SAN ANTONIO CURRENT
The members of Girl in a Coma recently spent bassist Jenn Alva’s birthday shopping for a new van.
The SA all-female trio has been depending on the kindness of friends and acquaintances since the oil pump of their old van broke down and left them stranded 80 miles away from a gig in El Paso.
The new GIAC van best be sturdy because the indie-rock band will spend most of this summer on the road, breaking in untested states such as North Dakota and Montana, serenading skateboarders on the Vans Warped Tour, and possibly supporting Canadian duo Tegan and Sara for a few dates.
While the group wandered around town looking for affordable vans, they come across a local musician who wondered, with some astonishment, how the band has been able to attract more than 12,000 friends to its MySpace page. He pointed out that his band had peaked at a mere 500.
Without question, hard work explains a lot. Girl in a Coma has spent much of the last three years practicing old-school retail politics: relentlessly hitting the road and networking with a zeal that is equal-parts evangelical (they believe in their music with an undeniable fervor) and practical careerism (as Alva points out, they have no Plan B; absolutely nothing to fall back on).
But there is another, intangible component to the Girl in a Coma story. By now, most local music fans are familiar with the outline of the group’s bio: Alva and Phanie Diaz bonded 13 years ago in a Longfellow Middle School art class over their shared interest in a magazine article on Kurt Cobain’s suicide death. After several years of struggling through various punk bands, they listened to a few songs that Phanie’s younger sister, Nina, had written. They were stunned to discover that Nina not only possessed a breathtakingly beautiful voice but also an innate gift for songwriting.
At the time, Nina was only 12 years old,a full eight years younger than Phanie and Jenn. Nonetheless, they didn’t hesitate to hand over the creative controls to an adolescent with no performing experience. Phanie, who’d played guitar up to that point, learned to play drums, to make room in the band for her younger sister.
That decision says a great deal about the older members of Girl in a Coma. Their determination to create a successful band was so strong that they were willing to subjugate their own egos for the cause of the collective dream. Also, they were not easily swayed by issues of youth and inexperience, because they saw Nina’s artistic potential.
On the personal side, however, Jenn and Phanie paid a price, because in a sense they became Nina’s guardians, a role for which they were hardly prepared. That burden only intensified when Nina dropped out of school at 16 to concentrate on the band. “It was like I was raising her. Jenn and I felt that way,” says Phanie, 27. “Trying to keep her out of trouble. I felt like a hypocrite all the time, because I would tell her not to do things, and she would see that I was doing the same things myself.”
“I would act out,” says Nina, 19. “I think because I grew up around such older people, I kind of matured faster, and my experiences are past my age. But sometimes I would act my age, and that’s when it would get awkward.”
While Jenn and Phanie derived most of their inspiration from the early ‘90s Riot Grrrl punk-feminist movement, Nina’s tastes tend to be more eclectic and eccentric. Within a single sentence she’ll rave about Billie Holiday and former Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, and the giddy affectations of her supple, playful vocals suggest what might have happened if Björk and Morrissey had conceived a daughter in 1988.
Jenn, 27, tends to be the most talkative Girl in a Coma member, as well as the organizer and archivist (a role often assumed by bass players) while Phanie provides the group’s steady heartbeat. Nina is more elusive and enigmatic, wandering in and out of conversations with quick insights or flashes of droll humor.
For their first album, the band opted to record with trusted friends Gabe Gonzales and Erick Sanger in Austin, rather than a high-profile producer. Alva says Blackheart Records co-owner Kenny Laguna, Jett’s longtime producer, was initially surprised by their choice. “We kept telling him, ‘These guys are great, we want to work with them, they’re our buddies,’” she recalls. “It’s kind of hard for him to give compliments. He’s one of those guys. But once he heard it, he said, ‘These guys are good.’”
The album captures the raw energy of the band, while also spotlighting Nina’s innate melodicism and mysterious, code-language lyrics. The few sonic adornments, such as the handclaps on “In the Background” (a gift to the handclap-loving Laguna) and the rewinding-tape sounds that frame the gorgeous acoustic coda, “Simple Man,” serve a useful purpose.
“I think it’s perfect,” Nina says. “It’s not too extreme that we can’t replicate it when we play it live. It’s not where people will wonder, ‘Where was that crazy part?’”
While the band members unanimously gush over Jett’s kindness and supportive nature, they admit to feeling some self-imposed pressure over the fact that one of their idols would be listening closely to their work. They were amazed when Jett dropped in on mixing sessions in New York and knew Nina’s lyrics well enough to sing along with the tracks.
“It was intimidating hanging out with her,” Alva says. “You always think you don’t want to say the wrong thing. But at the same time, we didn’t really care. We were ourselves. She’s real sweet, and we gave of ourselves, and she liked that.”