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Girl in a Coma living the rock dream

Web Posted: 04/28/2007 05:38 PM CDT

Nina Diaz and Jenn Alva are two-thirds of Girl in a Coma.

Jim Beal Jr.
Express-News Staff Writer

The members of Girl in a Coma know about, and, of course, lead, the glamorous lives of rock 'n' roll stars.

The trio — the Diaz sisters, Nina, 19, (guitar, vocals) and Phanie, 27, (drums) and childhood friend Jenn Alva, 27 (bass, backing vocals) — has worked national tours; traveled to England to record a demo with one of their music-making heroes, Morrissey's musical director, Boz Boorer; and turned in Warped Tour gigs. Tuesday will see their "Both Before I'm Gone" CD released on iconic rocker Joan Jett's Blackheart Records label.

On the eve of Fiesta, and the eve of a national tour, Girl in a Coma gathered around a table at Ruta Maya Riverwalk Coffeehouse for a few minutes before they hit the Ruta Maya stage for a tuneup gig.

"The album is coming out, we're about to go out on tour, we have $500 among us and we still need to rent a van," said Phanie, laughing just a little. "But that's the way it is. We were stuck in San Francisco after a tour and had no money to get home. Jenn took a stack of CDs and went into bars, asked people to listen to them on headphones and, if they liked what they heard, buy one. We made $100 so we could come home."

OK, so maybe Girl in a Coma (named for the Smiths song "Girlfriend in a Coma") isn't quite leading the glamorous rock life just yet. But the band is doing what Phanie and Jenn dreamed of since they met over music magazines at Longfellow Middle School — rock, roll, record and tour.

The Longfellow alums, with Phanie on guitar and Jenn playing bass, put together a few bands. Nothing stuck. Meanwhile, Nina took an interest in music.

"She asked me to show her a little bit of guitar and later gave us a tape of what she'd been working on," Phanie said.

"You care about what your older sister thinks," Nina said.

"I listened to the tape and I said, 'Phanie, we got gold,'" Jenn added with a loud laugh.

So Phanie switched to drums and Girl in a Coma is going for the gold.

Nina's voice has been compared with that of Bjork and Patsy Cline. She's also been described as "the female version of Morrissey." But Girl in a Coma's brand of rock 'n' roll is much more straight-ahead than the Smiths/Morrissey moodiness. Still, Nina doesn't cringe at the comparison.

"It's a great compliment and I guess I'll just take it and say 'Thank you,'" she said with a shrug that caused the tattoo of the Fender Telecaster guitar on her left upper arm and the tattoo of a stylized version of herself on her right upper arm to move in unison. "I like to say our songs are good music to fall asleep to or good music to chill out with friends to."

"It's good times music," Phanie said.

"It's good times, day or night, music," Jenn added, laughing again.

"I like to bring out every emotion," Nina said.

"I have records that I listen to that bring out good memories every time I play them," Phanie said. "That's the way we want our music to be."

Nina said she doesn't try to force the songs.

"I'll just pick up the guitar," she said. "I have more time now because I was working at a day-care center and I just quit because I got tired of changing dirty diapers. So I'll play guitar and sing melodies. I usually don't finish a song all at once. I have pieces and pieces of songs, and I come back to them."

In the beginning, Nina was responsible for the majority of the words and music.

"I think Nina finding her own style, and Phanie and I learning more and more, really helped set us apart," Jenn said.

"I started out learning by ear, listening to the Misfits and being home alone and playing in the garage," Nina said.

"Nina would show us songs she wrote and we would work on them," Phanie said. "Now all three of us contribute."

"Nina still starts it," Jenn added.

Nina has brought songs to the other two and had them rejected.

"They used to do that, but now I ignore them," Nina said.

Joan Jett, who was younger than Nina when she started rocking and rolling with the band the Runaways, did not ignore Girl in a Coma. The trio was doing a television show for SíTv in which bands would be introduced to one of their influences for a mentoring session.

"Joan showed up at a rehearsal and surprised us, and then she and Kenny Laguna (Jett's longtime producer and manager) went to our show at the Knitting Factory in New York," Phanie said.

'This is all we've ever wanted to do,' says drummer Phanie Diaz. The band's new release is on Joan Jett's label.

"She was just going to give us some advice, but she and Kenny signed us," Jenn added.

There was a bit of serendipity involved because the Diaz sisters' mom introduced them to Jett's music, and Alva's mother gave her the 45-rpm record of Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."

"Their music is really interesting, intense, catchy rock 'n' roll," Jett said in a phone interview. "They were different, melodic. I'm a melody freak. I like guitar hooks and vocal hooks. I like to champion girls when I can."

With the Runaways, and in her solo career, Jett has created music the way she wants to create music. She's also not shied away from buckling down and going to work. Girl in a Coma has that same kind of work ethic. The trio has played almost every place in San Antonio that has an electrical outlet. The tour with "Both Before I'm Gone" will take the band from the American Legion in Casper, Wyo., to a Warped Tour stop in Atlanta.

"They remind me of the Runaways' sort of innocence, but playing well," Jett said. "We played everywhere, too."

There are only four acts on Blackheart Records. But Girl in a Coma does not have to worry about Jett micromanaging their career.

"I don't get in the way," Jett said. "When the bands come to town to do a show, I'll talk to them, but on a personal level. I'm not going to push my style of doing things. I want to be the big sister, not the mother hen."

Speaking of sisters, there might be pros and cons to having two sisters in one band.

"The pros are we're all kind of sisters, the cons are they team up against me sometimes," Jenn said, laughing. "But Phanie and I team up against Nina sometimes, too."

"The good thing is it's easy to communicate," Phanie said. "The bad thing is we know each other too well."

"We fight, a lot, but we get over it fast," Nina added.

With the CD and a couple of videos being released, plus the looming lengthy tour, Girl in a Coma is facing pressure.

"Oh, yeah," Phanie said. "This is all we've ever wanted to do. Nina dropped out of high school (but got her GED) because we went to England to record, so I kind of took her life and there's pressure to do well because of that."

"We're getting phone calls every day," Jenn said. "We used to talk about getting signed, and when it happened, it happened so fast."

"But at least the album is done, the songs are written and now we have to think about the next album," Nina added.

The band also is thinking about representing San Antonio.

"At the beginning, we were one of the bands that said, 'San Antonio sucks. People don't come out to shows.' Then other bands started coming up, and some really good bands came up and then broke up," Jenn said.

"But fans kept coming out and being faithful and telling us how much our songs meant to them at certain points in their lives," Phanie said. "We're all about the San Antonio scene now."

"After the first tour, when we met some people who were just jerks, we came home and the people were just nice," Jenn said. "When you go on tour and then come home you appreciate your town."

Even rock stars get homesick.