Music News

Coma Little Bit Closer

Since its inception, reality TV hasn't brought us much in the way of realism. Someone who wouldn't normally nosh on a plateful of live Madagascar hissing cockroaches breaking down and chewing on a few shouldn't fall under the "reality" category just because there's prize money involved and an accredited medic standing by. Ditto for strippers vying for a rock star's affection and being put through a series of personal-growth challenges to get it. What rock star would even wait that long to shag?

But if your cable provider bundled you with Sí TV, the first Latin network that broadcasts in English, you could've seen a real band getting signed on the spot. Last December, the première episode of Jammin', a show dedicated to telling the stories of unsung Latino indie bands, focused on San Antonio's Girl in a Coma. After recounting the group's humble (read: poor) beginnings, San Antonio filmmaker Jim Mendiola flew the band out to play at New York's Knitting Factory at a showcase for an unnamed record producer.

"We had no idea it was going to be Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna," says Jenn Alva, bassist for Girl in a Coma. "The producers of the documentary knew we were big fans of Joan Jett. We went to one of her concerts five years ago. You never think that one day, you're going to be friends with this amazing person who's onstage putting out all this incredible energy — that she's going to be helping you and giving you all sorts of advice."

Like what? Road survival techniques? What to insist on in your backstage rider?

"More basic stuff, really," Alva says. "Like, feeling really tired from traveling before a show? Close your eyes and take a five-minute power nap. And always telling us we're great, always pumping us up. Me and the girls, when we get off the stage, we always feel like we could've done better.

Oddly enough, listening to their astonishingly confident debut album, Both Before I'm Gone (Blackheart Records), it's hard to know how Nina Diaz (singer/songwriter/guitarist), her sister Phanie (drums), and Alva could've improved on it. All the raw materials were in place even before the group signed to Blackheart Records: a band that rocks in the classic guitar-bass-drums paradigm, yet sounds fresh; a clutch of songs like "Clumsy Sky" and "Sybil Vane Was Ill" that cram more ideas into a four-minute format than most bands exhaust on their entire Web sites; and Nina's distinctive croon, likened by many a writer looking for shorthand comparisons to a cross between Morrissey, PJ Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux.

"It's nice when someone says you're original," Alva says. "Nina has a great, unique voice and not the usual Britney Spears crap."

Alva and Phanie Diaz conceived the band seven years ago, which means 19-year-old Nina was 12 when she first picked up her older sister Phanie's guitar and auditioned an original composition. It was quickly decided that Nina was good enough to be their singer and songwriter, even if she was not quite old enough to play at most venues.

By the time Nina dropped out of school at age 16, the girls were already touring across the United States in a van and attracting the attention of managers, label heads, and Morrissey's guitarist and collaborator, Boz Boorer. He heard a demo and flew the group to London to record in pro fashion. Naturally, the group that lifted their name from the Smith's 1987 hit "Girlfriend in a Coma" would eventually be heard by Moz himself. The verdict? He liked it!

What is it about Morrissey, former renowned Manchester celibate and poster boy for despondent loners, that explains his phenomenal popularity with Latinos? Why isn't it, say, Belle and Sebastian? Or The Shins? " We think it's because he is very iconic, almost a religious figure," Alva says. "Latinos are very big on icons. Jesus. Elvis. Go into a fan's house and you're just as likely to see a shrine of Morrissey. Or Elvis. Morrissey is definitely shrine material."

When not making Morrissey shrines, the members of Girl in a Coma tour. A lot. The band has traversed our goodly state several times this year, and played twice in a two-week period coming to and from California, both times with local favorites The Green Lady Killers.

Alva admits that this constant touring is "kind of an old-fashioned way of doing things. It's a little exhausting, but it's nice to see crowds double in that little town or city and that there's word-of-mouth happening."

Repetitive trekking almost seems born out of necessity. These days, it's easy for up-and-coming bands to fall off the radar with so many entertainment options coming at one's fickle fingertips. "We've come out in a really weird time, with music and the computer," Alva says. "It's like there's a new generation of kids with ADD. When we were younger, we would buy a cassette or CD, we'd listen to the whole thing from start to finish, and it was so relaxing. But nobody has time for that experience. It's kind of taken the fun out of music."

Admittedly, a CD of 13 songs, some with several tempo shifts and some with intros and outros that are completely different from the middle, might be a hard sell to that ADD demographic. But Both Before I'm Gone is one of those records that music trade papers like to call a "grower," one that takes a few plays to kick in, but when it does, it's a keeper. Think about how many records you've liked instantly but had no use for later on when their obvious assets were digested. Then think of how many of your favorite records you had to invest time in to fully appreciate and how much more enjoyment you ultimately got out of them.

But should your iPod select any Girl in a Coma song randomly, you'll never have to check the tiny screen to see who it is — and how many new bands can you say that about?

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic