Emily Pukis & The Vagrants: We’re Not a Cult.
Emily Youcis crawls through the open window onto the roof, the tar still a little sticky from the hot, humid day. The South Philly streetlights illuminate her as she strolls over in her black skate sneakers, the cool breeze gently stirring her T-shirt and skirt.
“This is Franzia,” Youcis says, identifying the light pink liquid inside the two-liter A&W root beer bottle she then takes a swig from.
With her is Leanne Martz, carrying a Wawa iced tea jug, as she is the designated driver for tonight’s festivities. It’s Youcis’ 21st birthday but the two girls are more than willing to speak about matters concerning their performance art/ basement punk band, Emily Pukis and The Vagrants.
Youcis sings and Martz, 20, plays the guitar. They are both students at Temple’s Tyler School of Art. The two met at school and immediately started making music together during the 2009-2010 school year.
“I was starting to get into GG Allin and I wanted to perform myself,” Youcis says. “I think I couldn’t hold myself back anymore.”
She had been developing a reputation behind the scenes as the creator and primary voice of the psychedelic, animated Internet show, Alfred’s Playhouse, which stars a talking, often obscene dog.
“Me and my friend knew of Emily,” Martz explains. “We knew she was kind of infamous. I heard she was trying to put a band together.”
Now the two play loud shows at DIY venues around the city, usually in costume – faux blood-splattered shirts and raccoon-eyed make-up, for instance, or fishnet stocking-clad Strawberry Shortcake outfits. And they have a handmade, fake blood-covered cross as a prop (it’s name is Buddy the Bloody Cross).
The pair converse on the roof as the night darkens and the neighborhood calms down, the air losing its scent of barbeque. Youcis sits on her knees, working on her Franzia while Martz sits cross-legged, smoking Camel Filters.
“I want to create an experience,” Youcis continues. “I want to shock an audience.”
The Vagrants perform songs titled “Child Abuse” and “Catholic Moms.” The characters Youcis portrays are intended to help connect with the audience. Because the band has no official recordings, they need to make an impression during shows.
The antics at one recent basement show in particular got wild.
“We played two songs and people were hanging from the ceiling,” Martz says. “The sprinklers went off and everybody had to leave.”
“The fire people asked if it was a satanic cult,” Youcis adds, mentioning the bloody cross.
Martz leaves the roof to grab her acoustic guitar from her car.
“We learn from every show,” Youcis says. “Something weird happens but that’s what we want. We want to see how far we can overcome. We just want to write some songs, sing some songs, while getting drunk.”
When Martz returns, Youcis says, “We should cover ‘Born to Be Wild.’ I loved that as a kid.”
“I don’t want to sound like another band,” Martz replies as she sits down and begins to tune the strings. She begins to play the Misfits’ song “Last Caress.”
The Vagrants’ style and sound reflect their lack of concern about fitting into the mainstream. Both Martz and Youcis cite Bikini Kill, Black Sabbath, Cannibal Corpse, Queen and, of course, GG Allin as some of their major influences. Youcis sings in a soulful falsetto, dramatically howling for emphasis at times.
“I wish I could watch you and play at the same time,” Martz says and then smiles at Youcis.
The Vagrants’ songwriting technique is very collaborative. Martz will test out a new song on acoustic guitar.
“Then Emily makes it Emily,” she says.
The Vagrants’ self-recorded acoustic videos display their chemistry – Youcis’ impulsive but clever vocal style is steadily supported by Martz’s heavy strumming and back up vocals.
The Vagrants decide to hold a brief, spontaneous concert on the roof. They dangle their feet over the edge of the rowhome and enthusiastically burst into an acoustic version of their song “Retarded People.”.
This casual session differs drastically from the Vagrants’ electric shows.
“It’s heavy as fuck,” Youcis says, describing the Vagrants’ sound. “It’s anything you would consider taboo or nasty or degrading. We call ourselves a punk and metal band but we’re good old rock and roll. We like it heavy but we got soul.”
“It’s just a they-don’t-give-a-shit attitude,” says their friend Brian Jerome. “They sort of push boundaries with topics. They push it and make it as outrageous as possible.”
The Vagrants play two new songs, untitled as of yet but the lyrics are memorable enough. The first contains the line, “One day I will be a zombie/ and slit the throats of my enemies.” The second: “I like to get drunk/ it’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt/ I’m not being sober tonight.”
“Let’s play ‘Sodomy’ and call it a night,” Martz says.
“Everyone knows this one!” Youcis replies.
It’s the Vagrants’ rendition of The Cranberries’ song “Zombie,” with altered lyrics (“sodomy” for “zombie,” etc). It’s a fan favorite at their shows.
Tonight, the rooftop performance is spot-on, as usual. Youcis’ sweetly sings the chorus (“in your ass, in your ass”), promptly making a neighbor look out his bedroom window to see what’s going on.
“I think that was kinda loud,” Martz says when the song is finished.
“It would brighten everyone’s night,” Youcis answers.
Not everyone appreciates Youcis and her musical stylings. In April, a local baseball blogger discovered that his pistachio vendor at Phillies games, Youcis, is also an irreverent artist and musician. He warned his readers to avoid buying pistachios from her due to her “creepy and disturbing” off duty activities.
It’s approaching eleven and Youcis must get ready to go to the bars. The Vagrants perform one last piece, “City of Love,” a song fundamentally hardcore but with a rap breakdown from Youcis in the middle.
“We have a goldmine of songs,” Youcis says afterward.
That, combined with their energy and talents, has many thinking Emily Pukis and The Vagrants could blow up.
“We have the potential to be more creative and poetic,” Martz explains. “We’re just too lazy about it.”