48 Years of Grand Funk Railroad: An Interview With Founder/Singer/Drummer Don Brewer

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“We’re An American Band.” “Some Kind Of Wonderful.” “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.” For Grand Funk Railroad, the hits kept rolling in the seventies as they packed arenas for supercharged live shows. Mark Farner, Don Brewer and Mel Schacher took longhaired rock, fused it with their love of R&B and high-tailed their Flint, Michigan, band down to an Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969 and cemented their fate.

The trio’s first album, On Time, was released in August of 1969 and was followed in December by what is commonly known as “The Red Album,” Grand Funk. 1970’s Closer To Home gave the band a hit with “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home,” but it was 1973’s We’re An American Band which exploded and sent the band into superstar status. Produced by Todd Rundgren and with a catchy hard rocking title track written by drummer Don Brewer, it would remain a staple of FM radio for years and current Classic Rock playlists of today. The band had hit upon something that listeners loved but it actually came about out of necessity for survival, as Brewer explained to Glide during an interview a few weeks ago.

Brewer, the once afro’d, now silver fox drummer, started his first band at the same time puberty was hitting in 1960. The Beatles hadn’t hit yet but Elvis and Motown were still strong currents on the musical scenes. Within four years, Brewer joined up with Terry Knight’s band and a few years later met guitarist Farner when he also joined the band. It would be a fateful meeting as the two split off from Knight’s band to form Grand Funk Railroad, although Knight would come onboard as their manager, a deal which would culminate into a frustrating lawsuit.

Despite all the hullabaloo, sold out concerts and hit records, the band broke up in 1977, an actual great year for music as artists like Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, the Ramones and Rod Stewart released some of their best albums that year. Farner went solo while Brewer and Schacher reformed as Flint. In the early eighties they came back together for two albums before going their separate ways once again. In 1997, they played the Bosnian benefit concerts and a few years later Brewer and Schacher, along with Max Carl, Tim Cashion and former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick, took Grand Funk back out on the road, where they are still selling out shows. “We have fun up there and we make sure everybody enjoys the set and what we’re doing,” Kulick told me during a 2015 interview for Glide. “The band is excellent.” And he considers Brewer, “One of the best drummers in rock & roll. That’s a fact.”

Brewer spoke with us following Hurricane Irma’s impact across Florida, where he now resides, about the good old days of Grand Funk and the exciting times the band is still having.

How are things there in your part of Florida?

Well, we didn’t actually experience much damage, just a lot of landscape and tree branches and that kind of stuff. We were pretty lucky considering everything. It went to the other side of the state but it was still bad. We were here during the storm. It was a Category 2, for sure, and it wasn’t fun to be through.

So what can you tell us about what it’s like being in Grand Funk Railroad in 2017?

You know, I am very fortunate. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I started my first band when I was twelve years old and that band led to another band and that band became Grand Funk Railroad and here I am. I’m coming up on seventy years old and still going so it’s pretty amazing.

Does the band still get out there and kick ass every night?

Oh we do! We do a high energy rock & roll show and most of the stuff is the hits that folks want to hear from Grand Funk, be it “Rock & Roll Soul,” “Footstompin’ Music,” “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful, “The Locomotion,” “We’re An American Band.” We give them a high energy Grand Funk show. That’s what it’s all about.

Do you get a chance to pull some of those deeper cuts off the early records to play?

Every once in a while. Actually, we added a song that we haven’t done in years this past week and we’re working on another one, “Heartbreaker.” We haven’t done that one in years. That’s one that doesn’t get a lot of airplay but Grand Funk fans know it. So we’re probably going to work that into the show next week. “Inside Looking Out” is one that you would call a deep cut but it certainly is one that the Grand Funk fans know and it’s really kind of a standard for a Grand Funk show.

Why haven’t you been doing “Heartbreaker”?

Well, over the years we have worked different things into the show and worked certain things out and you just give it a break for a while and then work it back in and it always sounds fresh that way. It just kind of works well to not do exactly the same thing all the time (laughs). We know the fans want to hear “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home” and “We’re An American Band” and “Locomotion” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and those are always going to be there. So the other things we can play around with a little bit.

What was happening in the local music scene when Grand Funk was first getting started and how different were you from all that?

You know, we were kind of an R&B band back in the late sixties. We did our little bout with pop music and stuff but we always favored R&B. When Jimi Hendrix came on the scene and Cream and Blue Cheer and all of these three-piece power rock bands, they came on and they were doing blues but they were pumping it up on steroids. So when we put Grand Funk together, we took our R&B format and we kind of pumped that up on steroids and turned that into Grand Funk Railroad. And I think that’s what really sets us apart from many, many other bands, this R&B influence that we have with our music. We grew up listening to Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and all of the Motown stuff and that’s where our true hearts lie. And we just pumped it up on steroids and did it as a power trio at first. I think that’s why we really took off in the South. That’s where we broke, was out of the South, the Atlanta Pop Festival and the Texas Pop Festival back in 1969. Those were the places that everybody noticed Grand Funk.

But yeah, we were playing all over the state. We were kind of the red-headed stepchild out of all of the Detroit bands, be it Ted Nugent and the MC5 and all of these bands were kind of Detroit bands. And we were out there being this Flint band and everybody kind of looked at us kind of, “Oh, that’s that band from Flint.” You know, we couldn’t make it in our hometown. We had to go out of the state and, like I said, we broke in the South and we came back to Michigan a couple of years later and all of a sudden everybody was so excited about a Michigan band that made it big. But we couldn’t make it in Michigan! That’s what was going on with us back then. We were that band from Flint, not from Detroit, so everybody kind of looked down their nose at us. Then we made it big and all of a sudden everybody wanted to claim us. We never said we were from Detroit and everybody was trying to claim us as a Detroit band and we said, “No, no, we’re from Flint.” (laughs)

When you guys started this band, it was 1968/1969 and there was all this turmoil going on with Vietnam and the assassinations and the protests. What was going through your mind at that time?

To watch it going on, it was a very tumultuous time and people were writing songs about all of the stuff that was going on and there really was a movement, you know. The hippie movement was anti-war and they didn’t like sending kids to Vietnam to die so there were all these protest marches going on and the riots in Chicago. I mean, one thing led to another and there was really a lot of turmoil then. But I think a lot of great music came out of it and that whole generation united against a common cause. I’m amazed today to see what happened to that generation. They grew up and grew old and they weren’t hippies anymore and they didn’t follow those same kind of very honest sort of pursuits, you know, with loving each other and all that. It just kind of went away and it was kind of sad to see it go away. It was sad to see the music become so commercial.

I miss that time period, really. I think it was a great time period. It was when FM underground radio was very big and the jocks could go in and they could bring all of their albums that they had at home and they could play anything they wanted to. There was nobody telling them what to play. They could play anything. So you were turned onto a lot of really unusual music. Then when it all changed in 1972, all the artists had to create hit records and so it became the two minute, the three minute, pop songs. It was kind of sad to see it.

In regards to your first album, On Time, how long did it take you to actually record that record and were all the songs a staple of your live set at the time?

They certainly were what we were feeling at the time and it didn’t take us long. You know, we didn’t have the budget back then to record, to take a year or two to record an album. That’s what came about later. We used to do two tours and two albums per year. That was in our contract with Capitol that we had to do two tours and two albums per year. So we would go into our rehearsal studio – you couldn’t spend a lot of money in the studio either – so we would rehearse everything very well before we went into the studio and we’d record those albums in two days. We’d do all the basic tracks one day, all the overdubs the next day, spend a half a day on a mix and the album was done, mistakes and all. It didn’t matter. You put it out the way it was and I think that created, to me, a lot of really honest rock music. It was about the song, it was about the performance and the recording came third. All you wanted to do was to get it on tape. It really didn’t matter if it wasn’t the perfect sound. That’s what recording all became about, making the perfect recording, so I think they overlook the two key things, which is the song and the performance. I think that’s what was created on all those albums back then in the early days. It was very honest rock & roll.

Your first co-write was on the second album, the red album, with a song called “Please Don’t Worry.” How did that song come about? You co-wrote that with Mark Farner.

Yep, you know, we kind of always had a thing in the band that the guy that wrote the song, or at least wrote the lyrics and the melody line, should probably sing the song. He’s going to have a better feel for it. So if Mark would come up with a guitar riff that I thought was interesting, I would just say to Mark, “Hey, could I take that home and write some lyrics for it? I’ve got an idea for a melody.” So we’d put it together and then we’d go back in the studio the next day to rehearse and just jam and work on it for a while. That’s the way we put all those songs together. He’d have an idea and he’d come in and play the basic chord changes and what he thought would be the lyric change, and then Mel and I would come up with a bass part and a drum part and we’d put it together and we’d jam on it until we figured, well, we need to put a bridge in here, so we’d write a bridge on the spot and put the bridge in. We’d say, well, we need to do a couple of choruses on the way out, so we’d orchestrate the choruses and work them out on the way out. That’s really the way we worked back then.

You didn’t mind that it took till the seventh album before you started having equal time on lead vocals and songwriting?

I wasn’t really a prolific songwriter at that point. I started putting my 2 cents in when, as I told you before, the FM radio changed from being underground, which Mark was very good at writing songs, whether they be seven minutes long or five minutes long or whatever it was. He was very good with that kind of stuff. But when radio changed, we needed to make that change to three minute hit singles. So I started contributing my 2 cents as far as, “Hey, this is what I think.” It’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-out. That’s a hit song (laughs). I mean, you listen to all these songs, that’s what they were. So I started writing with that kind of attitude in mind, because number one we were being sued by our former manager. We were broke, the former manager had stolen all our money. And FM radio was no longer our friend. It was kind of like a new challenge. So yeah, that’s when I started writing and contributing to it. I got lucky. I came up with “We’re An American Band” and “Walk Like A Man” and I started co-writing some other stuff with Mark with that hit formula kind of thing in mind and we made that transition. It was sink or swim, and if we hadn’t made that transition we wouldn’t have had those hit records – “Locomotion,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “We’re An American Band” – they never would have happened.

That’s not just luck that’s talent

It’s partially talent and it’s partially smarts. A lot of people back then would have called it selling out but to us it wasn’t selling out, it was survival. It was either that or we were going to be gone (laughs). And not only gone, we’d be broke and gone!

How much did having Todd Rundgren behind the glass help with that record being a hit?

That’s why we hired Todd. We did one album in this transition period, 1972, on our own without Terry Knight, who was our former manager/producer, and then FM radio changed and we had to follow that. We did one record without anybody. We did it by ourselves and it’s called Phoenix. It was our first attempt really at producing by ourselves and after that we realized, we need somebody to help make this transition. So we looked around and we listened to records and we said, you know, this guy Todd Rundgren seems to have a pretty good thing for knowing what appeals to FM radio now. So we hired Todd. That’s why we got him. And he did a great job. I think he was very instrumental in making us sound that new sound, that pop rock sound, and it was just huge on the radio. It sounded huge on the radio back then.

For “We’re An American Band,” you’ve said that the song came out of a lyric first but where did the melody come from? How did you come up with that?

I had a basic idea for the verses –“Out on the road for forty days” and “Four young chiquitas in Omaha.” I was writing about things that were going on on the road and I had all these things in my head. And one night I was just practicing it in my apartment in Flint, Michigan, and I was going along with the chord changes and “We’re an American band” came into my head. As I’ve said before, the first lyric I had for that song was, “We’re coming to your town, we’ll help you party it down.” We were flying into all of these towns all over the South, all over the Midwest, we were being sued for millions of dollars by our former manager and we’re flying into town and I’m going, what is this band doing? We’re coming to your town and you’re going to come to a party. So I wrote a song about that, about the four young chiquitas in Omaha and Sweet Connie in Little Rock and put all these things together, up all night playing poker with Freddie King, you know. Finally, that lyric and that melody just came to me and I started singing it along with the chord changes and it was perfect. It was just a perfect fit.

Were you on an acoustic or electric guitar?

Acoustic. I had a little Martin six-string acoustic guitar and I played these little two-finger chords, kind of like two or three-finger chords. I could get my idea across to a guitar player or a piano player, like, here’s the chord changes. Then I would say, that’s the way I hear the chords but they need to be big power chords, big, huge power chords. That’s where it came from.

Of all the songs in Grand Funk’s catalog, which one do you think should have gotten more attention than it did?

Oh I think there are several songs that should have gotten a lot of attention. We actually did one of the songs in our Bosnia show that we did back in 1997/1998. It’s called “To Get Back In.” It was kind of a great R&B take on things. I thought that was a great song. “Tomorrow Comes Creepin’ In” [“Creepin’”], I think that was a great song on We’re An American Band. “Black Licorice” is another great song that kind of got overlooked, a great rock & roll song. “The Railroad” is another one I think is a great song. There’ve been quite a few.

What song in your catalog was the hardest to finish, to get right?

I think there were several. As we progressed in the seventies and disco music started coming in, we were struggling in the studio to come up with stuff. Born To Die [1976] was a very tough album to finish because I think that we felt that the band was breaking up during that time, so it was very difficult. I always judged albums on how good they were by how quickly we could record them. If we could record the takes in maybe five takes, or you’d do a couple of run-throughs and by the time you get to the third or fourth one, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. As we got into those later albums, we were doing thirty and forty and fifty takes on a song. It takes all the life out of it, it takes all the fun out of it and it gets mechanical and I think it shows up.

On that first live album [1970], is there a song on there you wish had not gone on there, for whatever reason?

On the first live album? No. The first live album was real live. There were no overdubs on that at all. That was the real deal live album. It was like playing in some big arena, they had a tin roof and a dirt floor and bleachers and the sound was just horrendous but it was loud and it was filled with pot. Everybody was just absolutely stoned out of their minds, you know, and that’s what really that album was recorded like and that’s what it sounds like. It sounds like a huge arena rock album.

And they don’t do that anymore. Every live album has non-live stuff mixed in.

Oh it’s disgusting. They shouldn’t be able to call it live if it’s been totally redone in the studio, and they are now. But yeah, that first live album was a real live album.

You mentioned earlier about playing the Atlanta Pop Festival. That must have been a big deal for Grand Funk.

We got that gig, 1969, I think it was, and we got that gig as a favor. We didn’t get paid for it, nobody had ever heard of Grand Funk Railroad. Our agent at the time up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had a friend that was working the festival and he told him, “Hey, if you can get your band down here, we’ll put them on on opening day, the opening act of the pop festival.” So we rented a van, rented a trailer and took our stuff down to Georgia and got there and we’d never played in front of a crowd like that. It was so hot, it was just like screaming hot. They were hosing everybody down with the firetrucks. And like I said, we were the first act on opening day so we were on in the middle of the day and we walk out on stage in front of, I guess, 30,000 people, whatever it was, and we get a standing ovation at the end of the show. We’d never seen anything like that. We were scared to death walking out on that stage but we didn’t have anything to lose and that really is what broke the band. Everybody in the South started talking, “You got to see Grand Funk!” They had us back the next day, for the second day, and the third day and we were the talk of the festival. Everybody was talking about Grand Funk Railroad.

Who did you get to see play while you were there?

Janis Joplin played and Johnny Winter. That was the first time we ever saw Johnny Winter play and he was just amazing. He went on right as the sun was going down and he walked out, this albino, and he had this big black cape on and doing the blues. It was just awesome. And we had never seen anything like that and it was just awesome to see that. Pacific Gas & Electric were on that, Janis Joplin was on it; Jimi Hendrix didn’t play that first one, he played the next one, the next year.

Being the hard-hitting drummer that you are, what has been your most painful injury?

You know, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had that many real injury situations where it stopped me from playing. I’ve had times where I’d get cramps and I’ve had times with a little tennis elbow and I’ve had to work those through; maybe a little arthritis here and there but really I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had any injuries like a broken leg. I did break my left leg skiing one time but luckily it was the hi-hat leg and I was able to even play the hi-hat with a brace on. It didn’t keep me from playing.

Are you still playing drums while you’re singing or do you come up front more now?

Oh no, I still sing and play at the same time. The only one I go up for is “Some Kind Of Wonderful.” We worked out a slightly different arrangement for that than we do on the record. The first part of the song we just do bass and vocals; that’s all there is. Then the second part of the song I go back on the kit and when you get to the “Can I get a witness” part and the Hammond B3 comes in, then the whole band plays. That’s the only time I go out in front. The rest of the time I sit there and play. I sing backup on almost every song so I’m always singing and playing.

And you don’t have all that hair popping up with that big fro

(laughs) Not so much anymore! I don’t have all that hair anymore but I still do pretty well for a guy my age (laughs).

You mentioned that you were in a band at twelve. Do you remember what you guys were playing at the time?

Oh I remember it well. We only knew one song and it was “Peter Gunn” and I was the guitar player. I wasn’t the drummer. We had a drummer that had just a cymbal and a snare drum and we had a trumpet player and we had the guitar. And we played “Peter Gunn.” We used to play it at the lunch hour in the gymnasium (laughs). That was the Red Devils.

Did you want to be the guitar player or was that where they put you?

I just wanted to be a rock & roll player. I didn’t care what it was I played. I watched Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show doing “Blue Suede Shoes” and from that moment on, I wanted to be in rock & roll.

And you still are in rock & roll

And I still am

You’ve also played with Bob Seger for a number of years now

I’ve been kind of an on and off guy with Bob. I wasn’t there in the very start with Bob Seger. I came along in the eighties and I played several tours in the eighties. I played about six tours since 2006 with the Silver Bullet Band and unfortunately I was unable to do this current one that they are out on but I’ve known all those guys going back forty-plus years. It’s my second home and I love them all dearly.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I got to say it was probably the band the Kingsmen. Do you remember the Kingsmen? They did “Louie, Louie.” That was the very first big band that I consider superstar kind of stuff. They came and played in a little club that we used to play in Flint, Michigan, and we were kind of like the local band that was playing and these guys came in and Norm Sundholm, who later created Sunn Amplifiers and that was the first amp, the big amp, that everybody was like knocked out within rock & roll. Norm Sundholm had made amps for this band, the Kingsmen, and they came on and, my God, they were so loud and we were going, What are they playing? And it was these Sunn Amps. They were a tube amp, a big cabinet, huge sounding amplifiers and it sounded great. It was like a turning point in rock & roll. When Sunn Amplifiers came along that was a big turning point.

Is Grand Funk like the weekend warriors nowadays in terms of touring?

Pretty much. I won’t do buses so yes, we fly out on Friday or Saturday and we’ll play a show on Saturday, come home, or go out on Thursday and play Friday and Saturday and come home on Sunday. That’s the way to do it. We do about forty or forty-five shows a year that way and we still get to spend Christmas at home and New Years. We’re not on the road all the time. It’s good this way.

Is making a new record a possibility?

If you come to see the show we have new material. We don’t do a whole lot of it because we know that the people want to hear Grand Funk and the hits and that stuff; but yeah, right now we have “Sky High,” “Bottle Rocket,” another one called “Lightning & Thunder,” that we do in the show. Over the years we’ve had several others, “Who Took Down The Stars” was a great song. So yes, we do new stuff. We just haven’t gotten around to recording it and putting it out. You see bands that spend years putting these albums together and you never hear any of them on the radio, never hear a peep, and they end up selling them in Starbucks or they give them away at their shows and that kind of stuff. It’s just not what it used to be.

 

 

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One thought on “48 Years of Grand Funk Railroad: An Interview With Founder/Singer/Drummer Don Brewer

  1. Robert Brook S Reply

    Oh yes Don …. bands stay forgotten in the “Nostalgia Ring” when they keep roaming “the past”.

    New music from a band is new hope, new life and an true gift for the fans from their heroes.

    You make the band NEW again, new simbols and Internet provides free exposure and the media takes care again of what’s going on with the band when the PHOENIX flies again.

    WE WANT NEW MUSIC from our idols. That keep us alive and them “moving ahead” TODAY.

    ….. and please, don wait until Mark Farner dies …. that goes to Mel Schacher and Craig Frost too.

    THANKS DON!

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