Trampled under foot (4 at a time)

Stomp-rockers the 4onthefloor are kicking into high gear and all over the map.

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All four members of 4onthefloor employ a bass drum in their live sets, along with a 4/4 time signature in all their songs.

Photo: Jules Ameel, Star Tribun

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They've played in an old ski chalet, a couple middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin bars, one place called the Ugly Mug and a cross-section of other venues in the past few weeks. The most unusual gig on the 4onthefloor's steam-building, hipster-eschewing schedule, however, had to be its set last Sunday for the Livestrong Foundation rally at the new Fulton Beer warehouse in Minneapolis.

As the snow started piling up outside, a couple hundred cyclists were lined up inside, pedaling hard on training stands to the live sounds of what can quite literally be called the Twin Cities' hardest- stomping band -- and now one of the hardest-working local rock acts, too.

"That was unreal," woolly bearded, howling-voiced frontman Gabriel Douglas said after the set, looking as sweaty as the cyclists. "I could see them all kind of cranking the pedals in time to what we were doing, kicking it up a notch whenever we kicked it up."

Bike or bar stool, it's hard not to move your feet in time when the 4onthefloor is playing.

The band's blistery, bluesy, boozy brand of good-ol'-boy rock is built around a rather simplistic but ingenious rhythmic formula: All four of its members have a kick drum at their feet that they hit while simultaneously playing their other instruments. What's more, every one of their songs are based on a 4/4 time signature. Hence all the "4's" in the band's lineage, which now includes the title of their just-issued debut album, "4 x 4."

Go ahead and call the 4onthefloor's rhythmic 4mula a gimmick, if you want, but you have to admit it's a good one. Talking between swigs from one of his band's four antique beer steins -- these guys come prepared! -- Douglas said their quartet of bass drums is not just a novelty.

"From the time we started writing songs together, we were always hitting our foot hard in time," he remembered. "It grew instinctually out of the music we were making, and now it fuels it all the more."

A 27-year-old farm boy from Stephen, Minn. ("north of Grand Forks, if you can believe it," he said), Douglas said he never envisioned moving to Minneapolis. He poured himself into football in high school and actually went to state championships in track. He also played VFW halls and the county fair with a local cover band. When he arrived at the University of Minnesota Duluth for school, he chose music as his major on something of a whim.

Duluth is where Gabriel bonded with the 4onthefloor's Minneapolis-reared guitarist, James Gould, over Led Zeppelin tunes. As Gould recalled it, "He's one of those guys, when I first saw him I thought, 'That guy is rock 'n' roll!' He's sort of has that natural frontman thing."

Gabriel also became a booker of UMD late-night events, which landed him a job after school at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. Somebody left behind a bass drum at the venue, and that's when the fun really started.

"If you had 'Kumar' written across your drum, then I owe you a big thanks," he quipped of the mystery drum.

After picking up bassist Chris Holm and drummer Mark Larson -- a rhythm section steeped in traditional blues, a music Douglas didn't really appreciate yet -- the full band was born last year and quickly finessed its 4/4-time concept.

The unusual format is not all that apparent at first listen, especially when the songs on "4 x 4" range in style from the metallic roarer "Lionhearted" to the jangly clap-along anthem "First on a List of Things I Don't Need" to a swinging cover of M. Ward's "Magic Trick." Upon further listening, though, it becomes apparent that the songs never really let up or devolve into any sort of arty-farty, jagged song structure. It's purely meat-and-potatoes rock, really well cooked.

"It's limiting in a way that really forces you to be more creative," Gould said of the format.

Said Douglas, "It's something that makes the live shows fun and gets people's attention. But now that our CD is out, people are appreciating the songs without having any idea about our little shtick. They don't hear four bass drums. They just hear the songs."

The Current (89.3 FM) has begun spinning the gritty, Nick Cave-gone-to-Tupelo rocker "Junkie," and clubs in other states (not just Wisconsin) are booking the quartet sight -- and kick-drums -- unseen. In time for its trip to next month's South by Southwest festival, the group bought an old school bus.

"A van can break down just as easily as a bus, but when the bus craps out at least I'll have more room to sleep in it," Douglas theorized, holding up his beer stein like it's something other local bands can learn from his band -- one of many things to be learned from these guys, I'd say.

Also, now there's more room on the road for those bulky drums.

Mic check

Fifteen years before P.O.S. became the Twin Cities' favorite skateboarding, punk-loving rapper, there was Mic Crenshaw, a pioneering activist whose clashes with racist skinheads led him to co-create the Anti-Racist Action youth organization -- and arguably lay the groundwork for today's racially intertwined and socially conscious Twin Cities hip-hop community.

"I would hang with my black friends on the North Side and then skateboard down to Uptown and the South Side to hang with my punk friends," remembered the real-life Michael Crenshaw, who now lives in Portland, Ore., but returns to perform Sunday at the Red Sea (9 p.m., $10). The show will feature a few other acts with old-school Minneapolis roots, including the Micranots' Kool Akiem and another activist, Mobonix, who's tied to MF Doom's crew.

Fresh off releasing his second solo album, "Under the Sun," Crenshaw half-joked that he left "the second-whitest city in America for the whitest" to get his rap career going, but he's proud of how far the scene has come in his absence. "I definitely think some of what's there grew out of seeds we planted 15-plus years ago," he said.

Random mix

While the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum both have new albums in the pipeline, Golden Smog will return in 2011, too -- at least for two shows. The all-star crew plays the Fine Line on April 15-16 (tickets on sale Friday 11 a.m.). Jeff Tweedy isn't expected, but Big Star's Jody Stephens will return on drums. ... In case you missed it, Trampled by Turtles were added to the lineup of Monday's benefit for Erik Koskinen at First Ave.

Thirty-plus local bands landed official showcases in next month's South by Southwest, and at least that many are expected to go to play the parties. Among them is Ben Weaver, who's playing the Bloodshot Records showcase, and Jeremy Messersmith, who's on for the Paste magazine party and bringing his strings. Both guys will also play Vita.mn's SXSW send-off bash at the Varsity on March 4 with Are You Local? contest finalists Pictures of Then, the Longshot and, yep, the 4onthefloor. ...

When Faggot band leader Jason Wade warns you a band is weird, take note: He said that about Taboo, a group that lives together in the woods in Maine, which he booked to play Nick and Eddie on Monday with New York black metal-band Mutilation Rites and local freakazoids including Moonstone Continuum (9 p.m., $5). ... Look for the much-welcome return of the Walker's Movies & Music series this summer. Tell me that doesn't sound heavenly.

After playing the Dakota Thursday -- the same night her fans were watching to see how she does on "American Idol" -- Sophia Shorai has another gig on the books for March 31 at Barbette. Here's hoping that's one show she has to cancel.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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    Wednesday February 23, 2011

    "First On A List Of Things I Don't Need," by the 4onthefloor, from the CD...

  • Audio: "Lionhearted" by The 4onthefloor

    Wednesday February 23, 2011

    "Lionhearted" by The 4onthefloor, from their CD 4X4

  • THE 4ONTHEFLOOR

    Friday: Turf Club with Rockford Mules and Kruddler (10 p.m., $5).

    Saturday: Quinlan's in Duluth with Old Knifey (9 p.m., $4).

    March 4: Vita.mn's Are You Local? showcase at the Varsity Theater, with Jeremy Messersmith, Phantom Tails and more (7 p.m., $8).

    Hear samples from "4 x 4" at startribune.com/music

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