Orlando's Future Bartenderz serves up pop absurdity of the highest order

Everybody conga!
Everybody conga! photo by Matthew Moyer
10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17
Will’s Pub, 1042 N. Mills Ave.

"I grew up here, and then I left as soon as I possibly could," says Future Bartenderz' sole suds-slinger, Brian Costello, succinctly of his Orlando roots.

"I lived in Chicago for a long time. When I was there I played in bands, put records out, went on tour. I was a writer, had a couple novels come out, taught creative writing at the art school there, did comedy, did all kinds of things. And then it all fell apart at the same time. Now I'm back in Central Florida."

When some people find themselves unexpectedly, and not entirely willingly, back in their hometown, things can go downhill quick. Writer (Losing in Gainesville) and musician (drummer for Outer Minds, Function Blackouts) Costello instead began compulsively writing and recording deeply strange, catchy, sardonic and whip-smart music that freely pilfered from all corners of rock-pop history.

"I came back here and I wasn't sure what to do anymore. I was kind of shell-shocked and I just started dabbling in home recording," remembers Costello.

Early efforts like the note-perfect synth-pop sendup "Nuclear War" and Cars pastiche "Summer Is the Warmest Season" buoyed Costello's confidence enough to share the music with his friend (and now former Orlandoan) Rich Evans, of Total Punk Records. Not only was the feedback positive but a plan was hatched to take this home-recording project and put it on stage. And thus Future Bartenderz was born.

"My first show was for the Total Punk Christmas Party in December of 2018. I'd been back in town about four or five months. And it felt really great to have this outlet," says Costello. "I was really enjoying music again, and I was enjoying the creative process again."

Though the Bartenderz' recorded canon is rife with arch humor and intelligence, on stage it's total commitment to Big. Rock. Spectacle. Despite a bare-bones arrangement — backing tracks and a mic and a deceptively empty stage — Costello plays it like he's headlining Wembley Arena and CBGB simultaneously. He's a blur of action, darting around the stage, mock-handclaps, David Lee Roth poses, harmonizing with himself, turning into Darby Crash one minute, knocking over speakers, and then a louche Bryan Ferry the next. And, wondrously, he even attempts to start a conga line during shows.

He's held his own opening for live institutions like Mr. Quintron & Miss Pussycat and the Dead Milkmen's Joe Jack Talcum, with sheer, sweat-soaked commitment to the bit.

"With touring and playing in actual bands, there's that shared suffering. But now, this is all on me to do this," says Costello. "And I actually enjoy it."

The aforementioned opening slot for Joe Jack Talcum was in March 2020, and that was it for live work. With shows "on pause," Costello threw himself into recording.

Over the last year or so, Future Bartenderz has digitally released four albums (one called The Floridiot, thumbs up) and an oversized handful of mini-albums and singles on Bandcamp in a sustained — and ongoing — burst of creativity.

"With everything going on, obviously, it was like 'nothing else to do.' But also, before, my creative energy was always scattered all over the place. And now to only have this one thing going, I was just recording new songs," says Costello. "When COVID first happened, I went to the beach and I hid out in New Smyrna for awhile and just recorded."

Much of the Future Bartenderz catalog is wickedly funny. From the Thin Lizzy mock-arena rock of "The Dudes Have Returned to the Place We Call Home," the Dylan-spoofing "Absoresolutely Covid-19 Isolation Lonesome Blues" or the one-minute lesson on how fucked the Sunshine State is, "The History of Florida, Abridged (1513-Present)," Costello's songs are full of encyclopedias' worth of musical knowledge and amazing turns of phrase and laugh lines. Future Bartenderz' humor manages to thankfully sidestep the dreaded descriptors "wacky" or "novelty" through conviction and pop smarts.

"I don't go out like 'Hey, I want to write a funny song,' that's more of an extension of who I am," says Costello. "The main idea, ultimately, is to surprise myself or to confound any expectations and be as unpredictable as possible."

One song that ticks all those boxes deftly is "Payment Status Unavailable," an accidental anthem that takes the tried-and-true Britpunk '78 musical template and applies it to Orlandoans checking and rechecking their DEO accounts.

"During the early months of COVID, waiting on a stimulus payment, I just kept thinking that this is the American version of being on the dole queue, like the things all those Oi! bands were singing about, and that stuff was always funny to me, bands being like 'Poll tax!' or 'Thatcher!'" says Costello. "This is the American version of the dole queue, waiting to get a stimulus payment or unemployment."

In the coming weeks (and months), some of the vast archive of Future Bartenderz songs make its way from the digital to the analog realm. On Tuesday, there's a release show for the Bartenderz' debut cassette, Chester Cheetah, Macrame, Brian Eno, Chardonnay, as part of the Kinda Punk But Not Really DJ night. Out on local tape imprint Godless America, the tracklist is Costello "trusting intuition" and selecting 32 of his favorite numbers. So, yes, the first album is a greatest-hits collection. And, pressing plants willing, a self-released vinyl album is on the way soon after.

All of it is worth parting with your hard-earned dollars. There are few out there chronicling the oddities and absurdities of living in the City Beautiful as well as Costello, be it on "Mills 50 (Let's Talk About It)," "Altamonte Mall" or "College Park (Be Sure to Wear a Visor in Your Hair)."

"That's part of coming back here, and just revisiting things. I never imagined I'd ever come back here, ever. When I left it was, like, both middle fingers in the air," laughs Costello. "Songs like 'Mills 50' are just observational. I think it's being back here again and some things coming full circle and other things that are new, but I still have this perspective of someone who remembers it before all this. It's fascinating, I left in the '90s and I came back and people still like music from the '90s."

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