Iconic Girl in a Coma exorcises their demons to deliver their best album yet 

Girl in a Coma broke my heart. Jenn Alva (bass) and Phanie Díaz (drums) are eating meat again.

“Oh, c’mon…” says Phanie. “It’s hard when you’re on the road.” Jenn tries to make me feel better: “We’re still not eating beef… We’re not there yet.”

But the more road-friendly diet is a small thing compared to the many deep realizations and adjustments this group went through on the way to the making of Exits & All The Rest, a triumphant work and the trio’s fourth album. Not surprisingly, the album is dedicated to Ernestine Davis, Jenn’s mom, who passed away in March. But it is also dedicated to San Antonio, “for being our inspiration.”

At a time when bands routinely leave town as soon as they get a taste of success, Girl in a Coma don’t ever see themselves living anywhere but the Alamo City. What is it about San Antonio that inspires them so much? I asked the girls to show me around those places that nurtured them growing up and continue to provide nourishment. Weeks before their free CD release party at the Pearl on Saturday, Girl in a Coma showed up at the Current’s office in their 15-passenger, 2005 Ford van they call “Big Bertha,” and took me on a trip into their past.

 

•••••••••

 

“Romance us!” says Jenn, standing in front of the van. It’s a code phrase meaning, “Whoever has the keys, please open the van.” There are no automatic locks, so things have to be done the old-fashioned way, by hand. “We call this ‘romancing,’” Jenn says as she (the band’s official chauffeur) gets behind the wheel. Phanie is to her right. I have the honor of sharing the second row of seats with vocalist/guitarist Nina Diaz — this is her spot, typically nobody rides or sleeps back here but her.

The van is a mess. Clothes, shoes, papers, flyers, CDs, you name it, litter the floorboards and seats. I notice a huge pair of red boots cast to the side. “They’re Jenn’s,” Nina says. “Badass, right? Jenn’s Bigfoot. Dang, right? I’m like 6 1/2.”

“I’m 10 or 11,” says Jenn.

“Petite feet,” sings Nina.

“Feminine step … ” Phanie responds, referencing a tune by Tim and Eric from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Jenn smiles and keeps on driving. The girls are in a great mood.

It’s a day after Steve Jobs’ passing, and I comment on the iPod plugged into the dash.

“Oh, there’s a song there from when Nina was 12,” says Phanie. When I ask to hear it, Nina rolls her eyes. “Oh, I sound like a chipmunk,” she says of the track, recorded by a friend who was still learning her equipment. “I was singing loud, and she told me, ‘You’re not supposed to sing so loud when you’re recording,’” Nina says. “So I was backing up on it, but now I’ve learned: you can sing loud.”

Our first stop is a vacant building at the corner of McCullough and Dewey, the site of the recently closed Klub Atomix. When the trio — then still known as the plural Girls in a Coma after the Smiths’ song “Girlfriend in a Coma” — was first getting off the ground it was known as Sin 13. “We played our very, very first show here,” Jenn says as she approaches the entrance to peer through the glass. Unlike other bands who had to prepare press kits and hustle their way into the scene, the trio’s best calling card was their live shows. “We never really had to give press kits to different places,” Jenn says. “There weren’t many all-girl groups anyway, so they started calling us to come play. We were lucky.”

That was 2002, the same year Jenn slipped a cassette tape of their songs to Morrissey in El Paso, not knowing that in 2008 they would be invited to open for him. “We always wanted to do that stuff, but we never thought it would actually happen,” Nina says. “It’s pretty crazy.”

A passing car stops and a woman starts screaming. “Girl In A Coma, right?! Y’all are fucking awesome!”

“Thank you!” the girls reply in unison. They seem genuinely surprised and humbled. The woman gets out of the car and starts spitting out her words rapid-fire. “We were going out to lunch, and I was like, ‘There’s no way. There’s no way!’ We turned around, and I was like, ‘That has to be them!’ We totally need a picture. Y’all are fucking awesome, I swear to God. I know I’m not supposed to be cussing.”

Far from adopting rock-star postures, the scene here on the street is no different from what I’ve seen at concerts time and time again: Girl in a Coma and their fans talking like friends on equal footing. “Yeah, it’s nice,” says Nina, as we depart. “But I also understand that there are going to be people who don’t like our music, and that’s fine. The only thing I want people to be aware of is that we’re not rich. We’re not well-off. We pay our rent, we get some food, we’re still struggling artists. Nothing has been given to us.”

The group’s status as San Antonio’s greatest contemporary rock ‘n’ roll export was sealed in 2006 when Joan Jett signed them to her Blackheart label. You’ve heard the story: While recording the pilot for SíTV’s Jammin’ in New York, the three were told that one of their musical heroes was planning to drop by. The shows’ producers gave them some hints, so that they wouldn’t completely freak out.

“We were putting clues together,” says Phanie. “We were like, ‘Well, she’s a female who lives in New York and owns a record label.’ So we suspected Joan Jett, but we didn’t know until the last minute.”

“We kind of knew before, but as soon as we saw her, it was just kind of surreal,” says Nina. Even more surreal was what happened later.

“I was just supposed to meet them, watch them rehearse, say hi and all that stuff,” Joan Jett told VenusZine in 2008, “but I thought they sounded great, and I wanted to see the gig.” So after watching the rehearsal, Jett checked out their performance at The Knitting Factory. The rest is history. “I was very impressed with them,” said Jett, who signed the band to her label the same night. “I thought they’d be great to have on Blackheart. … We really want [the label] to be a place where girls feel comfortable to come play their music, because it was so hard for me.”

Four albums later, both Jett and Girl in a Coma are thrilled to have each other.

“We’re good friends with her, and we can call her up if we need something,” says Phanie. “She’s just great.”

In a statement sent to the Current last Friday, Jett ratified her opinion of the trio, calling them a perfect example of how a band can grow together. “Since they’ve been with Blackheart, they have toured the U.S. and European continents, have played to bigger and bigger crowds, winning over fans across the spectrum. … The musicianship has gone from pretty damn good to really, really good! I am so proud of them and all their very hard work.”

•••••••••

 

We’re on our way to Hogwild Records, a seminal local music store that has served as a watering hole for the San Antonio indie rock scene since the early ’80s. But more than that: this is the band’s “favorite record store ever,” Phanie says.

This is where the group would hang their show flyers and check to see what other bands were playing around. “This is before MySpace, so we used to come to find bands to play with,” says Jenn.

“Look! Here’s a Pop Pistol flyer,” says Phanie. “They’re still putting up their stuff. I think a lot of bands forget: you need a flyer.”

A good chunk of the group’s influences can be traced to the bands they discovered first here. “Man, we would order imports, whatever,” says Jenn. “It was always a big competition between [Phanie] and I with albums. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I got the new Nirvana import.’ You know, UK edition. We’d just order a huge Morrissey poster or a T-shirt. I was always excited when they’d call and said that, you know, ‘Your poster’s here’ or ‘Your record’s here.’ It was awesome.”

“I watched them grow very organically from a local band into a very successful national act,” says Hogwild’s owner David Rischer, hidden behind the register. “I couldn’t be prouder of them. Did I envision their present? No, but I’m not in the ‘envisioning’ business. It’s a tribute to their talent and hard work.”

A guy selling incense is smitten by Nina (when she paints her lips red, she has one of the best mouths in the history of rock ’n’ roll). “Who is this beauty?” he asks. Nina smiles and buys $5 worth of incense, then goes to the register to pay for a Howlin’ Wolf vinyl.

On the way to Jefferson High School off of Fredericksburg Road — Nina’s high school and the site of Jenn and Phanie’s freshman year — Jenn remembers how she “saved” Phanie. “She was in marching band and I told her, ‘Phanie, get out of that nerdy shit. Let’s start a real band.”

“Yeah, but that nerdy shit taught me how to read music, and I’m the only one that can do that,” Phanie replies, smiling with pride.

“Yeah, good for you,” says Jenn, turning to me while pointing at Phanies’ legs. “And she has monster calves from marching band.”

“That’s a really random fact,” says Phanie. “But yes, that’s true.”

Jenn and Phanie are excited to be back at Jefferson, but Nina whispers, “This is weird. I feel I have to go back to class at any second.”

They show me the steps where they took their first-ever band photo in the mid-90s, when they were called Sublimaze, in those pre-Nina days. Since then, the band went through multiple lineup and name changes: Lady Dick, D.O.R (Day Old Rice), Ordinary Girls, Girls In A Coma, Sylvia’s Radio, and, finally, Girl in a Coma.

 

•••••••••

 

Nina remembers always being “the weird girl” at school. Once they put up posters for one of their concerts in the school auditorium and a girl tore it and sprayed it in chocolate milk. “That was harsh,” Nina says. To get back at her they used to stuff the girl’s backpack with bread rolls and fish nuggets.

“She was like, ‘Stop throwing stuff in my backpack or I’ll tell my dad!’” says Jenn. “We were like, ‘Whatever.’ She would call us ‘lesbians’ and run away. At the time we were like, ‘We’re not lesbians!’”

The band still feels they have a lot to prove, and not just musically.

“Beyond Texas, people don’t want to take us serious because we’re all girls,” says Phanie. “The fact that we’re three Latinas, the fact that Jenn and I are gay, the fact that we don’t look like a cookie-cutter band: We’re not these girls in mini-dresses and high heels. We’re just three real girls from San Antonio, Texas, and it’s hard for people to accept that.”

In the school’s cafeteria, I sit down with Phanie while Jenn and Nina clown around with the videographer who has joined us for the day. I comment that Phanie seems to often be the “voice of reason” for the trio. “Yeah, I think that’s always been my role in this band,” she responds. “Somebody to keep them level-headed when things get crazy.”

Phanie is the group’s rock. She’s the one who taught Jenn how to play bass and switched from guitar to drums so Nina could play guitar and sing. To this day, Phanie is the one to bring them back to reality “when they get distracted or weirded out.”

When I turn back to the others, I notice Jenn is crying. “What the hell happened?” I ask. “Are you alright?” It turns out Jenn has been acting. She had been bragging on her four years of theater training in high school and the videographer challenged her.

“I was just trying to show him I could cry on the spot, and I did,” she says, a bright smile betraying her tears.

Jenn, a visual artist and creator of the video for their cover of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight,” tells me about the many changes during the recording of Exits & All The Rest. “I always told myself, if the band doesn’t do well, I’m going to have to do Plan B or something,” she says. “But the band’s been doing great, so that’s weird. That’s a big change going from your twenties to thirties and playing music.”

When Jenn’s mother died in March it was both a personal blow and a potential obstacle to the new album. “You start to realize that the big exit, whether it be death, a change in career, whatever, that’s a major thing,” Jenn says. “Everything else is just … whatever. When I lost my mom, that’s a big exit. And that’s what the [album’s] title represents: don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Even though she was asked if she needed more time to record the album, she didn’t want to slow things down for the others. She’s glad of her decision. “I hope it does something,” she says. “We’ve put even more of ourselves into it. We’re growing as musicians and as people, so I hope this is the one. We’ll see.”

Then there’s Nina.

In early 2001, when Phanie and Jenn were 20, a 12-year-old Nina, Phanie’s little sister, heard the other two were looking for a singer and asked to audition.

“We thought, ‘OK, whatever,’” says Phanie. “We were not thinking anything of it, but as soon as she hit that first note we were amazed. We thought she was showing us a cover song but it was a song she wrote. Regardless of her age, we knew she was to lead the band. I later learned she had been practicing starting a year earlier in her room. She had to build the courage and confidence leading up to that moment where she sang to us on the front porch of our mother’s house.”

I’m not sure how aware Nina is of this, but she’s a world-class singer. Nina’s voice is the backbone of the group; everything locks into place when she starts singing. And she’s never sounded better than on this album. All you need to know about her talents is in the closing track, “Mother’s Lullaby,” arguably her best vocal performance ever. When she sings “And now I’m aching for you” in the chorus, it is the sound of someone finally excising years of pain and confusion.

I tell her how much I like this album, but that hearing the stories behind it reminds me of that Bob Dylan line on “Where Are You Tonight?” in which he sings, “If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise/ just remind me to show you the scars.” Then I notice scars on her left wrist.

“I have scars,” Nina says. She doesn’t try to hide them, but speaks as someone who knows the worst is over. “Every young girl has her silly little moment of self-mutilation. I just would always have a problem with anxiety to the point of …” She pauses. “It was another form of numbness, something to avoid the actual truth of what you need to work on. If I [had been] really trying, I would have gotten it right.”

Considering Nina has been with the band since she was 13, her growth could not have been more public. “People have seen me go through my different things, my different relationships. They’ve seen me at my best, and they’ve seen me at my worst. You know, the jail thing.”

On March 22, 2009, an altercation with two off-duty police officers at Chances, a Houston nightclub, led to Jenn and Nina spending a night in jail. It started with an argument between Nina and an ex-boyfriend. “He was really jealous, and he got really upset about me and [Jane’s Addiction’s] Dave Navarro, because Dave had a crush on me,” Nina says. “I never did anything with [Navarro], nothing at all, but he just had it in his mind that I was doing something.”

The discussion got bigger than it had to. Phanie went to get Jenn. “There’s trouble in the other room,” Phanie told her. Jenn slipped on some beer on the floor, got pissed, and next thing she knew she was fighting with a guy who happened to be a cop. He hit her with a baton and smashed her against a glass window. Both Nina and Jenn spent the night in jail, and a good chunk of the band’s savings were consumed fighting third-degree felony charges of assault on a public servant.

“That really sucked,” Jenn says. “I felt I was being attacked and I was strong, but Nina was only mouthing off and as a punishment [the cop] lied and wrote that she had hit him too.” After a Houston grand jury heard all sides, the two were no-billed and the matter was dropped.

For Nina, the incident turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Though the root problem was a man’s jealousy, it was fueled by alcohol, she says. And from that moment on she has tried to stay sober. “I’ve had slip-ups, but I don’t want to have them anymore and I’m determined to stay sober,” she says. “It’s a Pisces thing … We have a tendency to overindulge in certain things.” Tell me about it.

“I see it all the time,” Nina continues. “Men saying, ‘Why are you looking at him?’ And women saying, ‘Why are you looking at her?’ It just gets so annoying. Why do you even drink if you’re going to end up arguing over something stupid? That silly Houston incident was the beginning for me, and this album was the ending of [the old] me. When you hear the album, you can tell there’s a little bit of something waiting to come out.”

At the end of “Sly,” another album highlight, Nina sings, “Drink your bottle of wine. Feel how high you fly.”

“It’s like, ‘Go ahead and numb yourself. See how far you’re going to get with that kind of thing. You’re not going to get very far if you keep doing that.’ I’m talking to myself as well as others.”

 

•••••••••

 

Next, we go to Nina and Phanie’s mom’s house, where they rehearse. No beer here — Topo Chico water is the drink of choice. After running through “Smart,” the first new single, Nina explains how the lyrics evolved. “At first, the girls didn’t really like it because I said ‘sunshine’ in the lyrics,” she says.

“Nina would be like, ‘Did you ever see the sunshine?’ And it sounded too commercial to Jenn and I,” Phanie says. “We were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ She changed the lyrics, and then we got involved.”

Nina changed the “sunshine” line to “don’t you ever start to wonder what it’s like to be alone,” and this living-room performance adds rawness to the most radio-friendly song on the album.

When Nina talks about the other songs she has building up “for other things,” Phanie teases her: “Yeah, for a detergent.”

Performing as Sylvia’s Radio last Thursday, the girls tried out the new songs at a not-so-secret concert at Nightrocker Live. They blazed through a dynamite set that included eight of the album’s 11 new songs and a few older gems, like a cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which they dedicated to its author, George Harrison.

Whether the album will be merely treated as another “promising” work by Girl in a Coma, or serve as the long-awaited breakthrough that will take them to new heights, no one knows. But no matter what, we’ll always have them with us. “When we were younger, we thought we had to leave in order to make it,” says Jenn. “It took our first tour for us to realize, ‘God, we have a really good thing back at home.’”

“This is a unique city,” says Phanie. “There’s a lot of art and culture, lots of hidden talent, it’s very united, and everyone has each other’s backs here. I have no intentions of ever leaving or moving anywhere else.”

“I’ve always liked Los Angeles or New York,” says Nina, “but San Antonio is always my home. I’m never going to say, ‘Oh, I’m from L.A.’ or ‘Oh, I’m from New York.’ I’m from San Antonio. I was born and raised here, and I want to stay here.”

But with those songs and that voice, will Nina ever release a solo album?

“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” she says. “It would be something just for fun. It wouldn’t be now, nor anytime soon. I do have songs [set] aside that aren’t necessarily Girl In A Coma songs. I’d also like to do an all-Spanish album [with Jenn and Phanie] someday. Unfortunately, I’m part of the younger generation that wasn’t really forced to learn it. Now, I regret not paying attention in Spanish class.”

Phanie says that she and Jenn support side projects. “If she wants to go and try some stuff out or release a record, we’ll support it. And I think even Jenn and I talked about doing a side thing. But Girl in a Coma will always put out records and will always go on tour no matter what happens in our brains.”

“Yeah, I’m hoping that we’re going to end up being 40-, 50-year-old ladies still playing in a band and putting out records,” says Jenn. “When they ask, ‘Who influenced you?’ people can be like, ‘Oh, Sonic Youth,’ and another will say, ‘Oh, Girl in a Coma. They’ve been doing it for 40 years.’ It’d be so rad to be able to do that.”

“We’ll be like Aerosmith or the Stones,” says Nina. “We’ll always be together, and there will always be Girl in a Coma.” She has the conviction and enthusiasm of someone who has never seen things so clearly and doesn’t have any more time for silly bullshit. “I’m starting to get very, very focused on little details, like on certain pedals I need to use, and I’m starting to write songs for the next album,” she says between sips of her Topo Chico.

“It’s real. If I get stressed out or get writer’s block, I know it passes. I don’t have to do anything to pass the time except letting the time pass. I think it’s going to be great. Everything’s going to be OK.” •

See the Girl in a Coma SA Current video interview here

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