Transcript: Transcript Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner: A Rock Icon’s Journey

Hi, how’s your week been? I trust you’re in a good place. If for some reason though you’re not. I’m hoping that taking a listen to our guest today might just cure you of whatever was ailing, I guarantee you’re going to feel a little bit better for sure. Our chat today is with singer guitarist and songwriter Mark Farner, who’s best known as the lead vocalist and lead guitarist for the American Hard Rock Band, Grand Funk Railroad.

It was the early 70s and Grand Funk railroad’s founding members Don Brewer Mel Sacher and Mark Farner were precursors of heavy metal, and were promoted widely as the loudest rock and roll band in the world. For a hard rocker Mark Farner is surprisingly religious. As you get to know him a little bit here. You will understand why Mark has always been passionate about spreading love.

Hi Sandy Kaye.

Hi, a very big welcome to a Breath of Fresh Air. Thank you.

Where do we find you?

At my home rehearsal facility in Michigan in the tip of the mitt.

Your history is quite amazing Mark. And I’m hoping you don’t mind taking us all for a walk down memory lane. Because everybody knows you for founding Grand Funk Railroad. But you were doing lots of work before that, weren’t you?

Yes. And I’ve been active in the art of love growing in love all through my life. I’ve been at it a while.

I know that’s been your reading for some time. But you kind of started off like that?

Well, my father died when I was nine years old. And he was a veteran of World War Two veteran tank driver. My mother was the first woman in the United States to weld on Sherman tanks, which was the type of tank that my father was a driver. When he passed. My whole life changed all the kids. There was four of us at the time. And we all felt this amazing loss. And it was watching the family go from this Happy singing together harmonizing together, you know, making music every weekend together to this. Everybody’s down in the dumps. And that’s when I was nine years old is when i My father had just bought our first television set. And it was on and it was in the living room. And I walked out of the dining room through the corridor into the living room. And Billy Graham was on the television set. He was at a stadium in Flint, Michigan, and he was doing this drive as it was like a revival. As I’m walking by. He says do you need a touch from God? Do you need Jesus to touch you right and look at over him. I said hell yeah. Are you kidding me? I think I can use that and he says come over here and put your hand down and I you know a nine year old kid is he talking about? I’m looking around. I’m the only one in the room he must be talking to me. So I go over and I put my hand on the TV and I prayed with Billy Graham. My father was a very spiritual man. And he was full of love. I saw that love in him. I saw how people admired that love in him. And I always wanted to be like that, and I am slowly achieving it.

Both of Mark’s parents came from a place of love. And his Cherokee ancestry on his mother’s side brought the family a good deal of spirituality to

my great grandmother was full blooded.

And what part did that play in you? upbringing? Well,

it my mother would speak very fondly of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Ko-onee. And she married a New York City, Jewish man. And Jones. Abraham Jones. Yeah. So she said that my grandmother had healing hands and that people would bring sick folks over to my grandmother just to have her lay hands on them. And she said, people would walk out of their healed mark. She had it. And I esteemed that to be a combination of love. Before my dad passed, I saw that love and I saw the reaction of people to that. And it was in the music that they would play every Sunday, when I tell this to you. It’s like, I’m reliving it, Sandy. I see those great big people. And I’m still this little three four year old kid and listening to them sing and watching them play these great big instruments. And now I’m playing. I couldn’t hardly wait to Sunday, and we always had something wonderful to eat either southern fried chicken with hockey puck dumplings, or sloppy Joe’s. Lobby Joe is a ground beef with onions and garlic, and a cream tomato sauce. With some spices in there. Slappy Joe kind of gets all over it when you eat it, you know you’re holding it

and hence the name. So did you aspire to be a musician from that tender age?

I didn’t have it within me to imagine myself playing because those people played so good. It was like oh my god, I was I was completely enamoured by the whole adventure every Sunday. I never imagined that I would be able to play like

this. What’s not music when I play? Southern bluegrass stuff and gospel.

When my aunts and my grandmother and my mother and all the women were singing, I’m telling you something. It was like Angel Sandy. Yeah, that’s the way it came through to my ears. And everybody would just be hugging each other and loving. And that was part of the experience. And I didn’t really realize until I was 15 years old, that I wanted to play. I wanted to play football. I was defensive line backer over centre. I was in on every tackle, because I loved to hear my name called on the loudspeaker. They say that was foreigner number 66 in on the tackle, boy it just prance in across that. And my mother knew this about me. And when I had some injuries and the doctor told my mother there’s no way I could play football or run track that year. And she felt so sorry for me that she got me guitar lessons, six guitar lessons, and she rented an acoustic guitar. And I learned how to play. And then after the third lesson, it was hunting season for ringneck pheasant in Michigan and the guitar teacher had a an accident with a 12 gauge shot himself in the foot. So no more lessons.

So that first band that she started playing with was called Terry knight in the pack.

Terry knight in the pack came along after I had been in Mojo in the nightwalkers. That was our first band at the Genesee Ian’s and then we were the derelicts we had you know different incarnations were Getting up to when I went with Terry knight in the pack.

When I was with Terry night in the pack, I played bass they said can you play a bass I said, I played tuba in the marching band. I don’t know if I could play a bass. So, I went I got a bass come to find out I could play bass. It wasn’t that hard. But I sang background Don Brewer the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad. He was a drummer and Terry night in the pack and him and I and Kurt Johnson would sing harmonies together behind Terry and it made Terry sound good.

There were a couple more bands that came along before you decided to set up Grand Funk Railroad. When and why did you make that decision?

Well, because of the last incarnation of the band that we were in the pack. we whittled it down to just the fabulous PAC, they would call us. We had an opportunity to go to the East Coast. And they told us that if we would go play some promotional gigs that we could then make some real money. So we left Michigan, and we went out there with a U haul trailer and all of our equipment. A big snowstorm hit and we were stranded on Cape Cod. We were eating oatmeal with water that we melted down the snow, freezing our asses off. And when we got back to the guys in the band were married, and their wives were threatening divorce and they had to quit the band. So there we were. guitar player and keyboard player were out of the band. I looked over at her I said, let’s get some musicians that don’t even have girlfriends. We don’t want the women ruining our band. So when we got back to Michigan, we were waiting to get in to talk to these people because we wanted to find out what happened to our money. And as we’re waiting out there, the band that was rehearsing, had a good bass player. And I looked over at Don I said are you listening to this bass player? He says yeah, man. He says that guy can play and when they took a break, lo and behold out walks Mel Shacher and Mel and I went to school together we were friends. And I said, Melvin, I didn’t know that you were playing with these guys. Well, it was question mark in the mysterious who had a hit with 96 tears.

If I told him what we were up to, we’re going to start a band. He says, oh, yeah, man, I am so ready to leave this band. He was having problems, and they were having problems with him. So the following week, we were in the rehearsal facility, we were set up and playing, and I was writing the first album. And that’s how I started the three piece, Grand Funk. But we didn’t know we were Grand Funk yet, because Terry Knight had not really entered into the picture. It wasn’t until we had been rehearsing for two or three weeks, that Don came to rehearsal one day and said, Listen, I’ve been in contact with Terry Knight and he’s got some connections and we can get some real dates. And we would play for free

Terry’s connections. So the band booked for the first Atlanta Pop Festival in 1967. They didn’t make any money, but the experience proved invaluable.

We got up on that stage in front of 185,000 people and our lives changed. They loved what we were doing. They didn’t want us to get off the stage. And then when they found out that these three kids in this garage band from Flint, Michigan had this soulful music, they wanted more of it. We played on time the whole the entire on time album, and when you get 185,000 telling you what – that’s magic

Funk Railroad show we’re ready. And so we’re audiences everywhere. This star was on the rise.

Thanks for hanging in. If you’re into Grand Funk railroad’s massive hit, I’m your Captain Mark Farner is about to explain it all. It must have been one of the first times that white boys were playing that sort of music.

Well, we had been doing it all our career. I mean as much as two or three years. That was you know, because I started playing when I was 15 and Grand Funk had our first million selling album when I was 20. But that was the kind of stuff that I loved you know was soulful r&b but mainstream audiences hadn’t heard that sort of music coming out of white guys in those years so that’s right and we kind of introduced them to that part. It’s more of the r&b It wasn’t that we were doing blues. However, if you could do r&b, you can do blues, but we left the blues to the blues people and we are and beat it because we really love to dance and we love to get an audience up on their feet and watch them dance.

Where did the name come from? Terry Knight was a songwriter. And Terry gave us that name because he had a song that he had written called Grand Funk Railroad. It’s a play off an actual railway system that runs through Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Michigan, and Ohio called Grand Trunk, and Western. So he took the little twist on the letters, Grand Funk, and rail railroad. And when he recommended that we adopt that name, we all looked at each other and said, Yeah, that’s cool. That’s a good name.

You were an incredibly cool band, weren’t you? I mean, you still are today. But when you first set out and you sit audiences on fire, nobody could get enough of you. As you already mentioned, from that first festival, in 1970, came the song. I’m your captain, that was huge for you, too, wasn’t it?

Yes. And the orchestration that really emphasize that song, and really makes it. I think it takes it into a spirituality that we couldn’t have achieved in any other fashion. It was Tommy Baker, who was the bandleader on the upbeat show in Cleveland, Ohio. And when we went to play as Terry Knight, and the pack, we would play the upbeat show. We always admired Tommy Baker, because his band was tight. He was a horn player, and he had all these great musicians. It just so happens that one time that when James Brown was on the show, the trumpet player who blew a clam in the business, when you play a clam or blow a clam, it’s not good. It’s not a good experience. And so the reference to the clam came, and James Brown fired this guy right there. And he looks over at Tommy Baker. And he says, Tommy, can you read that chart, Tommy walks over with his horn, and he nailed it. He had this musical ability Tommy did. And when I was playing this lick for the owner of the station, David ended up managing Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey. And I’m playing this to him then he was just this young kid. I mean, he’s like 15 years old or something. And I’m showing him the chords to I’m your captain and Tommy Baker walks over and said, man, what, what is that song? I said, we’re going to record it. It’s called I’m your captain. He says, I got stuff in my head for that. He’s I’m hearing all this stuff right now when you’re playing it, I’m hearing it. He says when you get to the end of that refrain that you were just doing I’m getting closer to my home. He said just do that over and over and over. And he says and when you can’t do one more when you are ready to give it up to 10 more and I went Okay, so that’s what we did. We stretched it out. And it gave Tommy Baker that time and that space to create the beauty and the passion that followed the message of the words. Music videos, stifled creativity in music. Because without a music video, that song meant whatever it meant to the individual listener with no explanation of the video, acting out the parts and showing what it was supposed to be because of that. Millions of people that heard that song have their own definition. It’s like when somebody goes to a movie after they’ve read the book, they always say, I’ve never heard anyone say, yeah, they say that movies suck, man, the book was a lot better, because our imagination is at work.

Not fun. What did you have in mind, though, when you wrote that song?

I prayed for that song. One night, I said, God, would you please give me a song that would reach and touch the hearts of those who want to get to bam, I go to bed. I wake up at like three in the morning. This song was on my mind. I grabbed my pen and paper because I have right next to my bed. I have a steno pad with a pen. And so that I can write things down that come to me in the night because I’ve lost some of the best stuff I ever had Sandy, I lost it, because I said, Oh, I’ll remember that in the morning on it. No, I

think we all do that.

Yes. So there I was in I was in a semi-conscious state of mind. And these words started coming. Everybody listened to me. And returned me my ship. I’m your captain. I’m here kept, though I’m feeling mighty sick is like, and I knew that I couldn’t go back to the top. And in read, I had to keep going. And it was like, this presence was completely saturating me with the spirit, because I wasn’t completely awake. But I wasn’t sleeping by any means. But I was someplace between Heaven and the planet. I was, my mind was there. And these words just kept coming.

When I’m writing a song, I would go back to the top and read it down, go to the second verse and maybe get a third verse. After reviewing the process. This was not conceived in that way it was it was his own birth. And he just had to keep scribing to keep up with what was coming through you.

Yes. And I was so exhausted. At the end of writing this tune. I remember putting that paper down, grab the sheet and I threw it over me. I was gone. I was out like a light. But when I got up in the morning, and I went out and I fixed my coffee, and I’m looking at the horses out in the pasture, I grabbed my acoustic and I just pick it up, go bop, bop, bop and doo doo doo. Wow, that’s a pretty good leg. And then I hit this inversion of a C chord that I’d never hit before. But I held down the G and then reached over with my fingers and got the seat and I and it chimed there was a harmonic chime that happened that just captivated my attention. And I’m looking at my fingers going, Wow, I better remember this. This is man. This is some kind of chord right here, you know, and I’m looking at it. And as I’m studying my fingers came to me that the words in the other room just might be a song. It was just all put out to me and I didn’t rehearse it. I didn’t come up. It just came out this way. How does that feel for you? It feels Like, God answered a prayer, and God is love Sandy. And I felt the love when I took it to rehearsal, and I said, What do you guys think of this and I hit the button. And Don and Mel are looking at each other as this song is playing, they looked at me and they said, Mark, that songs I hit man, that song is a hit. And they were right. It means whatever it means to whoever it is, is listening to it.

How then do you move on to the next one? How do you top that? Where did you go to next?

Well, I’ve never really intentionally went any direction. I’ve always gone on the feel what’s going on in my soul? And after? I’m your captain, I mean, we did to E Pluribus funk. And I got this. Gibson SG, a white SG guitar from Stevie Mariette from Humble Pie. He brought it over. When they opened our show at Shea Stadium. I played it in my hand, love this guitar. It was very comfortable to me. So I started writing music and this guitar brought the whole entire E Pluribus funk album out of me and it was inspired because this guitar has its own nature it has its own characteristic I wrote I come tumbling people love that song. And on E Pluribus funk was square foot stomp and music came in. And I did that and the lead on foot stomp and does everybody want to you know they people love that stuff?

It just went from I’m your captain into like E Pluribus funk. And people, especially guitar players, they just love E Pluribus Funk because of that guitar sound.

I’ve spoken to a lot of artists and ask them, you know, where they got inspiration for certain albums, certain songs. I don’t think anybody’s told me it’s from the actual guitar that they’re playing. I never realized that a specific guitar could make such a difference. Oh, yeah. Do you still like Gibson today?

No. The guitar that I play on stage now is the one I got in 96. And I call her baby. She’s my baby. I got a backup back-up to her. Then her name is Ruby. You haven’t got as many it’s baby King. Now, take me to the

locomotion. What year was that?

1974 was a very good year. Todd Rundgren was producing. I went home for lunch and we were at the studio called the swamp. And I went home for lunch this day, on my way back to the studio. And the driveway kind of snaked down through the woods. You couldn’t just look back to it. And it’s a beautiful sunshiny day. And I’m walking down the dirt road. And as I’m walking along, I hear the guys they’re out in the parking lot. And I started seeing everybody’s do it or brand new dance now. And they start singing the backgrounds. Camo Baby, do the local. And I couldn’t see him yet. But I’m still, you know, singing, I’m singing the song. And as I come around the corner and I’m clearing the last bit of trees, they’re out there and they’re tapping on the car and making the rhythm and Rundgren comes walking out the end of the building. Because the door was wide open and we’re getting some fresh air inside. He says, What the hell is that? I said, What do you tell But that’s literally the that’s the locomotion. He says we’ll get your asses in here because we’re going to record the locomotion. And I tell you that we walked into that studio Sandy and he hit the red button on the 24 track and he came out into the studio room with us and he sang and he grabbed my Echoplex, the tape head on my affected for my guitar. And when I was playing the lead, he would run the tape head from one end down to the other and it sounded like the guitar was eating itself.

The husband and wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote the locomotion, which was originally recorded by little Ava in 1962. It was an unlikely song for Grand Funk Railroad to record but that little song about a dance Christ took the band all the way to number one more in a sec.

Welcome back. Grand Funk Railroad founder Mark founder has been telling us about how it was Todd Rundgren who convinced the band to record the locomotion it was a tongue in cheek kind of thing. And Todd had the idea of doing the song like the Beach Boys Bob Moran he added a whole lot of handclaps to it to make it sound like there was a big party going on.

We had a party in that studio and it showed up in the groups and people loved the locomotion.

It was such a happy song and you guys were in such a happy frame of mind so it all poured out of you right absolutely.

Did you ever get down and write songs when you were not feeling good?

Yeah, I wrote mean Miss Streeter when I got down. That was when I first took delivery of my Fender Rhodes piano. I lived in this house I was renting that had a big attic. And it was just one giant room over the house. And I had the people from the music store, set it up up there so that I could have all that sound around me and when they left and I was the only one in the house and I went up and I started playing the song my hands came down on those chords I had never played those chords before I’m not a keyboard player I’m they this this is just what these kind of comes out it made me very melancholy really mean this treat you made me cry.

Are you satisfied with the way it was like okay, and it’s coming back to me in this room. That’s very cavernous. In the sound carries better than any shower I’ve ever been in. It’s government beggary. And I wrote me in mystery to write there. I was inspired by that instrument Sandy,

another instrument that’s inspired you how incredible. I can’t imagine you getting down to often. And most of the songs that Grand Funk did was certainly not melancholy songs, were they I mean, let’s talk about some kind of wonderful for example.

Yeah, now that song came about because we were on our way to the gigs, we were warming up our vocals we’d sing locomotion or some kind of one, it was something that was our r&b Hit that because that’s what we listened to growing up. And he was a road manager at the time and he capillary but he turned around and he says, You guys, man, what is that song you keep telling us some kind of wonderful? And he says, Well, you guys need to record that. That would be a great song for you guys to record. Well, it was a regional hit. John Allison wrote the song, he was in a group called the soul brothers six. And that’s where we heard it. So we went in the studio with Jimmy Einar and he was a master with voices on records he always made the voices come out the raspberries he he made very good vocal records like bad time to be in love you can hear all of the background vocals you can hear all the vocals and it’s part of the entire sound rather than you know a lot of rock music. The vocal will come out once in a while but it’s back in there with the mashing jam but with some kind of wonderful the way we did it and not having any instrumentation outside of the bass guitar and the drums for the first two verses and then we go into the Can I get a witness part and bam here comes to be three Oregon even now today when we do it on stage people have to get out of their seat and dance in.

You’re flying high still you’re playing everywhere. People are loving what you’re bringing? What happens then come 1976 and Grand Funk decided to split up? Well,

we were waiting for Dawn Brewer the drummer after recording studio. Dawn was like an hour and a half late and he was never late for anything. And we thought, man, should we start looking around? Should we call the sheriff’s department and see if there’s been an accident? Maybe he’s been involved in an accident. You know, you start thinking what the hell then we hear his car pull in the door open. He walks in and he says, Guys, I got to do something more productive, more satisfying with my life says I quit. And I looked over and I said what? He says I’m over it. And he turns around and walks out. Just like this that. Yep. And so from that point, I knew he was serious. And I started calling Some musicians that I knew. So from that point, I made two albums on Atlantic Records. And I kept touring. Because if you don’t use it, then you lose it.

And of course, you had a ministry of Love through your music going to that was

your mission? Yes, absolutely. And there’s only one place you can get a fix for this Jones that I have. And that’s on the stage, inspiring people to be happy, in spite of whatever else is going on in your life. Let’s just all be happy right now. Yeah.

Good words to remember. We should all take that on board, Mark Farner? For sure. So today, you’re out there playing with your own band, aren’t you? You haven’t had a break all these years, you did come back together with Grand Funk for a little while through the 80s and 90s. But now it’s you with your own band. What are you doing out

there? Mark, foreigners American band, we go out and do the fox stuff. I put in some of the my own solo stuff every once in a while. But we’re making people happy. I just returned from a special guest appearance with the Ides of March for an association that puts service dogs in the hands of veterans.

So you’ve spent your time working for charities working for causes. The lyrics are all about Earth and stopping the war all about love. You know, despite being the ultimate rock star, you’re really a down to earth guy. You’re a husband, you’re a father, you’re a grandfather, and you’ve been married to your wife more than 40 something years. That’s very an Rockstar, like,

Yeah. And she’s my better three quarters and the I don’t

I love it. That’s awesome. Mark Farner you are a true gem. I’m so glad we’ve had this chat. And I thank you for being so generous with your time and sharing your fabulous stories. Of course, a lot of them are written down in the book that you wrote out there.

Well, some of them are I’m about I have another book to write.

I imagine you’ve got lots of stories still to tell. Do you think we’ll see that book? You’ve got time to put that one down too?

Yes. The people that put out from Chile would love a want me to do a book and include an audio visual DVD in the book of me telling some of the stories not just reading them from the page but you know coming from my lips because there’s something to be said for that expression is areas Yes. I don’t know what the name of that will be but it’ll be the continuation from the first book

as well when it comes out. I hope we can have another chat. And in the meantime, why don’t you bring your band down to Australia we’d love to see you here.

I would love to come to Australia and the only reason I’m not all over the world is because my agent hasn’t put me there I climb up his back and down his spine is

fan of 14 Top 40 hits five top 10 Yeates to number one’s 30 million records sold and 16 gold and platinum records. Your contribution has been just awesome. And it ain’t over yet. We thank you so much for the music. And for your time today.

Thank you, Sister. I appreciate it so much. And I love talking to you, Sandy, Kaye, you got it going on, you got a good glow. And I think that we are compatible and that we can have this conversation that goes beyond us into your listeners ears. And I just like to say something to the listeners, set yourself free people, set yourself free, nobody can do it. But you know.

Great talking to you all the very, very best. I look forward to the next time we can chat.

And I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much. Bye for now.

Mark Farner became a born again Christian in the late 80s and has put out an array of Christian music ever since. In the 90s. He briefly rejoined Grand Funk and was voted into the Michigan rock and roll legends Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 2015. You can catch up with all his stories in his book from Grand Funk to grace. Thanks for lending me earlier today. It’s been great having you with me. Don’t forget if you have someone special you’d like to hear from, just send me a message through the website, a breath of fresh and I’ll do my very best to get that person onto the show for you. Take care of yourself, won’t you Till we meet again. I look forward to being back in your company again same time next week. Bye now.