UT alumnus starts 10-piece emo puppet band

Katie Walsh

Propelled by the audience member’s hands, an emo puppet crowdsurfs to a Backstreet Boys and Joy Division mashup. 

The puppet, Milo S., is part of Austin’s Fragile Rock, an emo puppet band founded last year by UT alumnus Brently Heilbron. While coping with his divorce, Heilbron said the idea came when he posted a sarcastic Facebook status saying he intended to start an emo puppet band. 

“It’s a joke that really got out of hand,” Heilbron said. “But really sad things can inspire really silly fun.”

Fragile Rock, which gets its name as a spin-off of the Muppet’s Fraggle Rock, is comprised of six puppets, seven puppeteers and three musicians. The ensemble hopes to “spread the sad word” through a catalog of angst-filled songs written by Heilbron. Starting Nov. 3, they will perform bimonthly on Tuesdays at Empire Control Room.

During Fragile Rock shows, the puppets do all of the singing. The puppeteers are plainly visible but never step outside of their puppet’s character.

“We all get to have a great time and laugh our asses off, but the puppets don’t,” Heilbron said. “They take it really seriously.” 

Each puppet has a carefully cultivated — and satirized — personality, back story and aesthetic. Heilbron said his puppet, Milo S., is a typical narcissistic lead singer hopelessly in love with the band’s bassist. He dons a wrinkled purple button-up and tie. A cascade of straight, black hair falls perfectly over his right eye. 

The other puppets embody similarly stereotypical “emo” images. Drummer Coco Bangs has long black-and-red streaked hair and hairy armpits, visible only when she thrashes around on her drum set. The remaining emo puppets are the red-lipped bassist, Nic Hole, backup vocalists from Marfa, the Cocteau Triplets and guitarist Kyle Danko. 

Heilbron said the puppets usually bicker during the show and sometimes breakup mid-set, which is why they have a band therapist, like heavy-metal group Metallica. 

The puppeteers met through mutual friends and various connections. Heilbron said they all had either comedy or improv backgrounds, but only some had experience with puppets.

“It’s a great way to get to know someone,” Heilbron said. “By telling someone, ‘Hey, let’s do some ridiculous stuff together,’ you get to know them really fast.”

The band’s first show was a two-song set during South By Southwest earlier this year. Since then, the band has written a live show for The Institution Theater that ran for a few weeks, which lead to their current residency at Empire Control Room said Heilborn.

Guitarist Ryan Hill has been in several Austin bands over the years and said he never guessed that his greatest success would be through puppets. His fondest memory occurred after the band landed the show at The Institution Theater. 

“I had this awesome moment when I was in the car , and I heard the [Institution Theater] ad for the first time,  and our song was playing in the background, and I was like, ‘I’m listening to myself play guitar on the radio.’”

The band’s motto, and the title of one of their songs, is “Stay Felt.” Heilbron said the phrase is their homage to anyone who feels different. 

“I think it’s what an emo puppet would say,” Heilbron said. “We say it a lot. It’s like our mantra and it reminds us of who we are supposed to be.”

Heilbron said he enjoys seeing how far he can expand this alternate universe that they’ve created. Eventually, he said, they want to tour. 

“We keep getting bigger and bigger and sadder and sadder,” Heilbron said. “We want to be the best emo puppet band, but we know we have a lot of competition. We’ve got to see how far we can push this joke.”

Fragile Rock Residency
When: Tuesday, Nov. 3
Where: Empire Control Room, 606 E. 7th St.
Admission: $5 online, $10 at the door

Correction: Heilbron founded Fragile Rock last year, not earlier this year. The details of the group's residency has also been updated for accuracy.