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Rock Icon Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer [Interview]

Arenas, Subpoenas, and Wisdom

Photo - Allen Clark

In 1969, the self-proclaimed “people’s band” released their debut album, On Time. The accompanying tour not only brought music to the masses but also brought the masses to the music by filling 125,000 to 180,000 stadiums, thus changing the way we participate in live music, with the birth of Arena Rock.

The Michigan band Grand Funk Railroad influenced generations of artists. Van Halen, KISS, Bon Jovi, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, and Buckcherry have all listed Grand Funk Railroad as an influence to their success.

Before their show this Saturday at Mystic Lake Casino, founding member and musical legend Don Brewer chatted with Music in Minnesota about touring and advice for the next generation of artists.

[MIM ] Over the years Grand Funk Railroad has influenced the likes of Kiss, Bon Jovi, Foghat, The White Stripes, and so many others. How does it feel to watch bands you’ve influenced calling it quits while you’re touring and celebrating 50 years of making music?

[Don Brewer] (…laughing) They are a bunch of wimps! I like to look at people we influenced in the same way we were influenced by people. We were influenced by Motown, Dino Danelli, the Rascals and all these different bands that were before us. All the blues stuff, all the R& B stuff, we learned from them and then turned it into something that was our own and other bands that came after we did the same thing. They took it from us and in turn made it their own, so it’s really just a natural progression thing. The only thing about being around for fifty years is that I never dreamed of being around for fifty years. I figured I would be dead by the time I was in my forties, but here I am seventy years old, and I still feel pretty good, and I have a good time performing. I love to get on stage and make people smile.

[MIM] How has touring changed over the years?

[Don Brewer] Probably the technology has changed the most, not only that but the relationship between artist and radio. There used to be a big tie-in between the artists and the radio stations, and that [relationship] is how you made it. You could take your latest recording to the local radio station and get airplay. Hopefully, someone heard it and come out and see you play the local “sock hop,” then you expand to a couple of towns over, maybe get the whole state, then you try to expand to a couple of states, and then hopefully a national record company would take a look at you. It all made sense, then now all of that’s gone.
With the internet, downloads, and streaming, radio isn’t even relevant anymore when it comes to breaking artists, those are the big things, along with the technology of things is completely different now. The sound systems are great everywhere; the lights are great everywhere. We had trouble in the late ’60s early 70’s we had trouble finding a sound system that was big enough or loud enough to work in an arena. It’s just a whole different thing now.

[MIM] Bob Seger (who is currently on his farewell tour) and you have had a great history of performing together; you were part of his hall of fame induction. How was it touring with him over the years?

[Don Brewer] Touring with Bob sort of became my second home. I started touring with the Silver Bullet band back in 1982, I think was the first tour I ever did with him. I first met Bob in the late ’60s when we were playing all the teen places when we were playing all around Michigan. We would run into each other playing those things. He had a thing called Bob Seger and the Last heard, and I had a thing called The Pack, and that’s how we developed a relationship, I started touring with him in ’82- ’86, and I didn’t tour with him again until 2006. Which, I did about five or six more tours. Its always been a great relationship, as we have shared a lot of band members. Craig Frost was in Grand Funk, and he got into Segers band, we had Bob Seger’s keyboard player, Tim Cashian playing with us. Mark Chatfield who plays guitar for Bob played in a band that I produced back in the ’70s called The Godz, and I got him the gig with Seger, so we just kinda share people back and forth.

[MIM] You have worked with so many musical geniuses both past and present, I have to ask what was working with Frank Zappa like as a person and what was he like behind the soundboard?

[Don Brewer] Frank took us to a different level. He came up with some harmonies and recording techniques that we never heard of before and led us in that direction, but other than that he really just let us do our own thing. He named that album we did with him, Good singin’, Good Playin’ because that’s what he thought we were. We were honored that he felt that way and we were honored that he answered our call saying, “sure, I would love to produce you guys.” So that was an amazing experience. Also working with Todd Rundgren was a terrific experience too. I loved working with Todd. He knew how to turn those knobs and make everything sound absolutely fantastic in the headphones as you’re recording which was a whole new thing for us because all of the engineers prior to Todd, everything had to be recorded flat. No EQ, no echo, no effects, no nothing and it sounds terrible really until you add that stuff later when your playing, you don’t really know how it’s going to sound. Todd made everything sound that way in the headphones, so we were playing along with what it was going to sound like which was a whole different trick which was awesome.

[MIM] Fifty years of touring, knowing what you know now, what do you wish you would have known from the beginning.

[Don Brewer] I don’t think I would have done anything differently over the years. We got beat by a crooked manager, Terry Knight and a couple of crooked attorneys which was very commonplace back then, and it still goes on now. What I know now, I wouldn’t have trusted anybody, and I tell that to kids, now. You can’t trust anybody. Do as much of the management and the agent stuff as you can personally, then farm out what you can’t do to other people. That way, you know what’s going on and keep your fingers in everything and don’t just turn your keys over to a couple of people in a suit who tell you that they are going to take care of you, as everyone takes care of themselves before they take care of you.

[MIM] Grand Funk seemed to be the people’s band in which your music resonated with the Flints blue-collar workers in the ’70s. I listened to a Detroit bootleg, and one of the best covers ever (IMO) of the Stones Gimme Shelter in which the band spoke out about the Viet Nam war. What is your opinion of artists speaking their political views to audiences, and do you believe it can help or hurt an artist?

[Don Brewer] I think that is the whole point. Expressing your views through music, and I would much rather hear artists and musicians express their views in music rather than get on stage and start making speeches or get on a radio station to do an interview, only to hog the microphone and talk about their political views. I don’t agree with that, but if you want to make a statement in your music, then that’s the place to be. Which is what we did, and we were totally against the Viet Nam war, we were totally against the hard drug thing that was going on in the hippie movement back then. The hippies started out with just smoking pot, and pretty soon it was cocaine, heroin, and all the drug dealers came out and wrecked that whole movement, but there is nothing wrong with artists expressing their views in their music, as I think they should.

[MIM] What is it like knowing that you are Homer Simpson’s favorite band?

[Don Brewer] It’s an honor! They approached me; I’m a co-writer on the song that they did on that episode, shine on. They approached me and told me what was going to be in the script, what homer was going to say to the kids and, what the kids were going to say, and I just thought it was awesome that Homer was going to name each guy in the band and tell his kids about Grand Funk Railroad. That’s a stamp of approval from America, its a piece of apple pie!

[MIM] I read that another passion of yours is rescuing animals

[Don Brewer]
My wife, back in the day was on a radio in the Florida market for about 25 years and in the process of doing that we got hooked up with an animal rescue place called Safe Harbour which is a no-kill animal facility. We started doing a lot of volunteer work, helped with the fundraising and all that kind of stuff. We totally saw what its like in the animal rescue world and how much help is needed for all the animals which are either mistreated or dropped off, kicked out, hit by a car or dumped on the side of the road. We don’t need the puppy mills or pet stores we need people to go to the local animal rescue facilities and adopt these pets. I believe it has to be brought to the forefront and this is the way I can help the most.

[MIM] Finally, you’re bringing GFR to Mystic Lake Casino this Saturday night. Do you have any interesting Minnesota memories?

[Don Brewer] (laughter) ………. (more laughter) …….. (even more laughter) …….None that I can say

Check out Grand Funk Railroad this Saturday at Mystic Lake Casino

Written by Richard Dollarhide

Photographer, Photojournalist, Executive Chef and Full Time Artist


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