on the album. People would freak when they heard it. They wouldn’t care that it was in Spanish because it’s such a passionate song the way we do it.

During the time we were writing the album, the girls also lost their grandfather and that really affected them a lot. Before he passed he didn’t remember many things, but one of the only things he would remember in his life were being in a band. He talked about that a lot. It would wear them out, you know. He was kind of reliving it before he passed. That’s how that came about. When Nina did “Ven Cerca,” that’s how we knew we wanted to do a Selena for the EPs because that’s a big one. That’s a hard song, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. She’s working on learning the language, but for now she’s trying to knock out these songs, kind of the way Selena did.

As for my family, there weren’t many musicians. My father adored Elvis, it’s ridiculous. He even said that he was Elvis and that he faked his death when I was little. I hated Elvis for a long time and then all of a sudden around the age of 22 I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love Elvis!’ I’m worse than my father. My room is an Elvis room, I have everything Elvis. I even have stuff packed away in boxes. Fans give me Elvis toys because they find out I’m obsessed with him.

Family seems to play a very important role in your band. Nina and Phanie are sisters and I can only imagine that you feel like you’re one of theirs as well. How did you come together as a band, and how does your close relationship keep the band strong or can it sometimes put you at odds?
It’s nothing but a benefit for us because we’ve known each other for so long; over 17, 18 years, since 1992. We are like family. I live here live here like family, and I’m doing chores here like the other girls until I get my own place.

Are there any “must have” items you always bring on the road with you?
Peanut butter is perfect for any touring act. You can just eat it straight or buy an apple and eat it like that, then screw on the lid and throw it in the dirty van because you know it’s going to be fine. That’s always a must, we always eat peanut butter.

As for music, it’s between Phanie’s iPod and mine. What we listen to a lot is, of course, the Smiths and Morrissey. [Phanie’s] a big riot grrrl fan, so there will be a lot of Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear. Then mine is more like, well, not wimpy, but sensitive. [Laughs.] Like, I love Rufus Wainwright, but I also love a lot of rockabilly, so Elvis, of course.