June 10, 2009
Coming Out of the Coma
Lesbian members Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva of the all-woman punk group Girl in a Coma discuss their newfound fame and their sophomore album, Trio B.C.
By Graham Kolbeins
The statistical probability of a Latino, queer, all-girl punk group rising to fame out of San Antonio (home of the Alamo) has to be pretty slim -- but Girl in a Coma has beat the odds. Bassist Jenn Alva and drummer Phanie Diaz became inseparable friends in high school, bonding over their mutual appreciation of the Riot Grrrl movement, Nirvana, and the Smiths (the band's name is a nod to the classic Smiths song "Girlfriend in a Coma"). The band really came together, however, after the discovery that Phanie's precocious 12-year-old sister, Nina, was in possession of a monstrously powerful, deeply emotional voice and a natural gift for songwriting.
By the time Nina was 16, the band had honed its sound through relentless practice and endless touring, and movers and shakers were starting to take note. Boz Boorer, Morrissey's musical director, flew the girls to London to record a demo. Rock goddess Joan Jett signed the band to her label, Blackheart Records, after seeing one performance, and she became the group's personal mentor. Tegan and Sara, Frank Black, and even Morrissey himself were asking Girl in a Coma to open for them. Soon enough, the group was headlining shows and attracting a huge following with an acclaimed debut album, 2007's Both Before I’m Gone, a.k.a. BBIG.
Girl in a Coma's appeal crosses genre boundaries as well as those of race, gender, and sexuality (Jenn and Phanie are lesbians). You're as likely to find the band playing the Warped Tour as the True Colors Tour or the American Latino TV Awards. Its fans are equal parts Björk lovers and Social Distortion devotees. So while the girls choose not to pigeonhole themselves in any one group, they also refuse to shy away from the matter of their personal identities. Whether it's singing about the male-dominated music industry or featuring the glamorous transgender performance artist Amanda Lepore in a music video, Girl in a Coma refuses to ask for your approval or try to fit a familiar mold. And isn't that the true spirit of punk?
With their sophomore release, Trio B.C., the girls have expanded their sound into new territories with production help from Joan Jett, and they've recorded their first Spanish-language tune, a cover of the ’50s rock ’n’ roll hit "Ven Cerca." Nina, Jenn, and Phanie took time out of their busy touring schedule to fill us in on the Girl in a Coma songwriting process, paranormal activity, and being openly gay in a traditional Mexican-American family.
Advocate.com: What’s different about your second record? How
have your experiences recording and touring for Both Before I'm Gone
changed your approach on Trio B.C.?
I read that Trio B.C. was recorded on a Texan peacock farm -- how
did that come about, and would you say there’s a subtle avian
influence on the new album?
Jenn and Phanie, you both grew up listening to groundbreaking early-'90s
girl bands like Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill. Were you heavily
involved in the Riot Grrrl scene during that time? Do you see yourselves
as carrying on the legacy of that movement?
Nina, you grew up in a slightly younger generation, perhaps without
that same set of experiences -- do you feel a connection to Riot Grrrl?
Do you think feminism has a place in rock music today?
How does it feel to be one of the few high-profile girl rock bands
out there right now? Has Joan Jett imparted any wisdom to you about
navigating the music industry as a female rock act?
Nina, what was the songwriting process like for Trio B.C.? You'd
been honing and perfecting the songs on Both Before I’m Gone
since your tween years, so what was it like to start over with a whole
new body of work for the second album?
The title of the album comes from the Tejano band that Phanie and
Nina’s grandfather played with in the 1950s. Is that what inspired
you to cover "Ven Cerca"? Do you plan on performing more
Spanish songs in the future?
Mexican culture is not traditionally known for being open and accepting
toward homosexuality. Jenn and Phanie, how did your parents deal with
your sexuality when they found out? How do they feel about you being
in the public eye and having a queer following?
Jenn: Although the Mexican culture is not traditionally known for its acceptance of homosexuality, it is well known that Mexican families are very passionate and try to maintain a strong bond with every member of the household. My family has been very supportive, and although it took my parents a while to come to an understanding about it, they are my number 1 supporters today. That had nothing to do with our nationality; it was more so the fact of learned behaviors. This is why it is very important to educate every person, young and old, about homosexuality. It has been dubbed an ugly word for too long.
Nina, you've been performing with the band for half a decade and
you're barely 21 -- are you starting to get tired of the constant
movement of the touring life, or are you just getting started?
Phanie, you're a part-time ghost hunter. Me too! Do you have any
twisted tales of paranormal activity from your travels across the
nation with Girl in a Coma?