Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer was never too far from his familiar place behind the drums during a lengthy pandemic-related layoff.
“I’ve been rehearsing for the whole time,” Brewer tells UCR. “After a couple of months, I realized it was going to stay shut down, so I started playing every day.”
That brought comfort and stability during a difficult period. It’s also in keeping with Grand Funk Railroad’s larger sense of continuity. They eventually returned to stages with a lineup that’s been in place for 20 of the band’s 50 years together.
Preparation paid off for Brewer, bassist Mel Schacher (a fellow founding member), guitarist Bruce Kulick, singer Max Carl and keyboardist Tim Cashion: “The people make you want to entertain,” Kulick says, “and the band was in a groove rather quickly onstage.”
Carl stepped in for founding singer Mark Farner, who parted ways following a mid-’90s homecoming with Brewer and Schacher. Highlights from their most recent stint together included a memorable benefit concert and live album for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Brewer always felt the the original trio’s reunion would be temporary. “There was a bit of apprehension on all of our parts, I think, as to whether this is going to work. We got going, and we came up with the Bosnia idea and all of that stuff,” Brewer remembers. “Things were going pretty well, but even then we went through three different managers. It wasn’t all roses. You could feel that it had an ending.”
Listen to Grand Funk’s ‘We’re an American Band’
These days, Brewer says they have no contact with Farner – “Not unless it’s through a lawyer,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s not a good situation, and I don’t expect it ever will be.”
Grand Funk Railroad eventually moved on with a new lineup anchored by Carl on vocals, but it took some time to put together. “I started listening to his stuff and listening to his voice and I go, ‘This guy could do it,'” Brewer says. “I remember calling him repeatedly, because he didn’t return my calls!”
Once the prospective singer finally connected, they “hit it off pretty well,” according to Brewer. “He flew out and we did some rehearsals and it was a great find, it really was. I think he’s a perfect frontman for this band.” So far, the current lineup hasn’t gone into the studio. Should they decide to record, any new work would join a discography filled with plenty of unforgettable moments – both musically and on the album covers. Brewer joined us to discuss how some of that artwork came to life.
We’re at the 50-year mark of Survival, and also E Pluribus Funk. What memories stick out for you about the experience of making those two albums?
E Pluribus Funk was one of my favorite albums. I always judge an album by how easy it was to record. [Laughs.] That one, we went in and I think the band at that point, the power trio, we were at our peak. We got into the studio and we knew the songs that we wanted to do. They were great. They were kick-ass songs. It really went down well. There were not 25 takes [of the songs]; we just went in there and slammed ‘em out. Everything sounded good and the band was tight. It just worked. Survival, I remember going out for that photo shoot in Los Angeles with the three of us in front of a cave and caveman stuff. Going back to the hotel afterward with all of the makeup and gear on, walking through the lobby, that was quite a sight. I also recall the album. It was the first time that we had done this new situation with the drums. [Producer] Terry [Knight] was going after the Beatles sound. What the engineer was doing with Ringo [Starr’s] sound back then was compression. Terry wasn’t all that familiar with compression, so he said, “We’ll put towels on the drums.”
I played the whole friggin’ album with towels on my drumheads. He felt that gave the sound of compression. Well, it certainly did. [Laughs.] It compressed them so much that they sounded like shit! It was kind of like going into a bar someplace and the owner would say, “You guys are too loud!” All of the guys with the amps would say, “Well, we can turn down, but we can’t turn the drums down!” So you’d put towels on stuff and that’s what it sounded like!
Listen to Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘People, Let’s Stop the War’
Who came up with the concept for the Survival album cover? That seems like that would have been an interesting one to shoot.
It was. It was the anti-war movement. “People, Let’s Stop the War,” that was one of Farner’s tunes at the time. The whole Survival thing came out of the talk at the time: “We’re heading for a period where people are going to have to go back to survival.” They thought there was going to be a major shutdown of everything. It was a play on that.
Did anybody balk at their particular caveman costume that was supplied?
Not really. We were totally into it. It was like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” There was another one that we did, for the We’re an American Band album cover, we posed in the nude sitting on bales of hay – which was not a comfortable shoot! [Laughs.] But we were totally into doing what it took. The whole album artwork thing at that time was a competition. You were constantly striving to do something that nobody else had done. That’s what it was about.
How did you guys end up nude on that We’re An American Band cover? That’s funny.
We had a female publicist and photographer, Lynn Goldsmith. She came up with the idea. Of course, we said, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess we can try it!” But it was her idea!
That makes a lot of sense. They’re always thinking as a photographer about how to frame stuff up. They’re thinking of the art and how to present it. I know that she was also involved with the All The Girls in the World Beware! album cover. That’s a classic one, for sure.
And also the Born to Die album cover! You know, of us laying in coffins. That’s what it was about. The album cover was a nice big piece of [space] to work with, so we were always trying to come up with something that was different.
The Born to Die album cover is a good example of taking something to the limit. Were there concepts presented for album art or otherwise where it was like, “No, we’re not doing that”?
That was close. I remember [keyboardist] Craig [Frost] and Mark had a hard time with that. It didn’t bother me. It was just another photo shoot. You know, you do whatever it takes, but they had a real problem with laying in a coffin.
How did you guys end up covering “Feelin’ Alright” and “Gimme Shelter” on Survival?
We were looking for stuff that was different and looking for songs actually that we loved. Mark loved “Feelin’ Alright” and I loved the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” “God, I love that song, let’s do it!” We did them with a different take; it was more of a Grand Funk spin. It was kind of the thing back then for bands that were big to cover other stuff and do a different take on it. It was part of that.
It fits in really well as a Grand Funk-type song. When it rolls from “I Can Hear Him in the Morning” into “Gimme Shelter,” it’s really pretty seamless. That’s brilliant sequencing.
Yeah, it works well. I think we were doing “Gimme Shelter” live before we did it for the album. It was one of those songs that we would close the show. It was an encore that we did. It went over and was a huge success live. I think that’s why it ended up on the record.
Listen to Grand Funk’s ‘Gimme Shelter’
What’s the story behind the studio chatter at the beginning of “I Want Freedom” on the Survival album?
I’d have to listen to it and remember it. [Laughs.] Off the top of my head, I don’t recall it. But we used to leave a lot of stuff that would happen in the studio. We’d leave it on the record, because we thought fans would like to hear that. There was chatter at the beginning of “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home” too. It was a mistake. Terry turned on the studio mic to communicate with us out in the studio. He had this little blurb on there and we just left it on.
It’s interesting listening to stuff like “I Can Hear Him in the Morning off Survival, I love the extended instrumental break which plays out the song, just drenched in organ. Songs like that and “Closer to Home,” which you just mentioned, it almost feels like Grand Funk was secretly or not so secretly a progressive-rock band at times.
Could have been! We could have been. Yeah, I know. I think there’s definitely the spiritual side of the band, which was being presented in those songs.