The first thing you notice when meeting the San Antonio trio Girl in a Coma in person is how tiny singer Nina Diaz seems. Walking down a hallway in the studios of Texas Public Radio, carrying an acoustic guitar sans case, she looks for all the world like a singer of wispy, confessional coffeehouse folk songs — a light green sweater covers the kaleidoscope of tattoos coloring both of her arms. Her bandmates, sister Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva, look more the part of sassy punk rockers, but all three of them are all warm handshakes and smiles as they set up in a corner room at the station for a short performance. Introducing herself, Nina is soft spoken and polite as can be.
Could this nice young woman be the same one charged with felony assault on a police officer?
But as misleading as appearances (and rap sheets) might be, as soon as the band kicks into their first song, it becomes readily apparent why Girl in a Coma is well on its way toward becoming possibly the hottest modern rock act to ever blast out of the Alamo City — and how they impressed original riot grrrl Joan Jett so much that she signed them to her own Blackheart Records label. As the band begins to play, Nina fills the room with a powerful, full-throated yelp that’s somewhere between Björk and Chrissie Hynde.
“Self pity is what it’s all about,” she sings. “Self ugliness rules the world/takes over all little girls.”
Both the lyrics and the melody suggest more than a hint of a Morrissey influence, which is no surprise, given that Girl in a Coma’s name was taken from the Smiths’ song, “Girlfriend in a Coma.”
“Anything I listen to … my voice kind of takes its form in a weird way,” Nina says. “In the beginning, I was listening to a lot of Morrissey, so I wouldn’t doubt if sometimes I would say certain things like him. But lyric-wise, I don’t think I could ever touch his knowledge. He’s in his own beautiful world that hopefully someday I can reach.”
She’s actually already gotten a lot closer to Morrissey’s world than most fans could ever dream. Morrissey’s music has long been embraced by a young Latino audience; what sets the Diaz sisters and Alva apart from other “Moz” fans their age, though, is the fact that they’ve actually toured with the Smiths frontman. He invited Girl in a Coma to open an East Coast tour for him in 2007, followed by a trip across his native UK and France last year.
Girl in a Coma formed just under a decade ago, when friends Phanie Diaz and bassist Alva were holding auditions for a singer. Nina, all of 12 or 13 at the time, nagged them persistently to listen to one of her songs. Alva remembers her friend’s kid sister sitting on the porch at home with a guitar, stopping them on the way out the door one day. “We weren’t taking her seriously,” Phanie adds. That is until little Nina finally got them to listen. One song later, the auditions were canceled and Nina was in.
The band established itself in their hometown of San Antonio quickly. Fans helped book the band in venues through word-of-mouth. The intense schedule led Nina to drop out of school in her junior year to focus on the band, though she’s quick to mention that she did receive a GED. Alva and the Diaz sisters began touring about, and shortly thereafter, things began to happen for them. It’s almost a perfect story, actually. Through a connection their manager had, they were given the opportunity to record some tracks with Morrissey’s guitarist, Boz Boorer. That was followed by a fateful performance at the Knitting Factory in New York City attended by rocker Joan Jett, who ended up signing the band to her Blackheart Records label on the spot. Honest, it really happened that way. “We have been very fortunate,” Alva says. The band’s first album, "Both Before I’m Gone," was released by Blackheart in 2007. GIAC’s sophomore effort for the label, "Trio B.C.," will be released in early June. The title of "Trio B.C." is a loving nod to the Diaz sisters’ grandfather, who had a Tejano band by same name in the 1950s. They cite him as their earliest musical influence, but their own music probably wouldn’t go over too well at an accordion festival. Not that they lack for diversity. For lack of a better description, Girl in a Coma has been labeled a punk or power-punk trio, but on Trio B.C., the group draws from such disparate sources as punk, ’80s pop, and girl-groups of the ’60s. There’s even a hint of country evidenced in the ballad “El Monte.”
Nina offers that “El Monte” might even make a nice wedding song one day, though as Alva points, out, “the ending is a little demented.” Nina laughs.
“Yeah, it’s a little like you’re going to get divorced, but at least enjoy it for the moment!” she says.
Earlier this spring, one moment that wasn’t so enjoyable for the group was the now infamous “altercation” at a bar in Houston. Post gig, the band was hanging out with friends and fans, an edict they say they’ll always hold on to. An argument between Nina and her boyfriend led to an intervention by some off-duty officers, and soon Nina, 21, and Alva, 28, were in the clink charged with felony assault. Some witnesses say the cops used excessive force in detaining the two. Police accounts differ. Regardless, the band does say they’re trying to be a bit more careful in public. The band’s touring schedule will not be affected by the case, and the group’s devoted fans have set up an online legal defense fund for Girl in a Coma. Although they can’t talk much about it now, “Once the case is over,” Alva says, “we’ll have something to say about it through art or music.”
“Oh, we’re going to talk about it,” Phanie says emphatically. No doubt there will be even more fans listening by that time.
This article first appeared in Texas Music magazine.