She's been part of The Spirit Squad, Runaway Diamonds' life-affirming wall of vocals, for nearly a year now. But when people ask Rhianna Riggs what the Phoenix band sounds like, she has no idea what to tell them. You're just like 'Well, Gabriel plays the beat machine and piano and sometimes guitar and he's the only one who plays an instrument. And then there's this other guy, Chris, he bounces around the stage in tighty whities with a pickax and a parka. Then there's us. We do these harmonies. And we're all wearing white." Which is to say they're not your average rock 'n' roll band, setting existential prayers and cryptic inside jokes to speaker-thumping hip-hop beats and a melodic sensibility that puts the Diamonds' own eccentric spin on Flaming Lips' eccentric spin on Brian Wilson's teenage symphonies to God.
It was a common love of Flaming Lips that helped their tighty-whitey-rocking frontman, Chris Pomerenke of Less Pain Forever, form an instant bond with keyboard player Gabriel Hernandez.
"Gabriel gave me a tape and said, 'There's no lyrics to this. Check it out,'" Pomerenke recalls. "I was driving around with my friend and it was really psychedelic, but with elements of electronica and hip-hop, but it still felt melodic, so I pulled the car over immediately, got him on the phone and said, 'I want to make up words to this.'"
And so began what Hernandez describes as a perfect collaborative process Pomerenke bringing his odd, stream-of-consciousness wordplay to the keyboard player's wistful melodies and killer beats.
As perfect as that process may have been, it wasn't long before they started wondering if maybe they should bring more people to the party. "We were looking at why would we add to this setup," Pomerenke says. "We've got drums. We've got keyboards. It's rhythm and lyrics and melody. The only thing I kept thinking about was more voices, more people with character to lift everything musically."
And "the obvious choice" from their circle of friends to assemble a choir at that point was Andrew Lockwood, a veteran of the local scene who also fronts his own group, Dolphins Kill For Love. His first recruit was Lisa Marmur, an Australian import whose background was more in the solo acoustic realm.
That original four-person version of Runaway Diamonds played its first show in early 2006. Yolanda Bejarano of Snow Songs signed on next, but it was after adding Riggs (whose other band, Edison Gem, is "super serious" in tone compared with this), that Pomerenke felt the lineup was complete, although they've since parted ways with Lockwood -- at least for the moment.
"I think we can finally see the group and know what it is now," he explains, which Riggs poetically sums up as "two dudes and three hot chicks," quickly followed by Hernandez saying, "Do the math."
Seated around a table at the Arizona Biltmore on a recent Saturday evening, the members of Runaway Diamonds are living large and acting silly.
"I think we have the three best singers in Arizona," Hernandez says of the Spirit Squad ladies, who clearly bring more than an obvious hot-chick factor to the table.
This sets off a round of hysterical laughter as his bandmates try to top his idle boast with ironic suggestions.
"In the fucking world," one suggests.
"In Maricopa County," shouts another.
"Yuma County," adds a third.
"As you can tell," Riggs says as the laughter fades, "we have really good chemistry."
When Marmur follows with "We're all completely in love with each other," Pomerenke, who's penciled in a pencil-thin mustache for the occasion, seizes the moment to make a confession.
"I've fallen out of love," he deadpans, quickly adding with the sense of comic timing that makes him such a brilliant frontman, "Awkward."
Some have seen the way the Diamonds interact and turned to words like "Manson-esque" or "cult-like" to describe the bond between them like Ryan Page, who's releasing the group's first album, God's Mom and Her Turquoise Chow Chow, on his Dreamy Draw label.
"He came to one practice and he was sold," Pomerenke says. "He said, 'You guys are like the Manson Family. I want to sign this.'"
Bejarano's heard that kind of talk as well. "That's what my sister says," she seems thrilled to announce. "'You guys are like a bizarre cult.'"
"It's not a bizarre cult," Marmur quickly clarifies. "It's a nice, quiet, regular cult. A lovable cult."
A cult whose members spend their debut album produced by Bob Hoag with an ear toward ethereal grandeur euphorically shaking their brains for the Lord, as Pomerenke puts it in the album-closing "Motion of the Mountain," while advancing cult-like self-help theories on the universal equalizer, or what Marmur calls "the D word."
Most songs on the album, Pomerenke says, "deal with the concept of wrestling with and embracing the surreal experience of being alive and recognizing that at one point you're gonna die."
"Don't use the D word," Marmur scolds.
"You're gonna die," Pomerenke repeats. "It's the idea that you finally realize that you're on a rock and it's spinning around this fireball. The Earth is just hanging on nothing and swinging around. And just to scratch the surface of that, you want to vomit because you know how fragile the whole experience is. Everybody knows this, but I think this group and these songs address those issues in a regular-man kind of way without being preachy or too esoteric."
And they do it with a healthy sense of the absurd that makes you wonder whether they really mean it. But they do. The presentation, Riggs says, is what's humorous. "It's like wrapping the pain pill in turkey to give to the dog that's dying of cancer," she says. "So the dog eats it up and enjoys it."
As Pomerenke sees it, "The songs and the vibe of this group is one of goodness, really. Having said that, it's still anchored in 'get wasted, get a DUI, get in a fight with your parents but don't you love life?' I know I do."
Sat., Nov. 8, 8 p.m., 2008