Mikal Benion, Kal for short, is the energetic guitarist and founder of eclectic The Color 8. Many bands blend genres together to create new sounds, but The Color 8 mix and match styles as drastically as anyone I’ve ever seen. The band can shift from an instrumental, neo-soul ballad to a rap-metal hybrid in the space of one song.
I sat down with Kal a few blocks from where The Color 8 played its first show to talk about diversity in music, Instagram, and mash-ups.
The Color 8 is a very diverse band in terms of both the musicians in the band and the genres you play. Do you think musical diversity can lead to cultural acceptance?
Yeah, I think so, because we see it at our shows. When we play First Fridays (a local, monthly arts festival), they’ll be people coming to see us play metal, and they’ll be people coming to see us play R&B stuff. But the R&B guys got to sit through the metal stuff, and the metal guys got to listen to the R&B stuff we do. They end up saying, “Ok, I guess R&B isn’t that bad,” or “Metal’s not that bad.”
All those people who never would have hung out together because they have their own cliques are now all hanging out together, and they realize they got more stuff in common than they thought, you know?
Because your crowds are so diverse, is there anything special you guys do, other than play music, to get your audience to intermingle?
Other than play the music, we’ll do crowd participation stuff, like, “When we say this, you guys say this.” Things like that just to help the audience feel like they’re a part of the band. We also do stuff on our social media. We do a live stream every Tuesday we call “Talk to Us Tuesdays” where people can talk to us and ask us questions. Then we also do “Try Something New Fridays,” where we try something new. This past week we tried eating these little baby squids that we had never had before, it was fun.
How else do you use social media as a tool to connect with people and grow your audience?
I feel like as a musician it is almost necessary to have social media, because you can connect with a bunch of people all across the world. I got a good following when I was on tour with Futuristic, I posted a cover from the tour bus, and the PickUp Instagram page shared it and overnight I got like 4000 followers. They were from all over the country and the world. I got a bunch of messages in languages I couldn’t read and stuff. It’s just a great way to connect with people you aren’t in direct contact with.
It’s also amazing for collaborating with other artists. This guy Edtalenti, he messaged me and sent me a beat he made with a beatpad and asked me to play over it. That was challenging because I had never played over anything like that. We never would have been able to collab if not for social media.
Social Media’s always evolving too, so there’s always gonna be more ways to connect with people. Now Instagram just released IGTV where you can post longer videos. So I feel like “Link in bio” is gonna go away, because now people don’t necessarily have to go to YouTube. Everything is on IG now.
What are some keys to being a musician in the internet age?
Ok! Being consistent and not being a perfectionist. I have a few friends who have hella content, but they haven’t put anything out. I’m like “You have all this music on your phone, why don’t you put any of it out?” and they say “Oh, it’s not good enough blah blah blah, I could do better.” I get that, but if your heart’s there and you were feeling it, put it out! People will like it, they don’t care if it’s not perfect.
I’ve heard songs on Soundcloud that I love that are low quality, and don’t have the best production, but it’s a dope song. People will notice it. You don’t have to go to professional studio to get good content. So being consistent is key. If you have this tool and you’re not using it everyday to show people your stuff, then what are you doing?
The way I see it is, if you look at a song you made a year ago you always think, “Ahh, man, it’s not very good, this could have been better.” So if you’re going to hate it anyway, you might as well put it out and let people enjoy it and connect with it.
What have you been working on as a guitar player recently?
Improvisation and theory. I’ve always been more of a feel player. I know the basic stuff, but I’d always just kind of learn licks and add them to the pentatonic scale. I’ve been working on my phrasing and how to format songs. Every musician gets to that point where they think, “Oh man, all my songs are starting to sound the same.”
Do you get to that point even though your band plays like 8 or 9 different genres?
Yeah! Because when we decide to make a blues song, we almost fall into just using the traditional blues form. That’s the scary thing, we do all these different genres, all our songs might end up sounding like a basic blues song, or a basic reggae song. We don’t want to just copy the most basic formats. We really have to challenge ourselves to break away from those things.
Who are some bands or artists you’ve seen recently where you thought, “I got to go practice. I got to get better”
There’s a lot of guitar players. You’ve actually interviewed him, but Joe Allie is a jazz guitar player who is crazy. I used to teach with him, and when we had down time with no students we’d jam together and I was like, “Damn, I’m trash.” He knows all his theory and stuff. When I would see him, I’d just feel like I’d need to get better.
There’s also this band Polyphia. It’s not always about making your music more complicated, but when I see them play it makes me feel like our music is simple. I think we’re at a point where The Color 8 can add more complicated parts and make things more intricate for the listener.
What did you guys learn about performing while playing on the street in downtown Phoenix?
Well, what we’ve learned from it…I think it’s taught us, “Just have fun.” A lot of bands that start off playing venues have to deal with more rules. Venues are strict–you play from this time to this time. I feel like it makes bands start to rehearse too much, and their sets become super rehearsed. They’re not felt or anything. The band can only play exactly what they practiced and that’s it. If a venue wanted them to play longer, they wouldn’t know what to do. I think it’s cool we started off without all that, and had the freedom to do whatever the heck we want. We just have fun. We make stuff up on the spot at shows. Our set’s not rehearsed, it’s whatever we’re feeling that day.
Do you think street performing also allowed you to experiment more freely with the genre of your music?
I think definitely. If we started off getting booked on a bunch of hip hop shows then we would kind of feel obligated to keep playing hip hop. Like “Ahh, we better keep doing the hip hop stuff because they’re only gonna want hip hop.” Then we wouldn’t be playing for ourselves, we’d be playing for what we thought the audience wanted to hear. I wouldn’t want us to do that. If we would have started off playing normal venues we wouldn’t be the band we’re trying to be.
The Color 8 does a lot of covers of songs which are drastically different than the originals, even some where you’ll completely change the genre. What do you guys learn from that process of interpretation?
It kind of teaches that everything doesn’t have to be traditional. We look at things and are like, “Ok, this is a hip hop song, but doesn’t have to be a hip hop song.” It just helps us challenge ourselves, like here’s this super smooth jazz song. How can we turn it into a rock song? It helps us be innovative and stuff.
It also helps us see that every genre is the same. All genres are just subgenres of another genre, you know? Blues turned into rock, which turned into metal, which turned into death metal. We want to reach as many people as we can, and I think the covers help with that.
I also really liked those Pop Goes Punk albums they used to put out. I think that got people that were into those punk bands to check out the original pop songs and vice versa.
Was there a particular Pop Goes Punk song that affected a young Kal?
Ahhhhh. Well it wasn’t on Pop Goes Punk, but that band Alien Ant Farm’s cover of Smooth Criminal. I loved how they did that.
The Color 8 just released their debut album First Friday.
They just released a new music video for their song “No Sleep” on YouTube.
Kal is on Instagram @Kal.The.Guitarist
Jacob Unterreiner is from Phoenix, Arizona. Around the valley, Jacob is known for three things; his musicianship, his strange habit of wearing the same eleven shirts he’s had since middle school, and a strict 10:00 PM curfew that he adheres to religiously in order to maintain his sanity as a high school English teacher.
Photography by Bernard Smith.