WINDY CITY TIMES
Girl in a Coma Lives It Up
by Amy Wooten
Latina rock band Girl in a Coma has been enjoying a whirlwind of success.
Although they've been on the road building a loyal fan base for years, the San Antonio, Texas, trio, who takes its name from the Smiths song “Girlfriend in a Coma,” rose to success after the release of its debut album Both Before I'm Gone on Joan Jett's Blackheart Record label.
The band, which fuses its rock and punk influences over lead singer Nina Diaz' vocals to create a unique sound, consists of three tough, tattooed young women: sisters Nina and Phanie Diaz and out lesbian bassist Jenn Alva.
Windy City Times spoke with Alva in anticipation of the band's upcoming April 10 show at Ronny's Bar, 2101 N. California. See www.mpshows.com .
Windy City Times: Do you have any down time lately, or has it been constant craziness?
Jenn Alva: I guess it's been constant craziness. We've just been doing lots of shows. We have a couple of weeks to relax, but then we are heading out east again.
WCT: Does it get tiring to be on the road so much? I know you spent years on the road building a fan base before you really started to get recognition.
JA: Driving-wise, but I think we handle it pretty well. We like it.
WCT: When did you first pick up the bass?
JA: I started playing in 1992 because of [ drummer ] Phanie [ Diaz ] — I met her when I was 12. I got a bass and she started teaching me.
WCT: You two have been best friends for a really long time. What did you first initially bond over? Was it music?
JA: It was music. She had a Kurt Cobain magazine. I was the loudmouth in the class, always getting in trouble. I told her, “Aw, I love Nirvana!” We just started talking because of music. Then, that summer, we were just calling each other, not making any sense on the phone and being silly and stuff.
WCT: When did [ lead singer ] Nina Diaz [ Phanie's younger sister ] come into the picture? When did you realize she had an amazing voice?
JA: That wasn't until probably late 2000. She was interested in playing guitar. We knew she was learning and Phanie taught her basic chords and stuff, and she took it from there. She had a birthday party and she played with like her brother and one of her friends from school, and it was just covers and stuff. But she was really shy. We couldn't even hear her sing, really. That day, on the porch, she said to us, “Hey, I wrote a song. Do you want to hear it?” We heard it and our mouths dropped.
WCT: Was it kind of weird at first because she's eight years younger than you?
JA: No, she was always mature. When she was little, we were like, “Hey, get out of here, kid.” [ Laughs ] We were tough. She was always mature for her age, though. Sometimes Phanie and I would get in dumb fights and she would break us up. So, it was never a big deal to us, except when we started playing shows.
WCT: Was it hard to get her into clubs?
JA: Not necessarily in San Antonio, because that is where we started. But some of the L.A. shows, we had to have her wait outside and then come in or they wouldn't even book us. Yeah, it was a little hard.
WCT: How young was she when you first started touring outside San Antonio?
JA: I think she was 16. Her mom let her go.
WCT: Were both of your families supportive the whole time?
JA: Yeah. I've always bugged them even since I was younger that this is what I wanted to do. As for the girls, it took a while because Nina was the baby of the family—that, and school. They thought it was a hobby and stuff! They were a little hard to work with sometimes, but then slowly, of course, they started to believe in us and now they give us a lot of support.
WCT: Besides the obvious [ The Smiths and Morrissey ] , what are some of your influences, not only musically, but personally?
JA: Well, my parents. They influence me to do better. Musically, I've been listening to Elvis Presley like crazy, and Rufus Wainwright — I still love him.
WCT: What are your favorite CDs of all time?
JA: Elvis' 30 Greatest Hits, mainly because it has the song “Don't” on it, and nobody ever pays attention to that song and it's great. Then, we all love Jeff Buckley's “Grace,” of course. “Strangeways, [ Here We Come ] ” by The Smiths is one of our favorites. Rufus [ Wainwright's ] “Want One” and “Want Two.” A lot of new stuff lately, too, … more indie, fun music. A whole bunch of stuff, like Johnny Cash and country, too.
WCT: You're on Joan Jett's label [ Blackheart Records ] . That is so cool. I know she was a role model for the three of you. What was it like meeting her for the first time?
JA: They were trying to get us to guess who it was [ when the band appeared on a pilot episode of a documentary about up-and-coming Latino bands in 2006 ] . The element of the show was going to be “meet one of your idols.” We kept trying to put two and two together. Is it Joan? Right before she walked in, they told us, “Okay, it's Joan Jett.” We didn't even have time to think! We're normally so silly and loud-mouthed, and when she walked in we were so quiet and shy. Once we started playing, though, it was no big deal. She saw right through us—that we can obviously play.
She's great. She's a presence, man. I bet you can ask anybody who has ever met her. When she is in a room, you know she is in a room. She's just great.
WCT: I'm sure she has so much to offer for you in terms of helping you out with things she totally went through herself over the years.
JA: Yeah. I remember that she used to make me so nervous when she'd watch us play. She's say, “Great show,” and I'd say, “Nah, it could be better.” I always would tell her that. I haven't told her that lately because we've been playing so many shows that we've gotten a lot tighter.
Her new advice is to enjoy it because you are kind of on the rise. Enjoy every second of it. It's going to go by and you are going miss it. She's really great. It's like having an older sister.
WCT: What has it been like opening up for Morrissey? Not only did you help finish up the tour back in 2007, but then you got invited back. I know Morrissey fans can be pretty picky.
JA: Very particular! It was so fantastic. We were [ Morrissey ] fanatics at one point, and we had to put that aside and kind of get to business. We've been working on Girl in a Coma for so many years and we wanted to a good job. That's all we kept saying through this whole tour: “We need to do a good job. We need to do a good job.” We didn't want to bother people. We stayed out of people's way. We let them come to us if they wanted to hang out. It was great. With his crowd, we were unsure. Especially the first Morrissey show. We knew they might not like us, and that's kind of weird for us because we're used to our fans. This wasn't our show. We thought, “What are we going to do?” The first night, someone shouted out “Hallelujah” because they were, I guess, fed up with [ former opener ] Kristeen Young.
… We played our set, and the next site some were being annoying, chanting “Morrissey, Morrissey” during our set. We stopped and said, “Look, we're fans, too. We're going to be out there with you guys watching Morrissey. We can't wait, either. But let us play our set.” Word got around. They just started accepting us. Soon, his regulars started coming to our shows a lot. That's great, man! I know how much they love Morrissey, and for them to do that for us is awesome. The whole experience was amazing.
WCT: Speaking of Morrissey, he's been a role model for you. He's been very ambiguous about his sexuality over the years, and you're openly lesbian, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on being an out and open musician and how important that is to you?
JA: Well, it's there. You know, I don't think about gays or whatever, but just me, alone. It's just me. I don't mind it. I'm not ashamed. I was talking to my friends the other day. In high school, they could tell I was a lesbian and they never said anything. I never had a hard time or was picked on. Nothing, through my whole life of being out there. I sometimes forget there're all these homophobic people because I never had to deal with that and I hope I never do. Nobody ever does.
WCT: That's great to hear that because one of my questions was what is it like to have grown up openly lesbian in Texas?
JA: Texas is so big, so there's so many different—not necessarily stereotypes—but expectations of Texas. We're from San Antonio, which is great. Once you start passing Austin and keep going down, it's completely different. It's definitely north Texas versus south Texas. South Texas is more Mexican-American culture. My family is Mexican, so coming out to them was like, “Well, we kind of don't agree with that, but we're going to love you anyway.” I think that's how it goes here, though I can't vouch for anybody but me. San Antonio is a great city. I love living here.
WCT: What are some openly gay musical role models you have?
JA: Of course, Rufus. This isn't music, but I love Ellen [ DeGeneres ] . I really like Ellen. My mom hated her, and I almost felt like she was insulting me. [ Laughs ] My mom was cool with me being gay, but she'd throw these little hits at me just because she was confused about stuff. She'd see Ellen on TV and say, “I hate her.” But because my mom loves me and is totally accepting of me, she's all about the Ellen Show now. “Oh, she's so funny.” I'm like, “What? Mom, you're weird!”
Who else? I just don't focus on sexuality that much.
… Lisa [ Umbarger ] of the Toadies [ a now defunct Texas post-grunge band ] . I've been hanging out with her. She plays bass. She's a role model for me because she's so cool and relaxed.
WCT: The music industry is still very male-oriented and straight-dominated. Over the years, have you really felt any barriers?
JA: Of course. … Sometimes people think because we're all girls that all these guys have to help us with our equipment. We might get questions like, “Do you know what you're doing,” or something dumb. The common thing that we get a lot is, “I brought my girlfriend to see you, and I don't like chick bands, but I really like you guys.” But we don't take offense to any of that. Even us being all girls, and we're proud and like to inspire other female because if there were more females, there wouldn't be any problems of being in a male-dominated business, but the thing is, we're not going to be “Rawr, FEMINISTS!” because we're not like that. We're just cool. We're proud, but whatever. I think if you approach it like that, like “Whatever,” people will realize we're not preaching and that we're just a good band they can enjoy. We don't try to focus on that.
WCT: Your band has so many facets. You're all women. You're all Latina. Do you sometimes feel that there is so much focus on those things that it overshadows things?
JA: Yeah. In any interview, we'll talk about it. But if you ask, we don't mind talking about it. It can overshadow. I've read some article reviews on us, and it's like “Did you even go to the show? Did you listen to the CD? Do you know any more musical comparisons?” We'll take anything, but a good interview is just random and funny and enjoyable.
WCT: Are you currently working on new material?
‘ JA: Yes, this new album, what I can tell you about it is it's going to be great and different. On “Both Before I'm Gone” [ their debut album ] , a lot of those songs we had been playing for years. We love that album so much, but this one is going to be about today. All these songs are new. It's going to be great. It's going to be a lot more rockabilly—maybe five or six songs will have rockabilly in them.
WCT: When you aren't playing, what do you like to do?
JA: I'm a big movie person. Drinking with buddies is great. We were doing that last night. We were playing Cranium and made a drinking game out of it. When I'm home, it's great. I see my parents, and that means a lot to me because they are close to me. I have a beautiful girlfriend, and I hang out with her everyday. That's great for me. And then eating. San Antonio has great Mexican food. As soon as I'm in town, I head out for puffy tacos. [ Laughs ]