By fusing a riot grrrl ethos with steely-eyed Chicana grit, the band Fea have become American punk trailblazers. Comprised of ex-Girl in a Coma members Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva, and musicians Letty Martinez and Sofi Lopez, the San Antonio four-piece released its sophomore album No Novelties on November 15th via Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records. A follow-up to the band’s 2016 self-titled debut, their latest bilingual collection is produced by L.A. punk legend Alice Bag.
As Fea, the band continues a legacy forged by punk women of previous generations, like Joan Jett, Alice Bag and Bikini Kill. “Aside from their talents, [Joan Jett and Alice Bag] are two amazing smart women that have inspired so many girls not just to do music but to speak your mind, do what you want to do, don’t follow norms, just be yourself. I was one that definitely needed them and their influence growing up,” says Martinez.
The group has gotten used to fans coming up to them and saying that their music makes them feel nostalgic; but their confrontational brand of punk is very much needed in the here and now. “Many of [our fans] were around when punk was starting out, and to us, that is a huge compliment because we love 1970s punk,” says Martinez. “But we have all sorts of fans, ranging from kids and teens to people in their sixties. It’s really cool to see all these people come together with our music.”
Following the release of No Novelties, Fea spoke with Rolling Stone about making their sophomore album, their songwriting process, and why they’re not just another girl band.
How did Fea form?
Jenn: Phanie and I had just finished up with Girl in a Coma and we wanted to start our dream band pretty much pay homage to the Riot Grrrl movement and all the things we liked before but we wanted to add a little culture as well. So we found Leti who’s a great vocalist and lyricist and found Sophie. It’s been complete. We have the lineup we’ve been wanting.
Tell me about the band name, which means “ugly” in Spanish.
Phanie: We named it Fea because we had some experiences with Girl in a Coma and being in an all-female group. Women tend to get more picked on than males, especially with their appearance, whether it’s about what they’re wearing or how they’re presenting themselves. It’s the first thing, sometimes, that people unfortunately look at. So we got a lot of slack for that in Girl in a Coma; we weren’t feminine enough, or our weight was an issue. Whatever it was. And we wanted to take a negative word and make it its own thing.
Tell me about the title of your record, No Novelties.
Sofi: Usually girl bands are named as a novelty because stereotypically, you give a girl an instrument and, if she looks decent and she can play OK, she’ll be successful. We’re not like that whatsoever. We’re trying to break that stereotype with this album because compared to the last album, it’s more complex and refined musically, and if you listen to it, some people will be shocked that it’s four girls playing. It’s called No Novelties because we’re four girls who play our instruments very well.
What was it like working with Alice Bag?
Letty: Working with Alice is amazing. She brings a perfect balance of work and play to the studio. We have fun, but we don’t lose focus which is exactly what Fea needs. Just seeing how she is, her strength and persistence, everything she has done and keeps doing is just so inspiring to us.
What did you learn from her?
Letty: I personally learned a lot. One thing was not to hold back. The first time we worked with her she drilled me and had me do many takes until she believed my lyrics. Being in the studio takes away the energy and adrenaline you get from doing a live show, so without realizing it, I was holding back my vocals.
On your record, you cover Gloria Trevi‘s “Pelo Suelto.” Why did you decide to do that?
Letty: That song is really special to me because I’ve been singing it since I was five years old. [She’s] someone I looked up to a lot when I was young. That song is about letting your hair loose, being yourself, not caring about what people think or say. It’s a great message. So we decided to cover it, we thought we could really give it a little more of an edge, make an even more punk version of that song.
“Merde” is a really bold one fueled with intensity. Tell me about the energy of that track.
Letty: It’s that emotion you get after the heartbreak. It’s anger. That’s pretty much what I was going for there. The verse was in Spanish. I feel like I can express my anger more through Spanish — I guess the words are just right for it because the music slows down and gets pretty, [but] I thought it would be a fun twist to do the chorus in French. I was listening to a lot of French pop at the time and I was like, “I want to sing in French, dammit.” French is such a beautiful language and to be telling someone off in that language, I thought it was a funny twist.
One track on the album is about the menstrual cycle, “Red.” What prompted the creation of that track?
Letty: I think I wrote [“Red”] during the election. I remember some silly comments on social media like, “A woman can’t be present because she gets a menstrual cycle, and how do you trust her decisions when she’s having period mood swings and what not.” I just thought that was hilarious. So I just decided to write a song about that, turning into a period monster. It’s just some humor for you and how ridiculous those comments were. There’s a line in there like “You’ll never be in charge acting like that,” and that’s what ties that [song] to the whole Hillary Clinton thing.
Iggy Pop praised your debut album in Rolling Stone. What was it like to hear that?
Jenn: That came around during a moment in Fea’s life where it was stagnant. We were all kind of down. It just happened out of nowhere.
Phanie: I was just at home and a local reporter called and wanted some comments on what Iggy Pop had said. I knew he was playing us on his BBC show, but I didn’t know he had said something in Rolling Stone in his birthday issue. I totally woke up and was excited about it. I texted the gang. It’s something cool to be able to tell people.
What’s your songwriting process like?
Phanie: We all contribute. We don’t have someone specific we start with. It’s new for us because in our other band Girl in a Coma, Nina was the main songwriter and we would write around that. The first record we all contributed songs and on this particular record it just happened with a lot of Jenn’s basslines. But there’s no pressure on anybody to be a specific writer. Music-wise, we come in and see what works. Definitely proud of Jenn on this record for taking charge and bringing these lines, and Sofi wrote her own solos.
You end the record poignantly with “Girl Band.” Why choose that one to close out the record?
Sofi: We all unanimously chose “Girl Band” to be the end because it’s like an exclamation point to the album, it ties everything together, and it’s a very fun song as well. I think we’re honestly just saying everything that a lot of people are thinking. We’re not afraid to say some shit that other women might be scared to say. No Novelties is also at the same time “no apologies.” We can say what we want. We thought it would be the perfect closer for that album.
How do you guys feel like you’re cutting through the punk scene?
Jenn: We just got off a tour with Subhumans, and we were a little nervous about it thinking how will the crowd receive us. We’re punk, but we’re not hardcore or anything. It turned out great. We did some shows in Canada to start out with. The crowd really got into us. We were very successful on the Subhumans tour and we got the sense of community in the punk scene. After doing that, I feel like we can open up for any punk band, honestly. I think people get the nostalgia involved in it and [our] influences.
Is there any hope for a Girl in a Coma reunion?
Phani: I don’t foresee it at the moment. My sister is in Los Angeles and she’s doing her thing out there. We separated and took space from each other, that’s a whole other story. I don’t see it anytime soon right now. If we did, it would be a quick reunion show or something. Fea is now our main baby. If [a reunion] were to happen, it would happen.