Coming Out of the Coma

By Graham Kolbeins

Originally published on Advocate.com June 10 2009 12:00 AM ET

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. ?Phanie: This time around we had a different approach to composing the album. Both Before I'm Gone was seven years in the making. This album was written while we were on the road touring for BBIG. All the songs were being written in the back of the van by Nina. We got home and got together and composed the music out in a few months and went straight into the studio. We definitely have matured for this record and have become stronger musicians. This time around Jenn and I are singing more live and Nina has gone pedal crazy. We're experimenting with more sounds.

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?Phanie: Actually, it was a Texan pecan farm. Peacock farm would have been fun too. It was very Western. When we got there, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had just left. Mudvayne were our neighbors on the ranch. That was interesting. We stayed on the ranch and walked across the road to the studio. Great vibes there. Our producer Gabe Gonzales used to work there, and he and our producer from Both Before I'm Gone suggested it. We ended up loving it.

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?Phanie: We were very involved -- supporting all the bands of the era, going to shows, and trying to make our own riot band. During that time music had such a strong presence. People were buying records and hanging out at the record shops. We try to always remind people about the sprit of rock 'n' roll. To not forget bands like Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill, who started it for a lot of us, and even bands before them. Sometimes it feels like that spirit is lost, and it becomes so superficial. We just hope that people can see that it's not about trying to look like some hot-ass front person and making sure you have the right shoes and haircut, or having the sound that everyone is into. Be yourself and play what you like.

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?Nina: I do feel a connection. I was still around it because of Phanie, and I feel like I was raised in it. As I've gotten older, I've realized how important that movement is and was -- to have a voice in a male-dominated industry. There's a lot of judgment and pressure to look a certain way or be a certain way because I'm a woman. I've learned that none of that shit matters. Artists like Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland and Joan Jett show you none of that matters. If you have a talent or something to say, then do it. Don't let anyone get to you.

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?Phanie: It's always nice to be appreciated for what you love to do. We take it day by day and make sure we stay busy. Joan is an amazing and very smart woman. She has taught us so much, and if anything, it's to never let any of the business aspects get to your head. Just love what you do, do it well, and always remember where you came from.

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?Nina: I was lucky enough to have a good start by bringing back some songs that have been around just as long as the songs on BBIG. Even before and during BBIG, I was constantly writing anyway, so I had tons of pieces of songs. I learned how to use Garage Band, so that helped me in sculpting songs together in the van. I got home and the girls and I just finished them. Slowly, it all came together -- except this time we had a deadline.

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?Phanie: We first came across "Ven Cerca" when we were asked to do a Mexican '50s rock tribute at the John Anson Ford Theatre in L.A. We were sent a CD of options, and that song was more of a challenge. It's originally done by a band from the '50s called Los Spitfires. It's sung very sexually, and Nina thought, I can't cover this! It ended up being a powerful, fun song to do live and one of our favorites. Eventually it would be nice to do an original in Spanish -- so we will see.

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?Phanie: Well, for me, it's really not a big deal. My mother is huge supporter of the band and always supports me in general. To her, as long as I'm happy, that's all that matters.

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?Nina: I'm starting to now find a balance with life in general.

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?Phanie: Sadly, not really. I don't get to do any ghost exploring on the road, only because we are so busy. I have my share of stories ... but they're mainly from when I was younger. I'm going to make it a point this year to try checking out some hot spots in the cities we play. Does that make me nerdy?