Defying genre and making “music for healing” with Bailey Cogan of 26 BATS!

26 BATS! Onyx
Album artwork for “Onyx” by 26 BATS! (Photo: Graham Gardner)

The free-flowing fusion of styles that exists within 26 BATS!’s music makes the band’s genre hard to pin down. The group, which melds elements of jazz, rock, and R&B, self-describes as “genre-fluid jazz punks” on their Bandcamp page. But on their latest album, Onyx (Dec. 2018), 26 BATS! have found their groove, resulting in a cohesive, confident, and musically ambitious 26-minute journey. The album is the band’s second release, following their 2017 debut Cave Cuts. 

Onyx, named after the black stone, muses about self-discovery, growth, and healing to the backbeat of biting guitar riffs, crooned trumpet melodies, and growled vocals. The musicians that make up 26 BATS! — Bailey Cogan, Karl Remus, Christian Wheeler, Daniel Chavez, and Warren Fenzi — are all part of a music collective called Kremblems that includes three other bands, each led by a different musician.

Bailey Cogan leads 26 BATS!, serving as the group’s singer and principal songwriter. I met up with Cogan at a Minneapolis coffee shop to talk about the therapeutic process of writing songs, bringing their music to life onstage, and finding inspiration in close friendships.

The album is 26 minutes long, and I know that the number 26 is special to you. Could you tell me a little bit about that number?

I was born on the 26th of May, that’s where it all began. I became intrigued by the number around the time I was in high school. I just started noticing it following me around, and I was kind of creeped out — what does this mean? It’s everywhere. But then I decided to start celebrating it. I celebrate every month of the year on the 26th, I do something special just to celebrate life and remind myself that being alive is a gift. It’s become this sacred number to me, which is the main reason why I put it in my band name. Music is spiritual, music is sacred, I wanted to reflect who I am too, because I’ve been obsessed with it forever. And it’s my birthday.

I love that — celebrating every month and just taking a minute to be grateful.

Yeah it’s really about gratitude. Every time I see it too, it’s like a little glitch in the matrix. It grounds me.

The album’s name, Onyx comes from an onyx necklace that you received as a gift?

I’m wearing it, actually. I love it.

What is the significance of that stone and that gift to you?

It’s from my ex, but it doesn’t feel attached to to that memory anymore because I love it so much. It was gifted to me for my birthday. Black onyx has metaphysical qualities that ward off negativity. I remember reading about the metaphysical properties of the rock, and I was like, “Dang, that’s exactly what the album is about — or what I want it to do when it’s consumed or listened to.”

I had the words “Onyx Gut” in mind for the album title, and then I was talking to a friend and he was like, “I like it; I like Onyx just by itself though.” And then I did some research. [Reading from an article online] “It’s a powerful protection stone. Black onyx absorbs and transforms negative energy and helps prevent the drain of personal energy. Black onyx aids the development of emotional and physical strength and stamina, especially when support is needed during times of stress, confusion, or grief.”

I was like, “I love that!” Music is very therapeutic for me, and I think most people. And I try to make intentional music that is for healing, specifically, and put spells and words in my lyrics.

I definitely pick up on that in the song “Rotten Bones” — you experience that anguish or stress when listening to that track, and then it just fades away.

“Rotten Bones” is a wild song. We recorded it maybe last March or April. It was just a long process of trying to get everyone in the same room; the recording process takes a while. I remember hearing it back recently and being like, “Wow, this song is weird! It’s so great! We did that — what?” It’s cool to hear it after creating it and knowing and nurturing it.

That song specifically developed over time. We had a gig in Boston, so [guitarist] Karl [Remus] wrote the beginning guitar part when he was just doing scales, and he was like, “You should sing over this.” We were in Boston when we made up the main part, it just developed in so many weird ways. That’s a really epic, fun song for all of us because it was very collaborative in how it was written, which I love. They’re like my best friends, and when we make something together — because some of the songs I write by myself and I show them like, “Hey, make up your own parts for this” — but that was such an involved, collaborative process that it was really fun and rewarding.

A lot of the songs on this album have very distinct parts, where it almost feels like you’re listening to a new song; the groove or tempo completely changes. Is there a specific reason for having those sharp contrasts?

That is kind of how I write, and the reason is just that I like changing paces; I think I change my mind all the time, and I like to shake it up. When I’m writing I’m not great at transitions, so I lean towards sudden things happening. As a listener, that’s something I like; when something catches me off-guard, I think that’s interesting. So maybe subconsciously I write things that way. But usually I come up with a main part and then I write a bridge and try to string it together, and it just happens to be like, “Okay, hit it!”

Our upcoming music is even more of that — it’s pretty wild. One of our songs is like, “What’s happening?” It’s fun though, it’s really fun to play.

Have you been writing a lot of new material with 26 BATS!?

We have half of a project recorded already. I’ve been trying to focus on Onyx, because we did it, we have to promote it, we have to do all of the things. It’s weird because I feel like things are pushed back because the recording process does take a while to perfect it and all of that.

That’s probably hard, recording being such a long process, because you feel like you don’t have enough time to celebrate one album because you always have to be thinking about the next thing.

I think it’s important we do, because we worked so hard on this, and it’s great. I’m actually proud of this album — with Cave Cuts I was embarrassed a little bit by it, but this one, I listen to it and I’m like, “Wow.” I think working with [producer] Medium Zach was really helpful with that. If I record vocals alone I get way too in my head. But recording with him, he was like, “That was great! Let’s choose the ones that are best.”

Is there anything else that you feel like gave you more confidence or experience going from Cave Cuts into this album?

We definitely knew more of our sound in general. We knew the type of music, whatever style it is, we understand it as a band. That was a really nice confidence boost, because it’s really hard to explain to someone, “What kind of music do you make?” It’s just a big question because genre is not in my mind when I’m writing, it’s never that.

We just played so much last year and the year before that, so playing live really helped us get really good and together and tight with our sound, and energetically unified.

You have such an animated, energetic stage presence — is there anything in particular that’s going through your mind when you’re onstage?

I’m trying to do my best, and sound great — that’s important. But also trying to have fun and inspire people to have fun, because fun is really important. Life is tough, and we have to have moments of joy. If I can provide that, that’s a big accomplishment. On a good performance night I try to charge the energy in the room and make it feel magical and lovely. Sometimes it works, so that’s great.

Are there any ways that help you connect with an audience and bridge that gap?

Getting over nervousness was really helpful; if I’m nervous then I get in my head, and then I probably mess up because I’m thinking too hard. Snapping out of that and trying to be as present as possible is really important, because then I’m focused on playing well, but also having fun. Also looking at my bandmates and establishing that, “Yay, we’re doing it! We’re doing the thing that we were practicing for for weeks!” Every live show is a collaborative experience with everyone in the audience. If there’s no one there, it’s not going to be as vibrant as when people are really paying attention, really feeling it. I like to think of it as a collaboration with the audience, because when people are receptive, it feeds me, and it just raises the levels.

I was in theater growing up, so I’ve had experience in front of people, and that’s helped a bunch with me figuring out how to be myself in front of people. Because it’s weird — it’s weird being like, “I wrote these songs, and they’re about all of these vulnerable things and experiences, here’s my little heart!” Having the theater experience under my belt, it’s like, “Okay, just be yourself. Do that the best you can, and hopefully people will like it. But if you don’t you’ll probably feel good.”

Do you have any current inspirations, whether it’s new music, people in your life, food, a book — anything that’s making you happy or inspired?

Earth, Wind & Fire has been giving me life. Winter is really hard for me mentally, I definitely have seasonal depression. I work as a cleaner, so I’ve just been blasting Earth, Wind & Fire and cleaning. It’s so great. Their music is so uplifting and fun, and so focused on beautiful things in life.

Dua Saleh recently dropped their EP [Nūr], and that is fantastic. My friends inspire me. I recently went to Arizona to visit my best friend, and that was incredibly inspiring. I met her in high school, and we’ve always been very artistic together. I was there for four days, and we were just creating nonstop — which usually feels forced, but it totally didn’t. I just can’t believe how in-sync we are.

I try to be inspired by everything. I kind of was not inspired the last two days, because I was being so stir-crazy being stuck inside. But I’m currently working on a bunch of different projects, doing a folk-y thing with the guitarist of 26 BATS!, art-folk is the genre we’re going for. That’s been really beautiful and fun too, just recording that in our house.

I live with my bandmates, three out of four of them. Living with my bandmates is really inspiring, because Warren [Fenzi], our drummer, is always doing scales on the guitar and doing vocal warmups or playing drums, and then Karl is always recording something, so it’s like, “They’re practicing, I should practice too.” So that’s helpful, because they’re very focused people. I’m kind of a scatter-brained person. I’ve been trying to do a lot of visual art too.

You can find 26 BATS! on Facebook, Bandcamp, and Twitter. You can learn more about Kremblems at their website.

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