As guitarist, singer and songwriter for San Antonio rock band Girl in a Coma, Nina Diaz has toured tirelessly and recorded a series of acclaimed albums, touching on a variety of genres.
Diaz and her bandmates — sister Phanie Diaz on drums and longtime friend Jenn Alva on bass — embrace traditional rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, delicate indie-pop and devastating post-punk with the same alacrity. As a live act, Girl in a Coma embodies all the power-trio glory and intensity of The Jam. The band’s most recent album, 2011 LP Exits & All the Rest, is widely considered to be its best.
For now, though, Girl in a Coma is on hold while its members pursue other projects. Phanie Diaz and Alva have a new band, Fea, and Nina Diaz’s debut solo album, The Beat Is Dead, scheduled for release in spring 2016.
With National Hispanic Heritage Month in full swing across D.C. and the U.S., Diaz recently passed through D.C. to perform at a National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala. Bandwidth spoke with the musician about her involvement with the organization, her recent transition into sobriety and her experiences as a musician in San Antonio, which — like D.C. — is a relatively large city without a major music industry.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Bandwidth: This trip started around the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala. How did that come about?
Nina Diaz: What I’ve come to realize is that in Hispanic arts, it’s a small world. We’re all connected, which is a good thing because in my culture we’re all like family. “What can I do to help you?” “Don’t piss me off.” It’s very close, [with] forgiveness and anger, but we still — bottom line — want to help each other out.
How I got hooked up with [this gig] was Felix Sanchez from the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, he’s the one who puts it together, and his nephew is a fan of Girl in a Coma. He went to Brown University with my manager, Faith. So that’s how they are connected.
It seems that part of the foundation’s mission is furthering the presence of Latino and Hispanic artists in media — in entertainment and music. Does that resonate with you?
It does, especially now that I’m understanding what I could possibly do. With Girl in a Coma, it just happens to be that Jenn and Phanie are gay. It just happens to be that we’re all women. It just happens to be that we’re all Latinas. We just want to play music. So, with that, we started our thing without us knowing we were influencing the gay community and Latina communities. Then we took on the responsibility.
Girl in a Coma is known as being such a well-oiled machine, and it seems that with your solo project, you’re pacing things a bit differently.
Yeah, my manager is noticing what each of us did in Girl in a Coma, because now we’re split. [My role in] Girl in a Coma has always been the writer — and the victim in a lot of situations, too — and feeling like the weird front singer. Phanie’s the business, [like,] “Let’s say yes to everything.” Jenn is the muscle. Phanie’s a big reason why we were constantly on the road, which is not a bad thing. It taught me to be strong on the road.
“This is a big deal for me, to put my guitar down. It’s symbolic of me letting go, of me asking for help. To be able to do this shows how much I’ve grown. I’ve been through so many different phases: diva, quiet, all these different things. And the person I’m becoming now, I’m actually liking.”
I think I heard you say once that a lot of what benefits Girl in a Coma is that your bandmates were your sister and your friend first, and your bandmates second. Does that approach come into play with your band now?
When we first started to form, I knew right away that I wanted Jorge [Gonzalez, of Pop Pistol] to play drums. I knew I wanted my band to be made up of San Antonio-based musicians. I wanted to give people a chance to make their way up, rather than well-known musicians already, and paying them $200 a show or something ridiculous which I can’t afford right now. I wanted to give other San Antonio musicians a chance; maybe after playing with me, who knows where this could take them?
When we started, it was all new for me to be a boss. Right now, we’re still in the middle of getting to know each other. But of course, with Jorge, it happened by accident that we ended up [starting] a relationship. It’s funny, they say, “Don’t eat where you s**t,” but a lot of people do it, like No Doubt and Selena. So we definitely have that relationship, but then balancing it with, I’m his boss. But it’s good that he’s the drummer, so he doesn’t get in my way too much.
Speaking of Selena, you’ve been doing “Techno Cumbia” in your solo sets. Of course, you did “Si Una Vez” on Adventures in Coverland. You’ve also done “Come On Let’s Go” from Ritchie Valens. As far as U.S.-born artists of Latino background, do you feel a connection to those artists?
I definitely do. Especially not being fluent in Spanish. Ritchie Valens, Selena — their first language was English. … They felt more comfortable speaking English than speaking Spanish. I feel the same way, I’m not fluent at all in Spanish. I can sing it, but I’m still learning how to speak it. …
So, I can’t help but feel connected with them. But I’m also me. A lot of times I’d get so caught up in trying to be like someone else… that you forget who you are, and you end up being like a poser, you know? … Now at the point where I’m at, especially with my solo music, I find myself thinking for me, and knowing I’m Nina Diaz, these are my struggles, and this is what I’m going through right now.
It strikes me that there are parallels between San Antonio and D.C., where they’re these relatively large cities with significant Latino populations and no real music industry in the city. Do you think that not growing up in L.A. or Nashville helped develop your music more organically?
Yeah. If I had been from L.A. or Austin even, I don’t think I would’ve had the grasp over my music that I do, with such emotion and passion. … Unfortunately, not a lot of bands stick together because they don’t realize you need to go out and tour. You need to get out. You can’t just stay here.
You’re so known as a guitarist. To step away from the guitar — is that freeing in a way?
Yeah. It is. Like I told Travis [Vela, her guitarist], this is a big deal for me, to put my guitar down. It’s symbolic of me letting go, of me asking for help. “Can you carry this?” It’s a symbolic thing for me, and to be able to do this shows how much I’ve grown. I’ve been through so many different phases: diva, quiet, all these different things. And the person I’m becoming now, I’m actually liking.
I would imagine there could be unexpected challenges doing what you do, suddenly sober.
Oh yeah. I’m the biggest challenge to myself. It’s not so much other people. It’s funny, when I’m at a show and someone will come up to me and say, “Do you want a beer?” Someone next to them will go, “She doesn’t drink.” It’s nice to know that people have my back. You will never see a drink in my hand, nor will you ever see a straw up my nose ever again.
In a way, though, I’m the biggest person who can cause conflict for myself. If I just tell myself, “You’re not good enough,” or if those voices start coming in my head, of, “Why is it taking so long? What are you doing wrong?” That’s when I can drive myself crazy, or when a trigger can come at any moment. Being that I’ve been through so much, and I’ve put my family through so much, I know that I would never, ever have a drop of alcohol or ever go back to doing hard drugs again, because of all the pain. But talking about it is the way that I let it out, and getting other people to tell me their stories. I love that.
[But] you’re working at a bar?
Yeah, I’m bar-backing at Limelight in San Antonio, but it’s kind of slow. I’m doing open mics there on Mondays, and that’s a lot of fun. I used to do open mics at this bar called Martini Ranch about four years ago. It was a good time. But then that’s also when I was in my dark times as well. But now, being clean and sober, some of the acts that come through it’s like, “Ah, that’s why I did drugs.” For real! But then, God bless them. They’re having fun.
Now I can look at the bar and not feel anything. I can literally be behind the bar and be like, “I want a Red Bull,” or something else instead. Nina at 16 years old, if she had been at that job she would have been drunk in the first five minutes of working there.