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Don Brewer interview


Grand Funk Railroad Rolls On:
The Don Brewer Interview
Dr. Music talks to legendary Grand Funk Railroad singer/drummer Don Brewer about Frank Zappa, Shea Stadium, and Homer Simpson
Grand Funk Railroad was one of the most popular bands of the 70's. This is a band that broke The Beatles record by selling out Shea Stadium in just 72 hours. They've had 13 Gold records, achieving four of those in one year alone. They've had #1 hits. They've lived the rock and roll dream. Don Brewer, Mark Farner and Mel Schacher started the band in 1969, and the train has kept rolling for more than 40 years now. The band has changed personnel a few times over the years, but drummer/vocalist Don Brewer has been there for the entire ride.
Don Brewer was always a fixture in my room as a kid. Whether he was staring out at me from the Closer To Home album, or singing "We're An American Band" from the stereo at all hours of the day and night, Don Brewer was someone I spent a lot of time growing up with. Talking to Brewer was an incredible honor for me. His joyful persona and candid responses made for an invigorating conversation, one in which we talked about the past and the future of Grand Funk Railroad.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button below:

Dr. Music:  If you were to introduce somebody to Grand Funk music, what song would you play for them?

Don Brewer:  One song?

DM:  Yeah.

DB:  Wow! (laughs) That’s a toughy! What is the epitome of a Grand Funk (song)? You know, it’s tough because there were so many different styles. We went through so many different variations of the band; trying to stick with radio, and keep current and all. But, I guess if there was one song that everybody should hear by Grand Funk, I would say “Closer To Home.”


DM:  Are we ever going to see the Shea Stadium show? Fans of Grand Funk have been waiting for years to see that whole show. Are we ever going to see it?

DB:  You know, it’s one of those things that just sits in our archives, and we’ve waited, possibly waited past the most opportune time to release it. There were issues involved with the thing back when the original band got reunited back in ’96, so it just kinda has been sitting there, and now it’s kinda like …I just don’t know. Financially, it just doesn’t seem to be a viable thing to do. So, we sit on it. It is; it’s a great piece. I think the pieces that are out there - I think “Inside Looking Out” was on one of our compilation DVD’s - I think that song off Shea Stadium really gets the idea of what Shea Stadium was about.


DM:  What’s your most memorable moment? You’ve toured with all the greats, and what you’ve seen with your eyes I wish I could see.

DB:  (laughs ….and more laughs) Oh boy! I could get some people in trouble. Uhh…..I don’t know. Certainly Shea Stadium was one of them, when you bring that up. We got on a helicopter on the Upper West side of Manhattan, we flew out over Shea Stadium, Humble Pie is on stage playing to a sold out Shea Stadium with a big neon sign behind the stage - Mark, Don & Mel - and we’re flying over this like, “Wow! Is this really happening?!” So yeah, that was a moment, for sure.

Getting off an airplane in Japan the first time, and being greeted at the Tokyo airport by screaming girls. Almost like A Hard Day’s Night with The Beatles, you kinda felt that kind of a vibe. Going to Japan the first time was like a real kick. So yeah, there’s just tons of them. And like I say, I do have a pretty good memory and I could get a lot of people in trouble, recalling some instances, but I won’t. (laughs) Including myself! I could get myself in a lot of trouble!

DM:  (laughs) You don’t wanna do that!

DB:  And I don’t wanna do that!




DM:  Frank Zappa time. I saw Frank as a genius with his music, but you saw him as a producer. I know he came at a turbulent time in the band, but what did he add to the Grand Funk sound, if anything, and what was he like to work with?

DB:  You know, we loved working with him. You get this impression that Frank is this mad scientist kind of guy - totally whacked out - and he really wasn’t. He was and he wasn’t. He was really a family guy. He had a great family at home, really great humor, he was just fun to be around and fun to hang out with. The reason we did the Frank Zappa thing was, we saw 2000 Motels and he mentioned Grand Funk Railroad in that film. And we went, ‘Let’s call Frank and see if he wants to produce a record,’ and we did, and he did! Are you kidding?! Frank Zappa wants to produce a Grand Funk record?! I thought he brought a lot of good stuff to the table there. We were going through a lot of problems in the band, and we had kinda gotten off track with what we were trying to do. That whole disco thing was really screwing everything up, and we didn’t know what way to go. When Frank came in he just said, ‘Why don’t you guys just do what you do.” And he came up with the title, Good Singin’ Good Playin’. It was a kick working with him, I loved it. Went over to his house and met his family - Dweezil, and the crazy kids, Moon and all that stuff. It was just a really fun experience.


DM:  What can I find Don Brewer listening to? What’s on the iPod?

DB:  (laughs) I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen to a lot of radio. I got XM Radio in the car. And what I find myself doing with XM is the same thing I do with satellite TV. I find that rather than 10 choices, I’ve got hundreds of choices of stuff that I hate. (laughs) Nobody is going back to what FM underground radio used to be, where the jock would come in, he’d bring his albums with him, and he would play whatever the hell he wanted to for four hours, and take you on a trip. Nobody’s doing that. And that’s where you really get exposed to a lot of music that you would never listen to. They’ve got bean counters that are picking the songs, that are programming those different formats, and it just sucks.

Musically, I like Sheryl Crow. Musically, I like the band Train. Other than that, I don’t hear a lot of stuff. I’m not a Lady GaGa guy. Of course, I can appreciate that she’s very talented, but not near commercial stuff though.


DM:  Now I noticed you produced a great debut album from The Godz!

DB:  The Godz, a rock and roll machine! G-O-D-Z. (spells it out)

DM: What a brutal album. That was ’78, and I don’t see anything after that.

DB:  (laughs) No. That was the only one I did with them. They did the second one by themselves. That was because I left. I couldn’t deal with some of the personalities, but I’m good friends with Mark Chatfield, who was with that band. Mark is playing with Bob Seger. I actually got him the gig in the Bob Seger band. I was just out with them for 28 dates, and I see Mark all the time. That’s my connection with The Godz still.


DM:  How important is it to you to be recognized by the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame?

DB:  I really don’t care at this point. I think they’ve snubbed us, really. But I think the band deserves at least a mere mention from them, from a nod of some sort, I don’t know what, and it just never has come up. I really go back to, it’s politics. They’re an institution that’s controlled by Rolling Stone magazine. And, Rolling Stone magazine always hated Grand Funk because we got off to a bad start with them with Terry Knight, and Terry Knight giving them the finger, so forth and so on, and them bashing us all the time. It’s that Rolling Stone magazine, rock and roll snob kinda stuff, which is kinda like an oxymoron. What is snobbery involved in rock and roll music? I just don’t understand that. So, we’ve just kinda dropped it. It’s not important to me at all at this point.

DM:  I’d just love to see you recognized in some way.

DB:  I think it’s fair. I mean, there’s very few bands that reach the pinnacle that we did, and we got there twice. We did it first with the trio, and then again with the four-piece band, and they just completely ignore us.

DM:  Four gold records in one year!

DB:  Thirteen gold records altogether! And, how many bands sold out Shea Stadium, you know? And, how many bands toured the world? And, how many bands sold out Tokyo baseball stadiums? You know? C’mon guys! And, how many bands cut their teeth on listening to Grand Funk and took pieces away? So…..okay. Am I bitter? No, I’m not bitter, I’m just pissed. (laughs)


DM:  I want to talk about the Times Square billboard, infamous at this stage, said to be $100,000 at the time. Did Capitol (Records) foot the bill for that?

DB:  Well sure, but who’s royalties did it come out of? (laughs) It didn’t come from The Beach Boys. (laughs)

DM:  But that was a wonderful thing.

DB:  Yeah, it was big. I gotta hand it to Terry Knight - Terry Knight thought big, he really did. And that was his idea to do the block long Grand Funk Railroad billboard. Nobody had ever done that before. The Rolling Stones had used just a corner of it, you know. This was the beginning of super exploitation of rock music, so Terry said, “We want the whole thing.” (laughs)


DM:  About the first album, On Time….  It seems the bass is much higher in the mix. Was that intentional, and why?

DB:  Yeah, I mean, we were going for that unique three-piece sound, and Terry was pushing Mel (Schacher) to get this unique bass sound, and he did. He had almost like a fuzz bass, you know. We were a trio, and we were trying to create this image of what it would be like live, in the studio. And that’s really hard to do, especially at that point. In 1969/1970, the recording techniques that were used in the studios just weren’t up to par. They got it down in the 80’s. The 80’s bands could sound like they were playing in an arena. It was impossible for us to get that sound. So we were fudging with it; trying to come up with a way to make it sound big and powerful. And yeah, the bass was up there.


DM:  Now on the second album, the “red” album….  Is it true that the guitar track was red in the studio, and therefore, you wanted to get the guitar more out in front on that album, and that’s the reason for the color of the album?

DB:  No. (laughs) It’s amazing what they do on the internet these days. The red album became known as “the red album” just because it was a red cover. The picture’s great. I mean, I think the picture on that is a rock and roll classic. I think it was just red just because it would get people’s attention in the racks.


DM:  I know you’ve got the fantastic band now. I know you’ve done new tunes. I know you’re more concerned with being a touring band, but is the release of new Grand Funk music something that’s still jumping around in your head?

DB:  Yeah, but it’s not imperative, you know. I mean, nobody can get airplay anymore - when I say nobody, the classic rock acts. None of them are getting any airplay. Tom Petty can’t get airplay with anything new - Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney - how many more, do I need to go on. The Doobie brothers made a great record last year, put it out, and absolutely nobody played it. Nobody. Not once did I hear a cut from that record.

So, you can go in and spend all the time you want and all the money you want, and put out a product, and you can sell it - sell it at your shows, you can sell it off your website - but you’re not going to get any marketing, you’re not going to get any mass exposure on it. We make music and we get on stage and play it live. To me, that’s the old fashioned way. (laughs) And I like it! That’s okay! That seems to be where the business has gone, and that’s fine.


DM:  You’re Homer Simpson’s favorite band!

DB:  I love that!

DM:  How cool is that?

DB:  That’s pretty cool! The folks sent me a request, because I co-wrote “Shinin’ On,” and they wanted to use “Shinin’ On” in The Simpsons. So I said, “Send me the script so I can see what you’re doing.” I didn’t want them maligning the band. And they had Homer telling his kids about Grand funk Railroad, mentioning each guy by name, and I’m going, “This is great! A personal introspect from Homer Simpson! That’s really cool!” We’re really, like, “Americana” to be Homer Simpsons favorite band. (laughs)


DM:  I have to ask. Do you still talk to Mark, and is there any possibility of getting together with him?

DB:  Well, you know, you never say never, and if the circumstances present themselves that we could make a viable run again we could certainly talk about it, but at this point there’s no plans for it.


DM:  How would you like Grand Funk to be known? What’s the legacy you want to leave behind?

DB:  It’s funny. We were working on some videos, and the guy that was working on the video stuff, I brought him in some Shea Stadium stuff, and I brought him in all this live footage of the band from way back when, and all the different variations of the band, and he’s a musician, and he was just dumbfounded at how good we were as a live band. He’s just like, “Wow! It’s amazing how good you guys were as a live band!” You know, that’s what we always were, a great live act. I think, even to this day, with the different people, the different players in the band, that’s what we still focus on is being a great live act. So, I would like to be remembered as one of the great live rock bands of all time.
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