Every Wednesday is Heritage Hump Day! That's because every Wednesday from now to the end of the year or before someone really big stops us, Heritage Hump Records (a temporary subsidiary of Onus Records) and New Times will be bringing you a limited edition collector's item of a much beloved Phoenix band that walked the scorched earth of Arizona before the year 2000 A.D. We will honor that band with a commemorative digital single that you, the digital public, will have only seven days to download to your computers and smart phones before this single gets marked up to an exorbitant price as determined by the mp3 collector community. When that happens, a new Heritage Hump subject will be chosen and the free-for-a-limited-time-only cycle begins anew.
This week we're only going back to 2007, arguably the only point in our state's history when we had a quirky hip-hop pop band with an angelic female chorus and a guy running around in Fruit of the Looms and a parka. Unless there's some church group or Salvation Army band we should be really worried about.
In the same way that people point to Christopher Pomerenke's other great band Less Pain Forever and say that they were there with the bass-less guitar-and-drum combination way before the White Stripes and their countless imitators, there is a tendency to view Runaway Diamonds as being there before The Polyphonic Spree and all them other white-robe glee clubs. Here, the timeline may fail them by a few years but there's no arguing that Runaway Diamonds mixture of the divine and the profane and minimalism and obtuse subject matter was a lot more fun than all those gospel gropers combined.
When Ed Masley wrote about the band in April 2007 ("Runaway Diamonds Are Forever") the band wasn't quite sure what it was yet:
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."
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.'"
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."
"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."
That article also mentioned that a lot of people saw the band's glazed over happy expressions and zest for life and likened Runaway Diamonds to a bizarre cult. Or a more socially acceptable version of The Manson Family, if perhaps Charlie's record deal came through.
Spirit Squad member Lisa Marmur dispelled that notion in print by declaring, "It's a nice, quiet, regular cult. A lovable cult."
With the help of early member and cult recruiter Andrew Lockwood of Dolphins Kill For Love, they assembled their dream team of a Spirit Squad of Riggs, Marmur and Yolanda Bejarano of Snow Songs (don't worry, we'll get to them, too).
Looking back on the enterprise today, Pomerenke says, "Mr. Hernandez and I have written hundreds of songs together, and all of them written the exact same way. In the wee hours, after intoxication beyond any kind of rational thinking, I would freestyle lyrics over his instrumentals. We did it for years like that. He’d hand me a mic, hit record, start playing piano and capture the first lyrics that came out of me. And when listening to our album God's Mom and Her Turquoise Chow Chow, almost every lyric and vocal melody heard was from my very first lyrical stream of consciousness."
Which brings us to this week's cyber single.
"'Itty Bitty Thoughts' is one of my favorite songs on that album because it gives a good understanding of the group," says Pomerenke. "The synth beats, the playful piano playing, the Spirit Squad in all its glory and of course, the bizarro lyrics. See, I know I don’t have a great voice. So when Mr. Hernandez and I started to form the group, I thought it would be cool to have a 'Spirit Squad' of super talented singers to elevate and enrich the music. But getting a gang of talented and gorgeous singers wasn’t just a ploy to make my singing sound more acceptable, it was a license for me to lyrically (and on-stage) be as freaky and off the wall as I wanted.
"The way I figured, the Spirit Squad would balance me out. I have a clumsy voice, they're all pitch perfect. I'm wasted and in my underwear and their sober and in their Sundays-Finest. Im behaving as The Wicked Witch of the West Side and they, as angels, look upon me with a smile that radiates 'unconditional love.' Yin and Yang. At least thats how I always saw it.
"'Itty Bitty Thoughts' is me saying that I wish to be innocent again. That there is vulgarness in me and it has something to do with my hometown. It’s about me believing, as I’m prone to do, that if I do the proper operation, I can excise the perverted out of me. And in this particular song, the answer is to deliver me to the simple life. What that is and where it is, I will probably never know."
Well, as Bob Marley's cigar-chomping agent in the States might've told him back in the day, "You can never have enough redemption songs, chicky baby!"