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Friday Jun 8

Coma awakens the senses

By Paul Freeman / Entertainment Writer

San Antonio's Girl in a Coma is one of the liveliest indie-rock bands you'll ever experience. Since connecting with one of their heroes, Joan Jett, the female trio has been awakening the whole world to their exciting sound.

Girl in a Coma's album "Both Before I'm Gone" displays an infectious, melodic sensibility, with a potent punk backdrop.

Since its release, the girls have been caught in a whirlwind. "It's been crazy," drummer Phanie Diaz said. "We still haven't sat down and thought about what's going on. We did the record and it's like go, go, go, tour, tour, tour."

Rock 'n' roll fantasy has become reality.

"It's going far beyond what we expected."

Growing up, Diaz and her middle school friend Jenn Alva listened to punk and Riot Grrrrl. Then they got into Morrissey.

Diaz had been playing guitar when she met Alva in middle school. "She claimed to play bass. We met at my mom's house. She brought her bass and I realized, 'Hey dude, you're a liar,'" Diaz chuckled. "I taught her the basics and she took it from there. We started writing songs."

Around that time, Nina, Diaz's younger sister, had been listening to Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline. "Nina was borrowing my guitar and learning chords. She asked me to show her stuff. She got way better than I did, out of nowhere," Diaz said. "She showed us this really cool song she had written. She was only like 12 at the time. It freaked us out, because she was so young. We knew there was something there - great songs, great voice. So she's been playing with us since she was 13. Now she's going to be 20."

Finding the right drummer was a problem. Alva pointed out that Diaz could keep a beat. So Diaz picked up the sticks. "I was really scared. At our first gig, I was like, 'I don't want to do this!' I basically learned onstage, and from watching other drummers and practicing. Now it's all I want to do.

"I'd advise anybody who wants to learn to just throw yourself in front of lots of people and don't worry if you suck ... just keep doing it."

The Pixies were another main influence on the budding musicians. In San Antonio, early in their development, the girls were invited to open for Pixies' frontman Frank Black.
"When we played, not too many people had shown up yet. But we noticed that Frank Black was standing in the corner, watching us. That made me really nervous," Diaz said. "Afterwards he shook our hands and said, 'I'll be seeing you guys around.' I'll always remember that, because it was really cool."

The trio, which built a solid fan base through touring, took its band name from the Smiths record "Girlfriend in a Coma." Sometimes siblings might like to whack one another into a coma, but Nina and Diaz have a strong bond.

"We have our usual sister spats, getting annoyed with each other. But the cool thing is, we'll get over it in like five minutes. We can knock each other on our a---- and then we'll laugh about it later," Diaz said.

Diaz takes the role of big sister seriously. Nina left high school early, in 2004, so the band could record a demo in England with Boz Boorer (Morrissey's guitarist).

"My mom let her go, because she knew this was what we really wanted to do, and kind of handed over her responsibilities to me. So (Alva) and I were like mom and dad, raising Nina. We're telling her, 'Don't do this.' But at the same time, we're doing it - kind of a hypocritical thing.

"I had to learn how to take care of somebody else. But Nina's older now and she's actually wiser than we are. We're coming to her for advice."

An appearance on Latin language station SITV led to their breakthrough - meeting Joan Jett and producer Kenny Laguna.

"Joan not only gave us advice, but came to see our Knitting Factory show (in New York City) and, on the spot, offered to put us on Blackheart (Jett's record label).

"She kept telling us we reminded her of when she was younger, in the Runaways. That was a huge compliment to us."

Jett is now like a big sister to all three girls. "Every time we see her, she gives us positive feedback, tells us how to handle situations. She's had so much experience," Diaz said.

In the '70s, The Runaways faced prejudice against women in rock. That nonsense hasn't quite disappeared. "We've had our bumps with people who automatically assume that we're going to suck. We've met a lot of guys who are like, 'Oh, you're going to play? And you're all girls? Are you going to sound all whiny?'" Diaz said. "And they're surprised when they actually hear us."

Girl in a Coma looks forward to surprising the audience at MACLA, the San Jose Center for Latin Arts. They've had strong support from the Hispanic community. "We get the same response, like 'Represent us! Wow, three Latin chicks, they're really doing it!' We're definitely inspiring other kids, which is great. We're proud of that."

They've received letters from girls of all backgrounds who thank the band for inspiring them to pick up guitars and start bands.

When they return to play San Antonio, crowds are wildly enthusiastic. "In our town, bands tend to be the 'it' group for a couple of months, then people stop paying attention and just throw them away. But for us, they've been responsive for seven years. That blows our minds. The people, the city gives us so much energy. We're hoping that continues in other cities."