The Mark Farner Interview
By Shawn Perry
Grand Funk Railroad has been part of my musical vocabulary for as long as I've followed rock music. I was blown away with this ravenous power trio when I picked up their Live Album in 1970 at the local K-Mart. But it was Mark Farner — the band's longhaired, bare-chested frontman — who captivated me and everyone else the most with his boundless energy, working-class lead guitar work, high falootin' vocals, and soulful, emotionally charged songs. While it can be suggested that drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher were and remain the thunder of Grand Funk Railroad, there can be no denying that Farner was and will always be the group's bolt of lightning.
Since a confusing and ugly split from Grand Funk Railroad at the end of 1999 (along with surrendering the name and being replaced by three other members), Farner has stayed the course, clinging to his strong spiritual and patriotic beliefs as he maintains a steady regimen of playing and recording his music. During the arrangement of the following interview, I received a copy of Farner's latest solo album, For The People, and I am still astounded by his musical capabilities. Even as he closes in on 60, Mark Farner shouts, skips and strums like a man half his age.
At times, he may come across as disappointed, maybe even bitter, by the turn of events over these past few years between him and his former band mates, but his tone and temperament were completely upbeat and positive during our conversation. He is a man of remarkable principle whose faith has gotten him through anything-but-ordinary times. There's no B.S., no phony showbiz indifference, no fancy jewelry or tungsten wedding bands to show off, no regrets and no apologies from the guy. You get what you bargain for when it comes to Mark Farner. Fortunately for me and his legion of fans, it's worth every note.
You played a few dates this summer, and I know you play a lot of one-offs and benefits. You're even doing a benefit in September at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Yeah with the John Entwistle Foundation. It's John Entwistle's band that actually formed the foundation. We've taken musical instruments and donated them to public libraries where kids can check the instruments out, stay involved in music and keep music happening. The Entwistle Foundation stands for something good, you know. Plus, it's at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and it's all for charity. It's wonderful.
So you're playing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but you have yet to be inducted?
Yeah. My guitar spent a little time there. They had it for a few years down there in a Plexiglas case.
Was that your old Messenger?
Yeah, the old Messenger.
Do you still get excited about playing live?
Absolutely. I have to pee like a racehorse just before that first note. But once we get on the stage, from that point on, my stage face comes (laughs).
I was listening to your most recent album, For The People, and you haven't lost a step. Your voice sounds better and stronger than ever and the playing is tight. How do you maintain your chops?
We play, you know. I do a lot of live shows. I rehearse and practice my instrument every day. I think being in good physical shape as well, because my wife and I are into eating healthy and preserving what's left of the body. Before I check out of these bones I want to take good care of this thing, you know. I think that's all a part of it. And, of course, your mental clarity to conduct yourself out there in the world. It's kind of a crazy world to be in. But we enjoy getting in front of the crowds and doing shows. We did a show down in Houston, Texas — a street festival — and there over 20,000 people there, just rocking. That's where it's at for us, the Mark Farner NRG Band, because we hook up with the people and we party. People love to dance when we play the stuff. We entertain, we don't just stand in front of the microphone. We're running around that stage and putting' on a show.
Are you recording any new material?
I'm talking right now with a label from L.A. that has approached me about doing some work together. It looks pretty good as far as a new CD and some video and some projects that we're gonna pursue in the future. I want to do a Christmas album. You know, with some of the old standard Christmas songs. Just me singing them with my band, doing it my way. I 've always wanted to do that. My mother wanted me to do that, God rest her soul. I think I'm gonna get it done. So we have some things in the works.
Let's get into your days with Grand Funk.
I'd like to ask you about Terry Knight. How instrumental was he in the actual production of those early Grand Funk records?
Terry Knight did it all.
Did you have any input at all?
I would say I think my guitar needs to be this or that. Any player is going to critique the sound to some degree. But in the final mix, it's the guy turning the knobs.
I read that you spoke to him more recently before he was murdered. Did you feel like there was some closure there?
Absolutely. As far as him realizing that I held nothing against him. Any time anybody mentioned Terry Knight, I didn't go into, "Yeah the SOB robbed us blind," or any of that. I just said what a creative genius he had. Between you and me and a fence post, it's too bad that people that have that kind of genius also get a little deceitful. I'm sorry to say, our world is run by this kind of personality. You know the corruption is what's fuelling all of the negative crap about the wars.
So you forgave him?
If I was to hold unforgiveness against him or anybody else, they would have that power. That's my power. I don't give that to nobody. I don't want anyone taking my power (laughs).
One thing Knight did was line you guys up for the 1969 Atlanta International Pop Festival. What are some of your memories of that particular gig?
The U-Haul trailer that we were hauling the equipment in behind the van that a friend of ours loaned us, with a driver. I was riding shotgun. I woke up and I see the sign I-75. I said, "Dude, I -75 is to the right here." And he takes a right and the trailer flips over, right into a ditch. We got everything out and put it back on its wheels, but we didn't realize that when it flipped like that, some of the lug nuts had stripped out. We got going down the road again with this crippled trailer and the tire came off the trailer and passed us. We went, "Where the hell did that come from?" We looked back and sparks are flying (laughs).
Well, it just happened that the next exit was a U-Haul trailer place, and we traded that thing in and picked another one up. Then we swapped our equipment and got on our way, but when we arrived in Atlanta, some of the transformers on the chassis of the amplifiers — they were tube amps with big heavy transformers — they ripped completely off when the trailer flipped. We were soldering wires together and duct taping and propping and screwing. They didn't work, but we got 'em to work before we got on that stage. Prior to taking the stage, all I saw was just who was up front and I could hear the crowd, but I never imagined there were that many people (Editor's note: popular estimates have put it at 100,000+). When I stepped back onto the stage, I went "Oh my God! There is no end to these people." Then I had a scope of just how big this crowd was. And you talk about someone who was jazzed up. It was like a bottle rocket.
And that led to Grand Funk signing with Capitol Records.
How did it feel to be right up there with the Beatles as one of the label's big sellers?
Unbelievable. We were on that label with Helen Reddy too (laughs).
Speaking of which, Grand Funk still holds a record for selling out Shea Stadium faster than anyone else, including the Beatles. What sticks out in your mind about that show?
We were in a helicopter and we passed right over the top of Shea Stadium. We could see the fans bouncing in the bleachers. The whole thing was bouncing and Humble Pie was on stage, which was set up at second base. I was so pumped — I had goose bumps on my goose bumps. I'm thinking, we're gonna be there in a just a few minutes. We were supposed to meet the limousine in the parking lot, down on the other side of Shea Stadium a few blocks away. It was a big enough parking lot with no wires. So we land and no limousine. Pete Bennett was with us. At this time there's no cell phones, so Pete ran to the corner and got on a pay phone, and within just three or four minutes there were several police cars with the lights and sirens going. We went into Shea Stadium, with the cop cars and the lights and sirens — it was cool.
It sounds like getting to the gigs are what you remember the most (laughs).
Oh yeah. It's like foreplay, dude (laughs).
Around this time, you wrote what many believe to be your greatest song, "I'm Your Captain."
How did that one come together?
I prayed for it. I did, I swear. My mother taught us kids how to say, "Now I lay me down to sleep…" So I did that and put a P.S. at the end on it, and I asked God to give me a song that would reach and touch the hearts of people He wanted to touch. I got up in the middle of the night and wrote these words down. I'm always doing that, so it didn't dawn on me that this was that song. I think now I'm absolutely sure because I got up in the morning and sat there with my flat top guitar and a cup of coffee, looking out in the pasture at the horses. Here comes (hums the opening notes of "I'm Your Captain"), and I just put the chords together and went, "Holy mackerel! Maybe with the words I can make something out of this." So I went to get the words out of the bedroom, sat them on the table, and started singing it. I took it to rehearsal that day, and the guys said, "Man, that song's a hit, dude." They were right.
I know it was a big hit with Vietnam veterans. Those veterans, when that song came out, they wanted to be closer to home. And that song guided them in their spirit, to the folks that love them and where they really wanted to be. It got them through some tough times. I've done a few Vietnam Veterans benefits; in fact, we played the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Wall last year. It was November and it was 34 degrees when we went on stage, but we played anyway. The Vietnam veterans voted "I'm Your Captain" as the most desired song. Yeah man, so it's an honor for me to hold that place in so many of our brothers' hearts. I'm privileged to have been able to give them that hope.
You also wrote some other heavy songs like "People, Let's Stop The War" and "Loneliness" — both off E Plurbis Funk and as relevant today as they were when they were first released. Do you ever break any of those out on stage?
Absolutely. We do "People, Let's Stop The War" in the show. I haven't done "Loneliness" for a while. What we have done is poll the fans on the web site to try to put our live set together with the influence of those people who love me the most. I think it was, in three weeks, 2,600 people who sent in their two songs they wanted, so we pick out of those, and put the top ten in the set list. Everybody's gonna want to hear the hits. Then we do "People, Let's Stop The War," "Anybody's Answer" or "Nothing Is The Same." You know — something that's three-piece — "Paranoid." And the audience loves it. They love that old sound.
Up to that point, you were the chief songwriter, but it was Don Brewer who wrote the group's first number one, "We're An American Band." Did you work closely with him to develop his songs?
Actually, I wrote the drum lick intro to that with the cowbell. I said, "Man, we gotta do this with a cowbell." He didn't have a cowbell then. "We need to get a cowbell!" I said to him, "all these songs that are starting with these cowbells are hits" (laughs). And the guitar. Well, you know that was just what I felt about the influence of the song that we were jamming on. Brewer doesn't really write music. He can write lyrics, but he doesn't write music per se. He can't play an instrument like a guitar or piano.
When you made "We're An American Band," you were free of Terry Knight and moving into a more commercial direction. You also considered adding Peter Frampton as a second guitarist, but opted instead for keyboardist Craig Frost. Aside from enhancing your sound, what did Craig bring to the table?
He brought the funk from Flint. You know, that's where the boy was raised. He was a "Flintoid" like the rest of us (laughs). So, I think there was a level of comfort and the fit was... you know you didn't have to grind the edges at all. It was natural.
So it was mostly because he was a friend of the band.
Yeah. I didn't want to add a keyboard player. Don and Mel did. And two out of three, you know…
Did you ever approach Peter Frampton?
No. But he played with us at the Bosnia concert in Detroit.
What are your memories of working with Todd Rundgren?
I really dug the sound. I dug where he was coming from — the relaxed atmosphere when he was in the studio. In the control room, he'd be kicked back with his feet on the console reading a book, and we're out there doing a take (laughs). He's a musical genius, I think.
And that helped put you at ease?
Yeah. It's like, "Ain't no thing, man. Have at it boys" (laughs).
So he never came in and tried to change your sound or retool Grand Funk — he just wanted you to do what you do?
With the success of "The Loco-Motion," "Some Kind Of Wonderful" and "Bad Time," did you ever think the band was in danger of becoming too commercial?
I did, yeah. But you know, I wrote the Grand Funk songs that people heard at Shea Stadium. Brewer didn't write songs back then, and I felt that we were losing that audience that wanted a say. If they were in our shoes, they wanted to say, "People, Let's Stop The War" and "Save The Land." They'd have spoke about the things that I spoke of. But you know I'm a dreamer. I love to think that we can really achieve peace. I'm still under the influence that we might be able to save this world with a guitar; that a song might be able to carry enough love to change people. The people I'm in the band with today, we always pray. We pray to our creator and whomever we believe in, but we do believe in love. And I think love is unconditional and the only thing that gets in its way is the debt that men put on one another, you know. Evil comes from the heart of the man who cannot forgive debt. Now, there's an evil SOB right there. And that's where it all starts.
We clear all that. When we go up, we take that stage. It's like our country — from that end of it to the other end of it — that's my country right there, and this is what I'm gonna say. The audience that knows and relates to that will charge out of their seats. At the World Baseball stadium in Osaka, Japan, they stormed the field. And at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Ohio, they came out of the bleachers and they stormed the stage and the cops had to get the hell out of the way, man. This is the kind of enthusiasm that those songs raised in the hearts of my brothers and sisters because we were talking about the same thing. Then the commercial end of it hit — "We're An American Band," partying, all that stuff. Those were Don Brewer's words. It was a great song for rock and roll. It was definitely a turn away from where we were headed with the three-piece Grand Funk.
Did you notice a difference in the audiences because of that?
Yes, absolutely. The hardcore, cult-following Grand Funk fans were fewer and fewer. And it became more commercial with everybody coming. In the early days, the audience was fifty-fifty, black and white. I've talked to some of my black friends in the music industry and they say it's because, "Grand Funk is the only white band we would listen to." I guess because of the R&B influence and the words to the songs. There was no black and white. It was, you know, all about the love.
Good Singin' Good Playin', the last album Grand Funk made in the 70s, was produced by Frank Zappa. On paper, it's an odd pairing. Why did you want Zappa to produce this record?
We thought so much of him as a musician. All you had to go on is the music that they put out, right? The music I heard of Zappa, I knew he was a musical genius. And I thought, "Wow, what a good idea." And everyone was going, "If he would do this, what a hoot that would be."
When we were in the studio, we were doing "Don't Let 'Em Take Your Gun" and Zappa is going, "Man, I have to ask you…I love the music, but what is this all about?" And I told him, "It's all about our second amendment rights. I want to have this song stand up and remind people about that right, to keep and bear arms, because it's necessary" — and that's strong language — "necessary for the freedom of state." The minute we have somebody convince us that guns are bad — they demonize guns in the news and they use that clout to speak to people, and they get people questioning in their own minds, "Well, should we have guns or shouldn't we have guns?" That's dangerous. And those people that are doing that — it's a set-up to take our guns. I said, "This is gonna stand up in the face of that because there's more of us who have these guns who will stand at our front door and kill any SOB who tries to come in and touch my family and my babies. This is what a gun is all about. It's not about hunting. My gun is about self-protection. God forbid if we ever have to fire a shot, but (we need) our guns collectively as the militia of the United States of America to take back our country should the government go awry. This is outlined in the Constitution."
Frank was like, "Holy crap, I didn't really realize this was going on." He joined the NRA after a session with my model 29, Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum. He wanted to shoot a gun. He'd never shot a gun prior. I put an eight and three-eighths barrel in his hand and talked him through the steps of pulling that trigger. And the first shot, he blew a hole right in the middle of a can. That's all he wanted to do was shoot a can like they did on TV. So we put some cans out on a hill. Frank just had a ball. The first shot, his eyes got big as plates because he hit the can. He said, "I hit the damn thing!" I said, "Not only did you hit the damn thing, you hit it dead center. That's a shot and a half."
Could it have kept going after 1976? Or did disco really stop Grand Funk from carrying on?
I think it was when Don Brewer walked into the studio one day — we were gonna rehearse — and he walked into the control room, we were all sitting there, he was like the last one to get there. He left his coat on and walked up in front of the monitors and said, "Boys, I gotta tell you something. I'm gonna find something more stable to do with my life. I'm over this." And he leaves. And that was it. The timing, yeah…disco…man. Grand Funk could not bow to the God of disco. We just couldn't have gone there.
So then, why did you reunite in the early 80s?
Mel and I were talking. "Man, what do you think about putting the band back together?" So, we did. We put a few songs together. I wrote "Queen Bee," a song for the Heavy Metal movie. Warner Brothers signed us to Full Moon, which was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers but was Irving Azoff's label, As soon as we signed, Azoff left Full Moon in the hands of Warner Brothers and the producer we were working with, and we lost that momentum. I guess Azoff, at that point, was courting Glenn Frey or somebody. His interest turned from us, and we got kind of dumped in the lap of Warner Brothers.
So Mel Schacher dropped out before you recorded the Grand Funk Lives album?
Yeah, Mel — at the last minute just before we were supposed to fly out and sign the contracts with Warner Brothers — called and said he can't fly. And I said, "You what?" He said, "I can't fly any more. I cannot get in another airplane. I'm not gonna do it and you're not gonna talk me into it." And I'm thinking, holy crap dude. So I called Brewer and said, "Dennis Bellinger can do this if Mel's really not gonna do it. And it sounds like, from the conversation I just had with him, he's really not gonna do it. He's not into this at all." So we got Dennis Bellinger and went out and promoted a couple of albums and did tours, but it wasn't the same.
Mel, at that point, signed an agreement saying that he would not come at us for using (the) Grand Funk Railroad (name) and he gave rights to all that stuff. I guess because we were being managed by Andy Cavaliere at that point, he recommended we do this. It was something legal, but I felt bad for Mel that he would have to sign off on something like that, especially being one-third part of the band.
In 1996 when we got back together and went out, it was again Mel and I talking. He said, "Let's see if we can put the band together. Let's see how it feels." And I said, "Well Mel, if you can get Brewer to come up here, let's do it." And we did. And it felt right. And at that point, we went out. We had Punch Andrews, who managed Bob Seger and Kid Rock. It was his organization that wanted to manage us. But we only did 14 dates that summer. In Punch's office, Brewer said to me that he didn't want Mark Farner going out doing solo shows because it would be competition for the Grand Funk shows. I said, "Well, since I've had 25 years of my solo career, I'll do that but only for a period of two years. Then I'm gonna pursue my solo career. I'm not gonna let my fans of my solo music down. So we agreed on that, but then at the end of the two years when it was time for me to do my solo thing, they didn't want me to do that. They wanted to keep Grand Funk going. I said, "Guys, you agreed to this up front. We were gonna do this for two years." And Brewer said, "I don't remember it being two years, do you Mel?" and Mel goes, "No, I don't remember that." I said, "But do you remember there being a time limit and I was just gonna go back and not just gonna do Grand Funk dates?" "Oh yeah, but we just didn't…" You know, hem-hawing around.
In the time I was out with that last reunion, Don Brewer came to me and said I needed to put the ownership of the trademark in the corporation, because we owned it. Each one of us was one-third owner of the trademark. And he said that it needs to be under this protective umbrella for the corporation or some shit (laughs). Because he went to law school, I figured he knew what he was talking about — I didn't finish high school! But I guess he did know what he was talking about it because when I did that, it put me under the whims of that two-thirds vote. I could not go out and advertise myself as I was. I advertised myself as Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. I never said Grand Funk Railroad was gonna be there. "Grand Funk Railroad" was always fifty percent the font size of the "Mark Farner" font, so people would not be confused.
That, today, has plagued me because of this permanent injunction order that I have against me from a federal judge since Brewer and Schacher took me to a federal courtroom and spanked my old whammy. What happens is that the promoters don't spend any money of Internet advertising and their site might say it correctly, but then there's the radio site and the newspaper site and all these other third-party sites that never saw the contract that will say, "Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner" or something like that. The federal judge who put the injunction order on me said it has to be "formerly of Grand Funk Railroad" and this is the only way it can be used. So, it's cost me a lot. I used to do 60 to 80 dates, and now I'm down to like 20. Who wants to hire a guy where they have to contact their attorney, because there's all these threats of lawsuits. So, it's been pretty tough.
Before you reunited in the 90s with Grand Funk, you recorded a few contemporary Christian rock albums and had a hit with a song called "Isn't It Amazing." How different did that kind of success feel compared to your success with Grand Funk?
The appreciation for the song felt great, but it wasn't the kind enthusiasm from the Christian market for that song, as there was from the secular market for "I'm Your Captain." I think because the song has been used in a lot of weddings and things like that, and it doesn't say "Jesus" or "God" or anything like that, it just talks about prayer. And people can relate to it. I think that's really the thing that sold it, even more than just what the Christians could buy into because it was talking about — "isn't it amazing what a prayer can do." John Beland, of course, wrote the song and he was Ricky Nelson's guitar player. When I talked to John about the song, I heard it as maybe Kenny Rogers might do it with kind of a country flavor to it. I could also imagine myself singing it and doing it the way we end up doing it. I enjoyed it myself.
But you sort of re-entered the mainstream when you landed the Ringo Starr gig in 1995. How did that come about?
David Fishoff, who had done a tour with us prior, gave a call to my agency and sought my availability for doing this tour. David and I are friends from way back. When "Isn't It Amazing" was a hit, I went out and did the Super 70s Fest with David that included the original Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Savoy Brown, Dr. Hook, Rare Earth and myself. We did what we called the "Winter Wasteland" tour. It was in the Midwest and it was winter and we were doing these little arenas. It was a good gig. David would always come out and watch me do "Isn't It Amazing." He said, "Man, I love that song." He's a spiritual guy who, in his heart of hearts, has to operate in a monetary world. I think those of us who can separate ourselves and still see who in the hell we really are — in spite of the influence of this money — can go back and use the money in the lessons we have (learned) to change things in the right direction.
Did you enjoy working with Ringo and the All-Starrs?
Oh yeah. Having to learn Randy Bachman's songs and Felix Cavaleri's songs and Billy Preston's songs and John Entwistle's songs — all those moments and the times that I spent with those guys and they're showing me these things — was very precious. I got part of them to play music with. It's like being married or having sex with someone — you get part of them. And it's with you from that point on. That's part of who you are now. It's wonderful to have that as part of who I am.
Of course, that sort of led to the Grand Funk reunion of the 90s, which despite the backroom politics you talked about earlier, was incredible for a fan like me. A couple of years after you left, Capitol launched a major reissue campaign, culminating with the Live: The 1971 Tour CD and the Trunk Of Funk boxset. Were you pleased with how the reissues turned out?
How involved were with these reissues?
I wasn't. Don Brewer was involved.
You had no input whatsoever?
No. There's a lot of Don Brewer. On the DVD that was released, I think "We're An American Band" is on there three times (laughs).
What about more Grand Funk DVDs? Maybe the whole Shea Stadium show? Or the Bosnia concert?
What I see in my own conjecture, with regard to that is that Grand Funk is not the Grand Funk those guys are trying to promote. They're trying to promote the band they're calling Grand Funk. They're trying to divorce themselves from the image of the former and original Grand Funk, which I think is a mistake. But you know…
Have you seen or heard the current version of Grand Funk?
No, but people whose opinion I trust have told me they've gone and seen it. I've heard from so many fans and gotten so many e-mails. They feel slighted because they went to see Grand Funk and I wasn't in the band. "Why didn't they say something about it?" You know, people wanted their money back. As far as bands advertising themselves and using that name, and really not giving the audience or the fans a heads up — at least, Creedence Clearwater Revisited gives you a heads up. You can do a little research and find out, "Oh so this is why it's 'Revisited' and not 'Revival.'
Maybe they should change 'Railroad' to 'Revisited'.
Yeah, Grand Funk Revisited (laughs). Well, you know, at least that would be a heads up and a step in the right direction as far as I'm concerned. Deception — man, why would you want to use that as a tactic?
Do you talk to Don Brewer or Mel Schacher these days?
The last time I talked to Don was when Terry Knight died. I called him and told him. But other than that — outside of the courtroom — no.
Do you foresee a day when you guys can bury the hatchet and reunite one last time?
I'd love to bury the hatchet. I went out to Capitol Records and sat across the table from all those people, and I told them that I was willing to promote this package they were about to release, which had the DVD with the Shea footage on it and the CD (Editor's note: Mark is referring to the Greatest Hits CD/DVD package released in 2006). It would be of no use for me to approach Don and Mel, so I asked f they would approach Don and Mel from the record company's point of view. They (the record company) were telling me they wanted to put a few hundred thousand dollars into the promotion of this thing if the band, the original Grand Funk, were to play a few dates, you know, go out and do 30 dates. Man, I thought, what a great idea and what a great opportunity to promote this product that I would be sharing the income for years with those two guys and why not do it. Here's the product and the money's already in the product, but they wouldn't do it. They said they'd do it with their current version of Grand Funk, and Capitol passed on it.