When Grand Funk Lived With Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa: Exclusive Interview
Don Brewer, founding drummer and singer from Grand Funk Railroad, didn't just work in the studio with Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa in the '70s. They actually lived together, as Grand Funk completed a series of studio projects between 1973-76. He discusses their signature collaborations, and the possibility of a new album from the group, in a new interview with UCR.
Former Grand Funk producer Todd Rundgren is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. What are your thoughts?
It’s great and wonderful. I love Todd. I loved working with Todd, and I loved his material that he did back then. I have all major respect for Todd. He’s a great talent.
Some folks aren't necessarily aware that he had such an extensive second career producing some really incredible albums, including the records he did with Grand Funk. What did he bring to the process?
It was kind of like freedom. The recordings that we did with [early producer Terry Knight and engineer Ken Hamann] in Cleveland, it was still very old-school. As we got to the Todd Rundgren time [beginning with 1973's We're an American Band], radio was changing, and rock was changing from being FM underground to being a hit format. All of the songs had to be three minutes or four minutes long and they had to have verse / chorus / verse / chorus, that kind of structure. We brought Todd in and he totally understood that, and that that was what we were going for as well. We had gone through a major breakup with Terry. Terry had taken all of our money, and we were broke. FM radio was changing from FM underground to the hit format, and we had to make the transition. Todd was totally on board with that. It really worked; the whole thing worked. When we got into the studio with Todd, he didn’t record stuff flat, where there was no EQ, no echo, no nothing. That’s the old way of doing it. We’d put all of that stuff on when we mixed. Well, Todd threw all of that stuff out the window. When he’s recording, he’s making it sound to you in the headphones exactly what it’s going to sound like later: full-on EQ, full-on compression and full-on echo.
Here we are in the studio for the very first time, playing and hearing ourselves with headphones in a whole different world! For me, as a drummer, it was freedom! It was like, Oh, my God, my drums sound amazing in the headphones – instead of sounding like, Oh, gee, I have to imagine what it’s going to sound like later, because it sounds that way now. You start playing differently when you’re hearing that back, and I thought the band just responded and we played accordingly. It was great.
Listen to Grand Funk's 'We're an American Band'
Did Rundgren have a vision, as far as how you could make that transition?
No, it was just built-in Todd. He just does his thing. We’d be in the studio and we’d be rehearsing a song and he’d be sitting in the control room with his feet up on the board, reading a book. We’d go, “Okay, Todd, we’re ready.” He’d put the book down and hit record! That was recording with him. [Laughs]
What was your first impression when Rundgren showed up? I think in the ‘70s, next to David Bowie, Rundgren was the other really interesting and unpredictable-looking guy fashion-wise.
Tricolor hair, blue, strawberry red and blonde, if I recall. When he first came out to Michigan to record with us, Flint, Mich., was not ready for Todd – nor me, with a big huge afro. He stayed with me at my apartment in Flint, and we’d drive back and forth to the studio together. When we stopped at a 7-Eleven or whatever to pick up some food, the looks we got were pretty amazing. It was cool; I loved it. He was unnoticed, kind of, in New York, but in Flint, Mich., it was, "What is that?"
What was Rundgren like as a temporary roommate?
We got along well. I didn’t have any problems. I met him [again] later when we were doing the band Flint. I called Todd and said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing some guitar on this stuff?” I flew out to Woodstock and went to his studio, and he played some guitar on those tracks. We went out to dinner. I got along great with Todd, I really did.
Were there any debates as the band worked on those records with him?
No, we just loved the direction that he went in. At least I did. I loved the direction that he was taking the band, and I loved the way it sounded. We had a lot more trouble doing [1974's] Shinin’ On, because there were internal problems in the band. But at the time we did We’re an American Band, we were all together and all gung ho. We all had a common goal, and that was to get away from Terry and to get the band successful again on our own.
Listen to Grand Funk's 'Shinin' On'
Grand Funk worked with Frank Zappa on 1976's Good Singin’, Good Playin’ album. That seems like a collaboration that could have gone either way.
I got along great with Frank. Again, he stayed at my house. When we went to L.A., I went over and visited him at his house. I’d go to some of the mixes, and then we’d hang out together afterwards. He invited me over because he was working on some of his own stuff. He called me at the hotel and invited me over that night to come to the studio to work on one of the songs he was doing. I played bongos on “Let Me Take You to the Beach.”
Do you have a good Zappa story?
During [Good Singin’, Good Playin’], Grand Funk was in the process of breaking up. Of course, Frank knew. He could pick up on the tension and all of that kind of stuff. There was a point that I had had it. I was going to leave the session and [frontman Mark] Farner had had it. Frank, unfortunately was in the position of getting us both together and trying to salvage it and get us through the album – and he did. I give him complete credit for that. He got us through that record.
It seems like it may have been intimidating to show Frank Zappa or Todd Rundgren songs.
No, I thought they were totally into the stuff. I remember Frank came out to go through a rehearsal with us at our studio out in Michigan. We had decided we were going to work together. After he attended the session, we were throwing around, “What are we going to call this record? I can’t come up with it. We’ve got to have a concept.” Frank said, “Call it what it is, ‘Good Singin’, Good Playin.’” We were blown away. Here’s Frank Zappa. Oh, my God, Frank Zappa, the musician’s-musician kind of thing – and he thinks Grand Funk Railroad is good singin’, good playin’. It was an extreme compliment.
Listen to Grand Funk Railroad's 'Out to Get You'
Have you looked at maybe doing a new album with the current lineup?
We’ve explored that several times. We enjoy the live thing and we do the live thing well, and that’s plenty for us, really. We do new material in the show. We didn’t do it on [earlier shared dates on the Bob] Seger tour, because we were just an opening act, but we do new material. Over the past 20 years, we’ve had a lot of different songs that have come and gone in the show. My vision was always to do a live record that included all of those songs that had come and gone – along with the hits that we do. I think that would be a nice combination.
What else is on tap for the rest of the year?
We’re just trying to get back into the groove of doing what we were doing. We’ve got shows that we’re going to play out until December that basically came from 2020. They were all postponed and rebooked and rescheduled. We’ve got 30 shows to do in the six months left in the year, and that’s going to be a feat. We’re going to try to get through that. I think once we get back into the groove, it will happen pretty well. We’ll start booking 2022. We’ve already got some dates and we’re looking forward to that, too.