Listening to the music of Bailey “26” Cogan — songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and leader of the Minneapolis-based group 26 BATS! — is not a passive experience. While listening to the band’s latest album, Onyx, on the Green Line recently, the sharp rays of sun bouncing off windowed office buildings and fresh puddles mirrored the album’s vocals and bright notes of brass, which pierce through an intricate nest of bass and snare — high notes breaking through heavy layers, like frozen debris thawing in the light of early spring.
At 23 years old, Cogan has reached an impressive number of musical milestones, from releasing their first mixtape in high school to composing and recording two full-length albums with a full band, to playing numerous sold-out shows across the Twin Cities, including an Icehouse residency last December. Onyx is the group’s sophomore album, released in early 2019. The effort has been described as everything from “neo-soul” to “Latin-infused jazz” to “indie rock.” The opening track, “Genesis,” sets an eerie tone with flurries of guitar and moody brass riffs wafting over Christian Wheeler’s steady, grounding bass.
Some songs on Onyx are jazzier, like the more up-tempo “Do What You Do,” in which Cogan’s voice melds with several instruments. Then there’s “Rotten Bones,” the album’s longest track, clocking in at 5:42, and offering a more comprehensive sample of 26 BATS!’ unique sound. The song is a growling emotional release, starting slow and switching time signatures multiple times throughout. There is no discernible chorus, though it crescendos at several points with Cogan chanting “I don’t want to be alone” over a sea of other voices. Like the album, “Rotten Bones” is nearly impossible to classify as any pre-conceptualized genre, and that’s just how Cogan likes it.
“I like to say that we’re genre-fluid because it’s a nice cop-out. But also, I’m gender-fluid, so it’s like me — it’s true to who I am,” Cogan explains. “It’s the kind of music I make, because art is an expression of self.”
This is a rebellious attitude in a music industry that profits, as it always has, from categorization — whether by sorting records into bins or through streaming services’ algorithm-generated playlists. “[Genre] is made up by the music industry to categorize,” says Cogan. “And it is historically racist. I remember reading this wonderful Stevie Wonder quote about genre: ‘I never said I was a soul artist or an R&B artist. They’re just labels. When you’re soul, it means black; when you’re pop, it means white. That’s bulls–t. If it’s good, it’s good.’”
Most musicians build a following within a specific community; rock fans are more likely to listen to a new band marketed as “rock,” and so on. Yet 26 BATS! have successfully garnered a following comprised of all kinds of music lovers. Being unmoored to any one genre puts the group in a unique spot, allowing them to share bills with a variety of acts: from Afrobeat legend Femi Kuti to the silky, beat-laden Dua Saleh. “You know, some artists want to be called whatever they want to be called, but a lot of us are like, ‘Don’t put me in a box,’” Cogan explains.
Creative bonds with other musicians allow Cogan to hone their sound and fuel their confidence during the creative process. Shortly after graduating high school, Cogan moved to Hawaii on a whim with Karl Remus, who Cogan met on Twitter. “I was like, ‘I’m so sick of Minnesota and this winter thing,’” Cogan recalls. They eventually took a gig selling tacos at music festivals. On the road, Cogan met trumpeter Daniel “Chavo” Chavez, and the two jammed with Lucid VanGuard’s Remus for the first time at an East Coast festival. Upon their return to the Twin Cities, Cogan began playing in Lucid VanGuard. In 2015, with Chavez and Remus in tow, they formed 26 BATS!
Now based in Northeast Minneapolis, both Lucid VanGuard and 26 BATS! are part of a collective and indie label called Kremblems (short for “Kriyative Emblems of a Blue Soul Renaissance”), a group of musicians that shape-shifts into roughly four different ensembles, fluidly interchanging members across each individual’s passion project. “[Our sound is] something that I struggle with describing, but in practice, we can do it really well,” Cogan says.
On stage, the band’s energy exchange is palpable. Cogan, often sporting some sort of bat-themed accessory, moves around the stage interacting with their bandmates; then, they swing back around to croon directly to the crowd. 26 BATS! performances are exhilarating and the band move fluidly between older crowd favorites and new tracks.
There is an underlying theme of emotional healing on Onyx, though Cogan seeks to foster this during live shows without weighing their performance down with intense ballads. “Even if I make a slow song, I might not play it live as much, because I want to have time to let loose and be wild and be myself on stage,” Cogan confesses. “[Performing live] has made me want to cultivate spaces where people can experience joy and escape from the hell world that we live in. Let’s have some joy in our lives! Let’s get out of our heads for once.”
Onyx is named for the energy-absorbing stone, and into its inky depths Cogan has dropped doubt, loss, and fear of abandonment. Through their music, Cogan is able to relinquish these emotions to the listener, offering them a place to shake off turmoil just as Cogan shakes off categorization. Cogan puts it simply: “If you don’t love yourself, then the energy you’re giving will be less impactful.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the April edition of The Growler.