Grand Funk Railroad: Still On Track, 50-plus Years On (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two

Your working relationship with Todd was very successful. After a few albums with producer Jimmy Ienner, you made a rather unusual choice, working with Frank Zappa producing your 1976 album Good Singin’, Good Playin’. How on earth did you end up with him?

Don Brewer: Well, again, we were looking for something different. We were going, “Okay, what are we going to do now?” We did the Todd thing, and we had been working with Jimmy Ienner: We did “Some Kind of Wonderful,” stuff with a little more R&B flavor.

Craig Frost and I had gone to see the Zappa movie, 200 Motels. Frank comes on, and he does this little stab at Grand Funk Railroad. You know, he’s got this little choo choo train running around a track, and he says something like, “And there’s Grand Funk Railroad.” I looked at Craig and said, “Let’s get Frank Zappa to produce!” So we had our manager call his manager, and Frank loved the idea. He said, “Yeah! I’d love to produce those guys!”

We flew him out to Flint, I put him up at my house, and we started working in the studio. Frank came up with the idea for the name of that record. He said, “Why don’t you just call it what it is? Good Singin’, Good Playin’?” We were all shocked: “Frank Zappa thinks we can play good and sing good!”

He was great. He took us off in a different direction, doing [vocal] harmonies that we never would’ve thought of. He would say, “Oh, I know. Throw this note in there.” I loved working with Frank. I went out to meet his family, and I spent a lot of time hanging out with Frank.

There was a time when album packaging was a significant thing. You did E Pluribus Funk with a round sleeve, and Shinin’ On had 3-D art and glasses to view it. Was the band involved in that side of things?

The idea for the 3-D glasses came from a publicist, Lynn Goldsmith, who was dating our then-manager Andy Caviliere. It was a big competition. We would always use the art department at the record company, and everybody was always looking for a way to outdo somebody else.

Mark Farner was the primary songwriter in the early years, but by We’re an American Band you started taking a bigger role. Was it easy and seamless to start contributing songs?

I was very encouraged. At that time, the band was very much a band, and it was just, “Yeah, go at it!” Especially when we had a hit record right out of the bag. Everybody was all on board, and everybody was totally together: “Bring all your ideas to the table.”

Between 1969 and 1983, Grand Funk Railroad released more than a dozen studio albums. But you haven’t released any in the last 40 years. Is the band now focused only on live performance, or is studio work still something that you think about?

We haven’t really thought about the studio. We’re a live act, and we’ve always loved being a live act anyway, so that’s it.

The current configuration of the band has been together for 24 years now. What’s the secret to keeping a lineup together for so long?

I think we lucked out. Mark left the band in 1998. Mel and I wanted to continue; we said, “If we can find the right people, let’s put it together and go back out on the road.” I started wracking my brain, and I knew this guy from Peavey, the amplifier and musical instrument company. He said, “You know, you’ve got to meet this guy, Max Carl.” I listened to some of his solo stuff, and I listened to his voice and thought, “He would be a great singer to replace Mark.” We got together with Max; Mel and I jammed with him for about a week and said, “Okay, this works.”

And then I went into my library of guitarists I knew. I knew Bruce Kulick from Kiss. I knew him from back when I was playing with Bob Seger and Michael Bolton. We flew him out, put that together.

Then we needed a keyboard player: “How are you going to make things sound like the records?” I called the people I knew at Bob Seger’s organization, and they recommended Tim Cashion, because Tim had played with Bob.

And that was it! To this day, we still like each other. We don’t argue, we don’t fight. You know, we just lucked out.

After playing this music for more than a half century now, what keeps it fresh and interesting for you?

The audience. I never get tired of walking out in front of an audience and seeing them get on their feet. And now you see generations: people bring their kids and their grandkids, and they’ve introduced them to our music, so those people know the songs. You see everybody singing and having a good time with a big smile on their faces. I never get tired of it. I love it.

When they write about Grand Funk 50 or 100 years from now, how would you like the group to be remembered?

One of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time, I think. They should’ve been in the Hall of Fame!