Breaking down barriers with his 20 lb. Sledge
Alfonzo “Zo” Rachel is a fascinating man. He’s a trained martial artist master the former owner and operator of a training dojo. Rachel’s also an accomplished musician, the drummer and founder of the hard rock band 20 lb. Sledge, which is not the usual Hollywood hard rock band.
20 lb. Sledge are four black, conservative, Christian musicians that have come together to create music that pleases God, as well as themselves and their fans. Their attention-grabbing mix of music and ideology isn’t preachy, doesn’t condescend and isn’t the typical bubble-gum Christian rock that one has come to expect from earlier examples of the genre, a-la 80s Christian glam rockers, Stryper or Petra. These guys are different. They are not a Christian rock band, per se. They’re a rock band comprised of Christians, and they rock hard. They can rock with the best of them, believe me.
In addition to being a martial artist and rock musician/composer, Rachel is a well-known conservative political pundit and commentator for PJTV.com, Fox News, as well as on his own socio-political commentary website, AlfonzoRachel.com. His bio on PJTV’s website states about his channel, “Part rant, part theatrical shorts, ZoNation provides commentary on politics and social issues. Not afraid to call out liberals on their backward thinking and often hypocritical behavior, AlfonZo Rachel tells it straight, and he’s not shy about it, either.”
This could sum up his music as well — it’s honest, fearless, raw and alive.
Rachel is also cast in the upcoming independently produced “The Gosnell Movie,” playing the part of a detective. He is the partner to Dean Cain of Superman fame’s character who, along with Rachel’s character, investigates the crimes for which Gosnell is eventually arrested for and convicted of serial capital murder.
I recently caught up with Rachel as he was breaking from shooting scenes with Dean Cain on the set of the upcoming indie movie to talk about his music, his band, his opinions and beliefs, and his plans for the future.
McKinny: When did you start playing drums, and were they your first instrument?
Alfonzo Rachel: I started playing drums in 1982. I played guitar before that, but my first instrument was actually the clarinet. One would wonder, “How do you go from playing clarinet to the drums?” Well, my story goes like this: My dad plays jazz saxophone, and I wanted to play an instrument kind of like my dad, but I wanted to go to something just a little different. So I picked up the clarinet and went to tell my dad of my decision to play it. “Hey, Dad, I’m going to learn how to play the clarinet in school!”
First thing out of his mouth is, “What are you, a sissy?!” So I was like, “Oh.” So that’s how I went from clarinet to drums. I don’t know if he did me a favor or not, especially with his method of getting me to consider playing another instrument, but there you have it. I’m pretty happy to be playing drums now.
McKinny: When were you first aware that you wanted to be a musician and what were your earliest musical influences while growing up?
Rachel: I think that I’ve always loved music. I love bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Heatwave, L.T.D., Tower of Power … I loved that stuff when I was younger. But I realized that I wanted to be a musician, really wanted to be a rock star when I first heard Billy Idol. When I saw the video for “Rebel Yell” I was like, “That’s it. I want to play rock and roll!” In fact, when I hear that song today, everything stops, and I’m just ready to rock! That was my joint! And actually, this was back when I wanted to play guitar; it was the guitar I was hung up on then, but somehow I was just feeling the drums in that song. From that point, I wanted to go for the drums.
McKinny: What was it about the drums that attracted you more than the guitar?
Rachel: I guess the release was more concentrated. I love melody, but the drums are just so much more kinetic for me. You really just feel like you can throw down, your whole body’s into it. I love the physicality of drums.
McKinny: How did you go about forming your band, 20 lb. Sledge, and how did you come up with the name?
Rachel: The first show for this band was on September 1, 2012. We did our first gig after about three months of rehearsing together. When we got together, I had an album that I had already made, and I basically went out and hired some musicians. But that took a while, man. When I got to LA and started working at PJTV, one of the first things I did was went out looking for a band. I needed to find some members for my group, and this is my thing … It’s LA, and these are my main stipulations for being in this band — that you don’t hate God, and that you don’t hate America. That’s it. I thought, “If I can find that, I’ll be happy.” That took four years (laughing).
Finally, after a lot of searching, I found the dudes who were willing to go ahead and help me take this album to the stage, and we’ve been going at it ever since. Now, how I came up with the name was a little bit before that. I was feeling like I was at a very low point in my life. I had recently lost my martial arts school, I was working a construction job — not that working a construction job was a low point in my life in itself; I actually enjoyed working in construction. It was just where I was emotionally then; spiritually, I was just feeling very frustrated, angry and low.
I was doing some demolition work at my construction job, and they had given me a 10 lb sledge hammer to go knock this wall down. And that’s when I had a kind of epiphany — because I wasn’t in Christ yet, I wasn’t a believer yet. And I thought to myself, “You know, it’s probably time that I stop fighting this,” and it was time that I got my ego out of the way.
I needed to realize the reason I wasn’t getting anywhere … I’d been trying to do this rock-and-roll thing for a long time, man, and it just wasn’t going anywhere for me. It was just bringing me misery, so I realized what was keeping me from that peace, that joy, that prosperity that I’m looking for was my ego.
My ego was a big brick wall, like the one I was tearing down with that sledge hammer, and it was separating me from Christ. So from that point on I’d tell myself every day that I’m going to take this sledge hammer and keep sledging down that wall every day, until that light just stays in my life. So I looked at that hammer they had given me, and I thought, “Well, “10 lb Sledge” doesn’t sound as catchy, so let’s go with “20 lb. Sledge!”
I’ve just kept the name for the band, and I found an affirming and inspirational verse in the Bible to go along with it: Isaiah 41:15, which says, “Behold! For I will make you a threshing sledge, new and sharp with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.” Pretty powerful inspiration!
McKinny: Did you write original songs or did you play covers as well for your first gig? Three months is a very short time to put together a show’s worth of original songs.
Rachel: Well, I had written a nine-song album, and we learned six of the songs in that three months of rehearsals, just so we could get out there and do opening act gigs, or to be part of a showcase, and those gigs usually only give you 30 minutes of stage time. So with the six songs we had rehearsed together, we had enough songs to get through a 30-minute set, and we cleared our first gig and started to make a name, and even though I thought we were horrible (laughing) at first, it seems we left a good impression on others, because people were calling, saying “hey, do you want to play this gig?” or “we’ve got an opening slot here …”
In terms of covers, we would sometimes add covers, just for segue purposes or to make it a little more interesting. We’d do a couple of bars of an Oingo Boingo tune, or we’d do some Rush, and of course we’d throw in some Living Colour, and we’d even jam on some Billy Idol just for kicks. We’d start pulling some weird songs out, and people would come up to us after our set and say, “Oh man, I remember that song!”
McKinny: What is the writing process like with you and your band mates? Is there a single big influence on the music in the band, or is the writing a collaborative effort by all?
Rachel: The band is a project that I produce, and I’m the principle songwriter. Like I said, it wasn’t so much that I was looking for a band; I was looking for hired guns, really. I went out there and told people, “This is the album, ‘Divine Battery’ that I’ve produced, and if you’re down with it, let’s go ahead and do this.”
So when I write, as a drummer I lean on rhythm. I like for every song to have that signature to it; there’s a lot of rhythm going on, but at the same time I try to balance that sophistication of rhythm with steadiness. It’s like when you hear something and think, “Wow, that’s an interesting riff, but let’s keep from making it too polyrhythmic — just give it enough to where it has that pulse to it and just ride that sucker for a little bit, so you can really chew on the groove, you know?” From there I like to add the melody. I don’t like typical chorus structures. I like for a song to have a little jazziness to it, to be really beautifully evolved. Take something that’s beautifully done and throw that “garage band” edge onto it, give it a little something raw.
As a side note to this, I think I’ve heard only one other band that’s had an album consistently like that and that band is Sevendust.
McKinny: How would you describe the music and style of the band, and how has that all evolved since your formation of the band?
Rachel: We facetiously call it “rough rock.” The style itself is hard rock. We don’t presume to be re-inventing the wheel or anything like that. This is just something that I enjoy. It’s a feel, a sound that I enjoy, and the guys seem to enjoy playing it, so in terms of how we classify our sound, it’s basically hard rock. We like to think that we’ve created some distinguishing characteristics with our execution, playing style and performance. But in terms of us doing anything profoundly different, I wouldn’t say that’s what we’re doing with it. We’re just trying to put our own spin on something that lots of people enjoy, and I hope we’re successful in that effort.
McKinny: Describe each member of your band with a single word or sentence. Tell me what each member brings to the table.
Rachel: Okay, I’ll start with Kim — that’s what the “K” stands for, “Kimbo.” K. Martin (Wade) is like a “quiet thunder.” His personality is quiet; he saves it for the bass. Put that bass on him, he brings the thunder.
Let’s see… Shawn (Taylor) is the class clown and definitely very outgoing.
Corey (Michael Hollins) is like the private in the platoon, the kid brother of the band. Even though he’s the kid brother, he carries the weight of the platoon — he’s a real ground-pounder.
And me? I’m the benevolent dictator (laughs)!
McKinny: How have your live shows been attended and received by your audiences? What can one expect to see and hear at a 20 lb. Sledge show?
Rachel: Attendance isn’t where we’d like to see it all of the time, but honestly that’s because I suck at promotion. Basically, I’m trying to manage the band myself, not necessarily because I want to, but more because I haven’t found anyone who wants to take on that mantle yet. As far as trying to promote the band, I haven’t really tapped into that special formula, if there even is one, of how to effectively promote a band and get people to our shows. But the folks who do come to our shows … I mean, we’ve got people who come to every single show, never miss a gig, driving from two to three hours away, so our fans are awesome! Anytime we have a show, they’re there. They enjoy the vibe that we put out and the music that we put out, and those who come to our shows usually leave pretty happy!
McKinny: How would you describe Taylor as a front man?
Rachel: He stepped into the role, and I think he’s adapted to it very well. He wasn’t the original singer. The last singer had some other priorities in his life, so he stepped to those, and Shawn wanted to keep things going. He said, “Look man, we can either find another guitarist or a singer. Whichever one we find first, I just want to keep this going.”
We happened to find another guitarist first, so Shawn said, “Okay, he can take over on guitar, and I’ll take over on vocals.” You know, Shawn was already pretty comfortable being a singer. He had never sung rock, not like this before. He said he would try to adapt his voice to what we we’re doing, and so far he’s handled it pretty well. He’s singing and playing guitar at the same time, and at first that made it even a little rougher, but he’s up to the challenge of keeping this thing going. I’m really happy with the results of the work he’s put into taking over the vocals.
McKinny: You’re internationally known as a black, conservative, Christian political pundit, working with PJTV online, and as a commentator on Fox News. How has that image served or hindered your ability to get your music heard by record labels, A&R people, radio stations or even just interviews and reviews? Has it been more of a boon or a bane for you and the band, and why?
Rachel: I couldn’t place any blame for that on any labels, because we haven’t sought one. We have not sought to sell the rights to the music or anything like that. We’re trying to operate as independently as possible. So I couldn’t say that we’ve been blacklisted in any way for our political stance or anything like that; it just wouldn’t be fair for me or anyone to put that kind of thing out there.
Now, I would say that it’s difficult … I’m speculating that it’s difficult for us to grow our audience, because we are in limbo, so to speak. On the one hand, with our music, it doesn’t really appeal to conservatives. I won’t say all, but many of them, so it’s really hard to find a niche in the conservative movement that really likes to rock, right?
McKinny: Would you attribute that to an age issue, with conservatives being, generally speaking, an older demographic of the population, or is it something else?
Rachel: No, no. Because even when we reach out to, say, the so-called Young Republicans, they ignore us. They won’t talk to us at all; we’re invisible to them. I don’t know what music they’re listening to, but it’s not us (laughs)! It’s sad — if I can just bunny trail here for a second — it’s sad, because I’m trying to tell them, “Look, you guys want this political representation, but you have to understand that it’s not stable, unless you have cultural representation! Where does the opposition get their power from? They get it from the culture, and you have not conditioned the culture to consent to their governance.”
They really need to wake up to that reality. Without changing the culture — through movies, music and art, we won’t change people’s minds. But, at the same time, look … I’m not the kind of person who says, “Hey, you have to enjoy something that you don’t.” At the same time, they have to know what to promote in this culture. I may not personally like some kinds of entertainment, but I know that if the messaging is good, well, you might want to support that. In terms of old or young, I guess it really doesn’t matter all that much.
As for it being a boon or bane for the band, I guess it’s been neither. In terms of an audience that we could have, I can’t see how it’s really hurt us, because like I said, part of the reason that we’re doing what we’re doing is to find a way to get our message to the people who wouldn’t normally hear it.
When you’re listening to music, if there are messages concerning social or political issues, they’ll have this collectivist foundation to them. That’s usually what people are being fed. And we thought, “Well, why don’t we use the medium that the left has been using for decades to influence people toward their world view?”
So we’re using pretty much the same vehicle to do it. When people hear our music, we’ve done showcases with other bands — death metal showcases — where people are out there with their “Hail Satan” stuff, and they’re covered in tattoos of pentagrams and what-not … And they’ve even come up to us after the show and said, “Hey man, I was listening to your guys’ lyrics. Are you guys like, Christian or something?” And I respond, “Yeah.” And they reply, “Wow, not bad! I wouldn’t have expected that from a Christian band, to rock so hard! You guys are really good!”
And that’s just what we’re doing. So I guess, even with our atypical message, we haven’t really received a lot of backlash. People haven’t been hating on us. A lot of the feedback we get is really positive.
McKinny: How do your personal political and religious beliefs influence the music you and your band create?
Rachel: Lyrically, it feels a lot healthier, because I’m not saying anything that I’m ever going to regret. This isn’t coming from my personal world view; it’s coming from the one who is the author of the truth. And he already showed that if there’s any blame to be taken, “I’ll take it. Any regrets that you have, I’ll take them. I took it upon this cross, you just go ahead and lay it on me, and you just repeat what it is that I’ve told you.” You can say it in your own words, but don’t get away from the core of my message.
Lyrically it’s like, wow, it’s a big release. It’s a freedom, you know? That’s what it feels like — it feels like freedom, and I love it.
In terms of the music, it’s doing the same thing with the music to compliment that feeling. I describe the music as feeling like freedom, and the grit it takes to keep that freedom, and it has the melody that’s sweet — like freedom (laughing)! You know what I mean? So with that combination of things — the freedom, the grit that it takes to keep it and the sweetness of that freedom — that’s what we try to blend into the music.
McKinny: You guys are a self-produced group, as is your album. Where do you record, and what kind of equipment did you use to record the album? Was it done digitally, recorded on analog equipment and then converted to digital?
Rachel: All of the above is honestly how we recorded it! I had an office space that I had rented out, and I was using that to practice my drums and we just set up one of those Zoom 16s to catch it in analog and then convert it to digital. And then we dumped that into ProTools to capture everything. Then from there, I kept the drums all isolated, and then I brought that into Garage Band, and we went ahead and laid down the guitars, went in direct with the bass, Eli (the original singer who departed) did the vocals, and that was pretty much it. We really didn’t rent any studio time or anything like that. We did it all pretty much by dumping it into the computer and mixing it from there.
McKinny: What drum equipment are you using, and why did you choose it?
Rachel: I got an endorsement from Pearl Drums a couple of years ago. I got the Pearl NCX Series kit. I was playing Pearl in high school in the drum line. After that, I switched over to Premier, I guess mainly because of their affordability, but they really do make a gorgeous kit — their finishes are stunning. So I was like, this looks good, sounds good, and I can afford it. So I grabbed those and played on those for a long time. As a matter of fact, I still have them!
But I got a call out of the blue from a friend of mine, who works at Pearl, and he had heard about my band, he liked the band, and he said, “I love your music, you guys have a lot of potential, and I really dig the videos that you do over at PJTV. I’d like to offer you an endorsement deal, and we’ll send you out a kit of your choice — just pick what you want.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?!” And it was somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so a really nice Christmas present came to my door! A brand new, top-of-the-line drum set, and I’m like “Wow! I guess I’m gonna play Pearl!” And it’s just beautiful. It’s a vintage red stain finish, and it sounds amazing, and it looks delicious!
As for cymbals, I like my Zildjian As. I’m really partial to those. I have an Earth Ride, and for my hi-hats — I don’t even know if they make these anymore, but I have a pair of Dyno-Beats that I just love. They’re really heavy, and they sound awesome. I use a DW-500 double pedal on my kick drum. The DW-9000 is out now, but maybe it’s just me being overly particular, but I like a kick pedal with a sprocket to support my playing, and the 9000 series uses a cam without a sprocket, even though it still employs a chain. I like the positive lock I get with the sprocket system, and for me with my double bass, I need all the help I can get — that means that I suck at it! I need that sprocket to keep the chain from slapping back and creating slack between it and the cam surface, so that’s why I really like the DW-5000 pedals. But seriously, I get more control out of the feel of the pedal, so I’m sticking with my DW-5000 pedals for now.
McKinny: Are there any plans in the near future for 20 lb. Sledge to tour, and if so, what information about a tour can you give us?
Rachel: We put together a budget, and our goal was $30,000 to do 10 cities, and we met our goal in about two months. So we had Jacksonville, Florida lined up and Chicago, but we had to postpone those shows, because I ended up getting called to do the Gosnell movie. They wanted to cast me in it, and they basically wouldn’t take no for an answer. They said, “Look, Zo. We really need you for this role. This is a big opportunity that’s going to go for a theatrical release,” and so forth.
So I thought that considering the message of the movie and that it would be good promotion for my band, I went ahead and signed on. But I had to sacrifice two of the shows we had booked. And of course, I hope that those people who booked us for those shows and those who wanted to come see us will give us the opportunity to do it another time, so we can make that up to them, because we definitely don’t intend to keep them hanging. But yeah, we also have New York booked, as well as Houston, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; Orange County, California. We’re still working on adding more gigs in more cities and hope to make a whole bunch of new fans out there when we get out on tour.