Bailey “26” Cogan had a few decisions to make this year. And whatever the lead singer and songwriter for 26 BATS! did, a lot of people in the Minneapolis music scene would be watching closely.
The group’s high-energy, Latin-infused, jazz-influenced neo-soul indie rock had already established them as a hot live act. Since forming in 2015, 26 BATS! have progressed from house shows to late-night sets at the Dakota, and as part of the Kremblems Collective, 26 BATS! are now taking part in a monthlong residency at Icehouse. (Each week during the residency, a different member of the band takes charge, and the name, style, and arrangement of the group changes.)
A rundown of the band’s lineup gives you an idea of their range. Warren Thomas Fenzi is a heady, versatile drummer, a Berklee College of Music grad with a jazz background. His college roommate, Karl Remus, alternates between keyboard and guitar, on which he peels off D’Angelo-influenced R&B licks. Bassist Christian Wheeler is a hardcore musicology geek with strong Latin American influences. And classically trained trumpet player Daniel Chavez cites Poncho Sanchez, Francisco Torres, and Roy Hargrove as his idols.
That conglomeration of influences came together in intriguing ways on 26 BATS!’s 2017 debut album, Cave Cuts, but it wasn’t clear which of those threads the band and Cogan (who identifies as genderfluid and uses they/them pronouns) would pull on next.
“I feel like with Cave Cuts we were jumping around so many different styles, which was important and fundamental to this next project,” Cogan explains during an interview near the Bat base in northeast Minneapolis. “It got the spread out and now we’re moving toward our own sound, rather than taking and trying new things.”
One possible direction: dive deeper into the rambunctious polyrhythms that gave tracks like the sexually frustrated “Teriyaki Sundress” their groove. On that song Cogan rhythmically rolls an “r” on a “prrrrr eh whooo” and Chavez responds with a buttery, trilled echo, while Remus, Fenzi, and Wheeler drive the song forward with an Afro-Latin march.
It was this side of the band that won them the opening slot for Afrobeat star Femi Kuti at the Cedar Cultural Center in July. “26 BATS! seemed like such an obvious fit because they’re pulling from all these different genres,” says Alana Horton, the Cedar’s director of marketing and communications. “But Afrobeat felt like it was in there for us, especially with sort of the complexity of their arrangements and the instrumentation and the big sound with horns—it’s kind of jazzy and social and big. And then also just from the music they’re creating, the message is very positive. It’s about healing and community, which felt like it really aligned with the work that Femi does as an artist.”
26 BATS! not only share a musical vibe with Femi and his legendary father, Fela, but have a similar taste in politically confrontational lyrics. The Cave Cuts song “Guilty,” which addresses the killing of Jamar Clark and the subsequent Fourth Precinct occupation, features the not-very-subtle chorus, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
But if becoming a kind of Minnesotan Antibalas was one option, 26 BATS! could also have opted to emphasize their darker, more rock-driven tracks. “Touch Mai Face,” their best-known song in this vein, begins slow, with throbbing bass, then crescendos with Cogan wailing the chorus, “My body, your body, never meant to hurt nobody.”
The broad dynamics of “Touch Mai Face” and the sheer physicality of Cogan’s performance have made the song a crowd favorite. When 26 BATS! opened for Scrunchies at the Entry in June, Cogan owned every bit of the stage during “Touch Mai Face,” jumping, crouching, stomping, and darting from one side to the other. And throughout, Cogan seemed to maintain a relationship with every one of their bandmates, periodically jamming with Remus or Wheeler and making eye contact with Chavez or Fenzi, while also bringing the audience in with a vulnerable warmth.
Cogan’s voice is a powerful, versatile instrument, but Cogan is also an empath with a rare ability to find an emotional connection with an audience. By the time they leaned into the audience to deliver the final chorus at the Scrunchies show, a few people in the crowd had started to mosh near the stage, while others just held their hands up or head-banged to the thumping beat. Cogan has the voice of a soul singer, but also knows how to rock out.
The DJ and performer Sarah White, who got to know 26 BATS! when Cogan asked her to open one of their shows, was immediately struck by the singer’s stage presence.
“I think the whole band has an interesting and unique swagger, and the chemistry is hypnotic,” White says. “And Bailey, where do I even start? They inspire me by the way they move like water through different realms when they are onstage. Captivating and intertwining, the stars and the underworld. A true gift to experience. Like an electric siren, uninhibited.”
But 26 BATS!’s new album, Onyx, is neither derivative of Afrobeat nor straight-up rock. At moments on Cave Cuts, Cogan’s vocal lines would skitter in unexpected directions—off-kilter Bjork-like inflections in a neo-soul song, for example. And while the groove and rock elements are still there, it’s these quirky tendencies that Onyx more fully embraces.
“That’s all to do with me being more comfortable in my own body and knowing myself more and my instrument as well, which is my voice,” Cogan explains. “Cave Cuts was like shooting in the dark. It’s not as focused as Onyx. Onyx is calculated. We got it tighter. We got it dialed in.”
Onyx is short, a very intentional 26 minutes long, with themes of self-love and self-acceptance, as on the single “IM OK.” The album was mixed by Medium Zach, the producer behind two of the standout local albums of 2018, the multi-artist collection Dismembered & Unarmedand Astralblak’s Seeds.
While the lyrics are more introspective, the music is still political at heart. “My role in the revolution is to make the fight songs that inspire people to keep going,” Cogan says. And, just as importantly, 26 BATS!’s new music, while still warm and soulful, is also just a little weird, much like the person at center stage when the band performs.
“All that weird stuff feels so natural to me because I’m a dweeb—I’m a real weirdo,” says Cogan. “When I’m singing soulfully, I’m not thinking, ‘I’m going to sing beautifully now,’ And when there is that switch, it feels like it’s right—and that’s me allowing myself to be myself.”
Via city pages