Once upon a time in San Antonio, Texas, a few young girls got together and figured out that rocking out was more fun than going to class. And so began the extended adolescent odyssey of Girl in a Coma, a genre-bending outfit that fuses influences ranging from Tejano to classic rock, steeped in playful deference to pop icons like the Smiths (hence the name) and female rockers of yore, marrying Mexican-Americana and punk aesthetics.
After charming Joan Jett at a gig at New York City’s Knitting Factory, they landed a record deal with Blackheart Records, and have since then seduced legions of fans with a “feral” sound that plays with and subverts stereotypes. And Girl in a Coma is conscious, too: the self-described “all-girl band, two-thirds gay, all Latinas” recently teamed up with our allies at The SoundStrike to campaign against Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law. (As if to underscore the point, the band was actually pulled over and questioned by immigration authorities while on the road in Mobile, Alabama, reported the Huffington Post.) In this edited dialogue with CultureStrike editor Michelle Chen, drummer Phanie Diaz talks about how to make a statement, avoid getting pigeonholed, and stay cool.
Michelle Chen: So much of the way bands are marketed these days has to do with slotting them into a category or under a neat label. How do you work within the labels that have been applied to you—rock, indie, girl band, etc.—and create room for yourselves to be open and experimental musically?
Phanie Diaz: We’ve been put into every label from girl rock, queer rock, latina band—it goes on and on. We know who we are and we know what we like to play and create. There is no limit for us. We don’t let any label limit us musically. I think there is some kind of comfort in a label. The good thing about us is that we don’t let that stop us from creating whatever it is we want to create.
MC: When you got involved with The Soundstrike and the Arizona Boycott last year, was it a new experience for you to blend politics with your music? Were you ever concerned about how it would change perceptions of you from being a rock outfit to a “political” band?
PD: It was something that hit close to us being of Mexican descent. We felt we had to do something so we teamed up with SoundStrike and visited Arizona shortly after to help families that were being torn apart. It was definitely natural for us.
We didn’t think about it changing us as a band or making us political in any way. It’s mainly common sense. If you have the power to help, then naturally you should.
MC: You’ve talked before about feeling like “bad Latinas” for not knowing enough Spanish, etc.. Do you feel that tension as an artist in terms of seeing a gap between your identity as a musician and the community and heritage that you come out of?
PD: We think its good to know your roots and history so we want to learn what makes us, us. There is no tension. Growing up in San Antonio, we are surrounded by our culture and heritage so it does find its way into our music whether we are aware of it or not. It’s a part of us so its nice to be able to have it naturally showcase [itself].
MC: Can you explain the inspiration for the song “Adjust” and what it means to you?
PD: This song kinda explains us as a band. We’ve done a lot in ten years and have opened for a lot of bands, but we feel like we may be always the bridesmaid but never the brides, sometimes. We get critique a lot. About our looks and weight and sound, and Nina’s singing style. It happens. We love who we are and are very comfortable with ourselves. The question always comes to mind: Should we Adjust to surroundings to get accepted, or be true to what we’ve always been? Simple answer. We are who we are, and we are fine with that.
MC: Do you think more musicians should get involved in political movements around issues like immigration, economic justice, LGBT rights, police brutality, etc.? Are people in the scene, even if they aren’t self-identified as activists, are receptive to those messages?
PD: We believe if you’re in a band and have a fanbase you definitely have a power to get a message out. People are listening. We have youth, the gay community and the Latino community all paying attention to what we are doing and supporting us so if we can give back, we can. If we can help for the better, we will. We don’t consider ourselves a political band or activist but we are aware of what is going on around us and in our communities. Even though we are not self-identified [as activists], we do pay attention… so there have to be other bands that do the same.
MC: I know this debate will continue forever, but I have to ask: do you have a theory on the Mexican-American-Morrisey connection?
PD: I think the Latino community has a thing with creating icons. You can see a shrine of Jesus next to a velvet Elvis. I think we look up to Morrissey in the same manner. He is definitely an icon and he speaks to the people.
Learn more about the band and check out their latest work, Exits & All the Rest, at girlinacoma.com.