Backstage Pass: Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad

By  Peter Lindblad

Still making stops all over America and the world, the Grand Funk Railroad, one of the biggest hard-rock bands of the ‘70s, just keeps on going.

Brewer1026.jpgOriginally a power trio from Michigan that included guitarist Mark Fahrner, drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher (formerly of ? And The Mysterians), the group, formed in 1968 from the ashes of Terry Knight & the Pack, scaled the charts with a muscular, R&B-powered sound that fueled hits like “We’re An American Band,” “Shinin’ On,” “Walk Like A Man,” “The Loco-Motion” and “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.”

One of the biggest-selling acts of the ‘70s, having sold more than 25 million records, Grand Funk Railroad was so big the band broke The Beatles’ attendance record at Shea Stadium in 1971. Tickets for the show were gone in a mere 72 hours.

Farner is no longer with the band, but Brewer and Schacher are carrying on with a new Grand Funk Railroad that includes fromer .38 Special vocalist Max Carl (who wrote .38 Special’s “Second Chance”), former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick and keyboardist Tim Cashion, who has played with Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band and Robert Palmer.

Brewer took time out to talk to Goldmine about the band’s glorious past.

How has the current tour been going for you guys?

Don Brewer: Oh, it’s been real good. We played quite a few big festivals this summer and everything’s been real good. We’re looking forward to playing a fair in Bremerton, right outside of Seattle.

GM: How is touring different nowadays?

DB: Well, there are a lot of different aspects to look at. I mean, in the ’70s — I hate to use the term, but it’s true — we were the new kids on the block. 1969, 1970 and we just got to a huge plateau, you know? We’re playing Shea Stadium, and then, we moved on from that and got into more of the hit singles thing. The tour … we used to do 40 shows twice a year — we did two tours and two albums a year.

That’s what our contract called for. So, from 1969 to 1976, it was nonstop work, work, work — plus, when we toured, we had the trucks, and we had our own airplane, and all that stuff. Now, what we do is, we only do 30 or 40 shows a year, and they’re spread out over the whole year, and we just fly into all of these places that we play, and the backline company brings our gear. We use local sound and lights, because the sound and lights are state of the art everywhere across the country now. So, it’s a lot easier doing it the way we do it now, and [there’s] a lot less stress and so forth.

GM: Does that relatively comfortable traveling schedule help your performances?

DB: Yeah, I just think we get up there and have a good time, you know? We don’t take anything too seriously. If something’s not working perfectly that night, we’re used to it. We just kind of run with it … the important thing is the audience has a good time, and that’s what we focus on.

The road is where Grand Funk made its name. It was a real grass roots movement. In the early days, when did you notice this heavy touring schedule was starting to pay off?

DB: We got on the road and played a lot of places down in the South. The first big break we had was the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969, and that got us a lot of word-of-mouth stuff, so we started playing around all over the South.

And on the way to playing places, we would find out about an FM station that was located out in the middle of nowhere, and, of course, they were playing whatever they wanted to play back then, and you know, you could pull in the driveway and drive up and knock on the door and say, “Hey, it’s Grand Funk Railroad, are you gonna play our album?” And they would.

So, yeah, it made sense how you could build a following, playing a lot of small towns, hitting up the radio stations and talking to the jocks, and getting them to play your record.

GM: Do you think it’s harder for bands these days to generate an audience that way? They seem to be lost as far as how to build a following?

DB: Yeah, I think it’s very difficult, The market is so segmented. I think the public, the general public, is very picky about what they want to hear, and they only want to hear this from that group or this from that group, and really, they don’t even pay attention to who the groups are anymore. It’s just a song, and then they hear the song for a while, and then it’s gone. So, I don’t know. It’s a whole different world. I wouldn’t want to be trying to come up in this world now. It’s a whole different world out there.

GM: Talk about the writing of “We’re An American Band.” How did the song develop?

We were going through a big transition at that point, you know. Number one, FM radio had changed from being underground to commercial, so we knew we had to go in a commercial direction if we were going to be on radio. We had always been produced by one guy, Terry Knight, our former manager and producer, and we had a big falling out with him, and he started suing everybody … Every place we were playing, it got into this whole mess, you know, and so we finally got the rights to continue to go on and we produced an album called Phoenix by ourselves.

We just went into a studio in Nashville and did it by ourselves, and we started to make this transition, but it wasn’t complete at that point, you know? We knew we had to go further. We knew we had to enlist another producer, so we looked for Todd Rundgren. We looked for Frank Zappa at that point. We looked at different people, and we finally came up with Todd [and thought he] would be the best guy. We felt he had a really good idea of how to make a sound that would get on the radio right now.

While we were touring with this Phoenix record, you know we’re coming into town, we’re getting off the airplane, we get into the car, we drive to the hotel, and the thought came to my mind, “We’re comin’ to your town, we’ll help you party it down,” you know? I mean, that’s what I thought. That’s what I looked at us as doing.
Our manager at the time kept saying, “You know, guys, you just write songs about what you do. Look at what you’re doing. You’re going all over the country … write songs about what you do.” So, okay, I started going, “Well, up all night with Freddie King/I gotta tell you poker’s his thing,” you know?

So, that where that idea came from, and “Sweet, sweet Connie” … you know, in Little Rock, and the “Four young chaquitas in Omaha” … I just took little snippets of things that were going on, and, of course, I needed a tag for the song, and what came to my head was, “We’re an American band.” I mean, that’s what we are, and the song developed out of that.

I started working on it on my guitar in my apartment in Flint, Michigan, and I don’t know a lot of chords on the guitar. I just knew a little two-finger thing so I could show everybody what I was talking about, and I came up with this progression and this arrangement and how I wanted to present this song, and I presented it to the band, and we started jamming it and working on it, and it just kind of turned into what it is. When we got into the studio in Miami, Criteria, we’re jamming on the thing and working on it, Todd kept telling us, “Just settle down, just settle down, just play it straight. Don’t try to make it too fast or too energetic, just get it what it is.”

God, by the time the thing was done, it just took on a whole character of its own. I’d go in and listen to it, and I wasn’t sure … this was like a big thing for me. I wasn’t sure, you know, if I liked it. But everybody was loving on the song and I was, “Are you sure you guys really like this?” Even today, when I hear it on the radio, it just sounds like a hit record, you know? It sounds like what I would want a hit record to sound like. It has some sort of magic about it, and [we] got a hit, and it’s great.

But you weren’t sure right away about it?

DB: No, ’cause I was, you know, I was … I had co-written a few things prior to that with Mark on a few albums and stuff, and it was when we were getting into this whole new philosophy of, “We’ve got to have hit records,” [that] I started throwing my hat into the ring, you know? I said, “This is what I think. This is what I think a commercial song should be like,” and I started coming up with these ideas, so I was a little unsure of myself when I started throwing ’em out. Of course, when the album went gold, that kind of changed my mind. It was kind of a big step for me to step up to the plate like that and say, “I can play hardball,” and I started throwing out the pitches and “wow.”

But weren’t drummers back then always supposed to stay in the background?

Yeah, but I was a singing drummer. I’d always been involved as a singer in any band [I was in] right back to the first band, The Red Devils. I used to stand up and sing and play drums at the same time. Even when we were doing Beatles covers and Chuck Berry and stuff, I was still the guy that was singing, so it always came naturally to me to be a singer and play drums. I never had to work on that. So, yeah, I was always a singing drummer.

What do you remember most about working with Todd Rundgren, and how he helped the band as a producer?

Well, Todd was really … you know, some of the guys didn’t like [how he worked]. He was really kind of removed. He’d just kind of sit there, and we’d be out there in the studio hammering away on something, and he’d be sitting in the control room with his feet up on the console reading a book, you know (laughs).

And we’d finish a take, and we’d go, “Well, you know, what did you think?” And he’d go, “Yeah, that was okay” (laughs). But that’s Todd. I love the way he just has a whole system of turning knobs and making things sound the way Todd Rundgren wanted things to sound. And he doesn’t record things to tape, you know. He records things with EQ, with effects, and that’s what you hear in the headphones, and that’s what goes to tape.

It’s a different kind of thing from the old-school recording where you gotta record everything flat and then do all the enhancements later. What that created to me for the band was, you were hearing what it was going to sound like so you were playing to that sound, and it gave you kind of the freedom to expand and go, “God, I can do this, and it sounds great. I don’t have to hold back and be careful.”

GM: Did that come from his background as a musician? It seems like a real change from how producers used to work?
DB: Yeah, I mean, before that, producers and engineers — for us anyways — were very old school, and you go in and you can only do it this way, and they were kind of limited with what they could deal with rock wise. We always liked to crank things up and play with abandon on stage, and then when you’d go into a studio and the engineer and producer would [say] “No, you can’t do that in here, [you] can’t play like that in here. You’ve got to get it on tape or it’s going to be too much,” and Todd, yeah, he didn’t care, and I think that comes from him being a rock musician, as well as he produced his own records. He played all his stuff on his own records, so he’d experimented with all this stuff, and he kind of threw all those old-fashioned ideas out the window. He said, you know, “You can do it this way. You can do anything you want to.” And it’ll still get on tape, and it’ll even sound better, so I think he was one of the new guys in letting that thing happen.

GM: Why did you remake “The Loco-Motion,” and what did you do to it to make it a Grand Funk song?

DB: Well, we were working on all the ideas we’d come up with for the second album. After “We’re An American Band,” the second album we did with Todd was called Shinin’ On, and we had the song “Shinin’ On” and the rest of the album was completed, pretty much done. And we were kind of thinking, “We don’t have that real big follow-up hit single to ‘We’re An American Band’ and ‘Walk Like A Man,’” the big single off of that album.

 We were practicing and rehearsing and recording at our own studio, which was across the street from … Mark Farner had a farm, right across the street on the other side of the road, and we all, at dinner breaks and stuff, we’d all go down to McDonald’s and get food, or whatever, and Mark would go home, you know?

He’d have dinner at home, and stuff, and we all got back after a break one day, and Mark just walked into the studio nonchalantly singing, “Everybody’s doing a brand new dance now,” and we’re all jawing and singing this chorus, saying, “Yeah, this is fun,” and Mark was just, “Yeah, let’s do that! It’ll be Grand Funk Railroad doing the ‘Loco-Motion’ you know?

It was stupid, you know. It was really, really stupid, [but] “Uh, okay, let’s try it.” And so we went out … we actually called New York, called our manager and said we’ve got to have the lyrics. Get us all the lyrics to Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion,” and he got the lyrics and he read ‘em to us, and we took ‘em down, and we went out in the studio and started screwing around with ideas on how to make it a Grand Funk thing. And we started hammering out these rock-feeling “Loco-Motion” deals.

Todd just put all of his … he like threw in the bathroom sink on his production on that, you know? “Let’s just do it this way.” It kind of was like a cross between … God, I don’t know, “Barbara Ann?”

 Where they have a party going on, and that’s kind of what was being created with us in the studio. Let’s make it sound like a big party going on, with big drums, big chords, big this, you know”
And Todd was screwing around with the Echoplex on the guitar on that and just totally screwed up the guitar lead on that with Echoplex stuff, and it was totally effected out, but it sounded like a huge party. I just think it kind of worked, you know? Obviously, it worked, you know, so everybody kind of recognizes us more with that song that anybody else (laughs).

GM: When you started out forming the band with Mark Farner, what aspirations did you have? Did you dream of it getting as big as it did?

DB: When we played Shea Stadium, and we’re flying over Shea Stadium in a helicopter and they’ve got Mark, Don and Mel, and the place is sold out, and Humble Pie is opening up … no, I never dreamed it was going to be like that. I mean, we always wanted to have success. When we came up, my band the Jazz Masters eventually became the Pack and Terry Knight and The Pack. We had a lot regional success, and we got on “Where The Action Is” with “I Who Have Nothing.”

That was the kind of success I envisioned, you know, just breakout success, and you build from that, do that thing and then another … When we formed Grand Funk, we were really kind of going after this new hippie thing that was coming out of the late 60s and also the trio stuff — you know, Hendrix, Blue Cheer and Cream were all doing this blues rock thing — and so, we took what we were doing with the Pack, and we changed the name to Grand Funk, and we cut it down to a trio, and we got Mel involved, and we took this R&B formula that we had — ’cause we’re out of Michigan and we loved R&B — and we said, “Let’s just crank it up to the max and just play with random abandon like a trio and just crank it up and go with it,” and that’s what really took off. It made us unique, and it really kind of reached a different segment of people with the R&B flavor of everything.

Mark’s voice was terrific with for all the R&B stuff, you know, and his guitar playing, as far as his rhythm stuff, you know, he’d come up with these rhythm grooves on that old guitar, that old Messenger guitar he had … God it was so funky, it was great, so it was just … we just kind of ran with that, and then playing the hippie pop festivals and the hippie ballrooms, where there was more pot involved than there was music, and that’s the scene we were into, and we never really thought that it was going to go to a world-wide phenomenon. It was Shea Stadium, Tokyo Stadium, and playing all over the world, we didn’t envision that, and it caught us by surprise.

GM: You guys didn’t succumb to some of the pressures some of success other bands did. Why?

Well, we were from Flint, Michigan, small town boys, and we didn’t move off to New York or Los Angeles, you know, and we saw a lot … just traveling on the plane and everything you saw a lot of the stuff that was going on, and a lot of the bands were immediately getting into heavy drugs, and … yeah, we messed around a little bit with it, but we just thought that was not the way to go, and thank God we did. We kept our sanity and kind of stayed away from that whole scene.

GM: You’re roots are in Michigan. What is it about Michigan that breeds independent-minded, hard-edged, blue-collar rock acts?

DB: Well, you know, I think there’s been a lot of theories about the whole Michigan music thing and that it came from the auto industry, where all of the people from the South moved up to Detroit and the surrounding areas to get jobs in the factories. They were rural people from the South, whether they were black or white, and they brought their music loves and interests with them.

I really think that’s where the Motown thing came from [in that] a lot of that stuff is the blacks from the South moving up there, and they created a new little kind of niche, off of jazz and blues and rock, and this is what this is, and then the white guys, the same thing. They had this R&B, love of black music, and they came from the South and they migrated to Michigan because of the auto industry.

I really think that … plus, the whole auto-industry atmosphere back in that time period, the 60s, 70s, it was a hard-edged, blue-collar thing, you know, a lot of families coming up were blue-collar, hard-working kind of people, and it just had a hard edge to it, so the people had a hard edge, you know, and I think that’s why the music is like that.

GM: Do you see yourselves as the ultimate blue-collar band?

DB: (laughs) I don’t know. When Homer Simpson quotes us as being one of his favorite bands, I guess we are. I guess we are a blue-collar, American band. I mean it gets kids knowing about Grand Funk Railroad, so there you go.

What did you think when you heard about that “Simpsons” episode?

DB: Oh, I thought it was great. I mean, they faxed it over to me as they wanted to cue “Shinin’ On” as the song, which I co-wrote and I had the publishing on it. And they faxed the script over to me to get approval, and I read it, and I went, “My God, he’s going to actually talk about Grand Funk Railroad, and he’s going to mention each guy by name.” I was like, “This is incredible.” What better stamp of approval could a band have (laughs)?

GM: It opens the doors to a whole new audience.

Oh, it keeps the name out there, you know, with a new generation of people. You know, the one thing, the name does have something to it. It used to be very, almost risque back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, to say Grand Funk Railroad. “What, what did you say?” They thought you were saying “F**k, you know?” And now, it’s not risque at all, but kids that hear the name, even if they’ve never heard of it, you know.

You say, “Oh, what band is it?” “Oh, it’s Grand Funk Railroad.” “Oh, I’ve never heard of it.” I had one guy tell me when he said, ‘What’s the name of your band?” and I said, “Grand Funk,” he said, “Nope, never heard of it, but that’s a cool name.” (laughs)

GM: It sticks with people.

DB: Yeah, it’s got a little something to it.

Talk about how “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home” came together.

It was Mark’s song. He came in with the first part of the song, the “I’m Your Captain” part, da na-na-na-na, “Everybody, listen to me … “ you know? He had that thing down, and the way we used to rehearse was at the Flint Local 542 or 942, or something, and we used to rehearse in there in their place, and we were the only band they’d let rehearse there because we’d always clean up afterwards (laughs).

Yeah, they wouldn’t let anyone else rehearse there, but they’d let us [in] there, and we’d go in, and the way we worked on all those albums when we were a trio was just jam. Somebody would have an idea — Mark would have an idea with the guitar, or lyric or something — and we’d just jam and see where it could go. And we got to have a bridge, we got to have a chorus, we got to have an idea for this, but we had that part of the song together, as far as the “I’m Your Captain … “ part.

We got up to this bridge part, and we got to the ending, and we just never really knew where to go with the ending. Well, back at that time, there were bands [like] the Moody Blues [who] were working with orchestras, and it was kind of a new thing for rock to hook up with orchestras. So we talked with Terry, our manager and our producer, [and said], “What if we got somebody to write some stuff for the end of this thing, and we’ll just … you know, if we go into this part, this long part at the end, we can orchestrate it.

So, we got this guy Tommy Baker out of Cleveland to come up with some stuff, and we fell into this jam one day where it was like this halftime thing, you know? We come out of the end of “I’m Your Captain … “ and we went into the back half, “du doo doo doo don, don” and we said, “That’s cool. Let’s go with that.”

So, we jammed that a little bit, spent some time on that, went double time on that.
So, we took all these ideas we had, and we formulated the ending to the song, and when we went into the studio, we just played it and played it, and we didn’t know what was going to go on it later. We thought the orcchestra was going to be on it, and we just jammed these long, long, long endings with the thought that something’s going to go on it. And we finished the whole thing in Cleveland, and got it done, and then Terry brought in Tommy Baker and got in the Cleveland Philharmonic and they worked on the ending to the song.
And when we heard it, it was just like, “Oh my God, it was magnificent.” So, I think Mark’s inspiration for the song is religious, based on  …. I’m not exactly sure where he was going with it. But he told me he woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for it.

GM: It really strikes a chord with people in general, being lost.

DB: I think it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about God … but whatever it is, it’s spiritual.

GM: Have you ever had a song you thought had hit written all over it that never made it?

DB: (laughs) Oh God, yeah, you know, you beat yourself up with those things, where you think, “God, this is going to work. This is great. Yeah, let’s get into that, you know?” And then when it doesn’t make it, you listen to it later, and you say, “Well, okay, I see.” (laughs) I can get it. I can see why. So, yeah, there’s been some of those songs, but you know, at the same time, there are things that make it, and you say, “Well, you know, that’s not such a great song.” But it made it anyway.

GM: You have such a distinctive sound, a muscular sound, that identifies with the blue-collar ethic of Flint. Does that come from the R&B influence and your upbringing?

DB: It’s definitely the R&B thing, but then it’s the rock thing. It’s like throwing everything into it. Every band I’ve ever been in, that’s how I feel. I always want to push the envelope. I want the band to push, and I want to push, and I don’t want to go out and just play.

I don’t have that in me, and I don’t think that the people that are in the bands that I’m in are necessarily like that either, so it’s a forceful thing, you know? When you hit that stage and you feel that adrenaline pumping, and you got the audience there, and you want the audience to come with you, it’s always kind of been the way we are. I’m not sure where it comes from. It just seems to be there most of the time. It’s just that energy. There’s an energy that is there, and you want it to come out, and you want to excite people.

GM: Talk about the current lineup.

DB: Well, we started putting this thing together in 2000. It really wasn’t “let’s go out and audition a bunch of musicians and let’s see who we can find.” It just kind of came about. I was working with Peavy drums. I was doing a clinic for them. And the guy that developed the Peavy drum stuff kept telling me about a guy named Max Carl, and he said, “You guys ought to hook up. You have the same energy.”

So I got Max’s phone number, I called him and we talked a few times, and I realized that … Mark had left the band in 1998, this is a couple years later — Max would be the perfect front guy for Grand Funk, so I asked him one day. I said, “Would you be interested in singing lead for Grand Funk?” And he said, “Yeah, man. That’d be cool.” So, we got together with Mel, and starting working on stuff with a couple of his songs and a couple of our songs, you know, and just throwing ideas around, and man, it just sounded great. So, we said … and Max is not a guitar player, per se. He can play guitar, but he’s not a guitar player, especially back at that point. He worked on it, so we needed a guitar player.

So, I had hooked up with Bruce Kulick in the ’80s. I was playing with Bob Seger, and he was playing with Michael Bolton, and Michael Bolton was opening up, and Bruce and I just hit it off, and Bruce is just a terrific player. So I looked around for Bruce on the Internet and found him and sent him an e-mail and said, “Bruce, I haven’t talked to you in a long time, but we’re working on a project, would you be interested?” and of course, he said, “Yeah, I’m right in between stuff.” Flew him out, and he’s just a tremendous player, a great player. In ’96, flew him in, that’s how quick came together. And I said, “Well, let’s try this, let’s try one show.”

And I knew the folks at KGR in West Palm Beach, a radio station down there, and they were doing a radio show down in West Palm Beach, and they said, you know, ‘Do you want to play this thing?” And we said, “Sure. It’d be great for us to try it out.” So, we flew everybody down and got up on stage and it was just “Wow.” It was a magical moment, just like “wow, this is great.” So, it was “let’s book, let’s go,” and we just kind of took off with it.

GM: What’s next for Grand Funk Railroad? Any chance of a new album?

DB: Oh, we’re not in a big rush. We do four new things in the show. We’ve got these four songs that we do, and sometimes they’re in, sometimes they’re out, and we rotate ‘em. We talked about doing a new CD, but we’ve never gotten around to it with the disconnect with radio and all that stuff.

We just focus on playing live, and having a good time, and maybe a DVD will come up, and we’ll get our new stuff on there. We really just focus on being live and having a good time with that. I suppose we could get into that, [but in] kind of looking for where everything is going with the music business, [I’m] not sure (laughs).

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One thought on “Backstage Pass: Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad

  1. please get back together with Mark…your band sounds good, but nothing sounds as good as when you were with him. The fans would love to see you one last time. Put your differences aside & do one more show! PLEASE!!!

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