Mark Farner was one of the founding members of American rock legends Grand Funk Railroad. As well as being their lead singer and lead guitarist he was also the band’s principal songwriter. In this interview we look back at Mark’s career: forming Grand Funk, performing at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969 and London’s Hyde Park in 1971 as well as discussing the inspirations behind his songs, his collaborations with the likes of Ringo Starr and Alice Cooper not to mention his brand new DVD ‘From Chile With Love’ which is due out on 6th April.
DJ: When we think of Grand Funk Railroad we think of one of the legendary American stadium bands of the 1970s. But you actually started off as a stadium band pretty much from the get-go. One of your very first gigs was at the legendary Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969. How did that come about?
MF: Well, the attorneys that did the legal work for that pop festival were the same attorneys that Terry Knight, our manager, used for his legal work in New York City. So they worked a deal with the promoters of the pop festival to put us on first and we’ll play for free. Grand Funk plays for free just to get the exposure and then they gave him an adjusted fee for the legal work. So, you know – one hand washes the other. That’s how we landed that gig. What a lucky thing for Grand Funk!
DJ: Incredible! And how did it move on from there – from that spectacular opening?
MF: Well, of course, the record companies had a lot of acts there and Capitol, being one of the companies, were very interested in talking to Terry Knight at that festival about signing. And then he did a deal with Capitol – a production deal – and signed the band to himself under this production deal and told the band that the 6% that we were receiving and dividing was more than the Beatles was getting. And we said, “More than the Beatles! Wow, that’s cool.”
We didn’t know. We’re twenty years old, Brother. So, we finally find out years and years later – there was a contract between Knight and Capital Records for 16%. So he was keeping ten, giving the band six to split and then taking a management commission of that 6%, Dude. Aargh – the tales I could tell you!
DJ: I’m pretty sure virtually every successful musician of your generation has a similar tale to tell!
MF: Oh, absolutely.
DJ: In 1971 you came over to the UK to London and headlined at Hyde Park? Have you any memories of that particular day?
MF: Darren, I gotta tell you. There I was ready to tear things apart because I always got worked up before I go out on the stage. I had to burn it off. You know, do some boxer shuffles and stuff – with my guitar on just to burn it up. Then it’s like busting out…shoot number four.. dynamo… the bull’s riding you know! So, here I come and I did not know that the lighting director had put dance wax on that stage, Brother.
Ohhhh my god. I hit that stuff and my cord – because we didn’t have cordless back then, you had a coil cord. I had two twenty-footers that would lock together with XLR connectors in the middle like a mic cable and it gave me a great distance. I could run any stage. But I was not prepared for what happened. Here I am. I hit that stage and I come sliding out on the dance wax and I’m going, “Oh, shit. I’m not gonna stop! Oh, no! I’m going right over the front of the… Woo!” And there I was, standing in front of the audience with the stage ten feet up and I’m at the very end of that cord. That guitar cord was still in my axe and I still played from that position. I just made like it was part of the show, Dude. What a breaking in I had at Hyde Park!
DJ: That was a great welcome to Britain really, wasn’t it?
MF: Oh my god, yeah. It was wonderful.
DJ: Grand Funk Railroad were always portrayed as one of those archetypal down to earth blue-collar type bands, but your lyrics weren’t always just the traditional rock n roll themes of cars and girls and rock ‘n’ roll. Your lyrics often dealt with some of the themes that the more esoteric bands were dealing with – ecology and peace and war and so on.
MF: Yeah. That was a kid from Flint, Michigan who lived in the outskirts of town. I was not a city boy by any means. We lived on my great grandfather’s farm in the farmhouse he built. It was an eleven-room farmhouse, and we had an orchard to run in and we had a river to play in. No houses back then, you know. What a great place to grow up. And that’s what I had in me when I left Flint, Michigan, and I first got in an airplane. I had never flown before it was like, “Oh, my god. This is cool. Look at this.” You know, I was just at that stage of life and that stage of my maturity and it came out in my music. I think people appreciated the heart behind it. There was always a sincerity because I meant what I said. And when I show up in Santiago, Chile, and I walk on that stage, I am who my songs say I am
DJ: Looking across your entire career which songs would you say you are most proud of?
MF: Well, I would say first of all I’m your captain. Because of the vast audience – it really crosses a lot of lines. And for some reason – I mean I prayed for that song. I asked God to give me a song that would reach and touch the hearts of those that love wants to get to – because God is love and love is unconditional. And that’s really, you know, what we’re made of. But we’re convinced by somebody to believe in some form of indebtedness to something and that took us away from the truth – and that awareness that we had in that setting of love, the strength and the power of love. So, we’ve gotta get back to it. And that’s what the music says to the people. Even in foreign countries, Darren. There in Santiago and Lebanon – a friend that I got to know he learned English because he wanted to know what the lyrics to ‘Heartbreaker’ meant. And he said that it was tearing him up. He loved the song so much he learned English. Then he moves to Detroit and he owns a lot of property. His family came over. It’s a good thing.
It’s a good song. And it reached the hearts of our military because it came out at the end of the Vietnam era and it really touched the hearts of a lot of Vietnam veterans. In fact, they voted my song number one when they had the twenty-fifty anniversary of the Wall – the monument there in DC. And they asked me if I would come and play that song. Just bring an acoustic guitar and, you know, play the song. And I said, “If you’re gonna have a stage and lights and you’re gonna have a PA I’ll bring my whole band. We won’t charge you a cent. We’ll put a whole show on.” An entire show for the veterans. And there was not just the Vietnam American veterans, but our Canadian brothers and sisters were there, too. And there’s family and it was a community feeling. And when we got to sing closer to home to that particular crowd, Brother, it was hard because I had a softball right here (holds throat). I’m so choked. I’m looking at everyone crying and hugging just for what that song does for them. Oh, my god.
DJ: That feeling must come to you every time you perform it now?
MF: It does. It’s my reward for being true and getting my ass outa bed and writing that song. Because a lot of times prior to that I can tell you, I had songs going on in my head and I thought I could hold em – I’ll remember this until… It was gone! So, that one stayed, and it became what it is to people because of no video – there was never a video of that song – and because of that it’s the same as ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. At WNEW in New York City they polled, they asked an audience of a hundred people, “What is the definition? What does this song mean to you?” And they got a hundred diversely different definitions. Not any two were even close, the guy’s telling me. I said, “Out of a hundred people not even close?” “Not even close,” he said. So that’s the same thing that happens, I believe when people read a book and then they go see the movie and they say, “Oh, that movie sucks.” Because that movie that they were running, that one was their own imagination and we come up with a whole lot better stuff!
DJ: And that’s why music is so special and such a universal language because we can all have that connection in our own unique way.
MF: Yes. Absolutely, Brother.
DJ: And for those reading who’ve perhaps not followed your career so closely in recent years give us a quick low-down on your solo career.
MF: My solo career has been doing a lot of dates up until the Covid thing. Going out with a lot of different bands. Jefferson Starship and Blue Oyster Cult and you know, some of our friends that are still sucking air and playing music. It’s great to be able to do that. And I love the setting, like when we go out and do a hippy-fest or Happy Together (festival) and then there was a tribute to the Beatles that we did. Just to get together with other musicians it’s going to be a learning experience.
For instance, when I got together with Ringo Starr to do that gig, Randy Bachman – the guy that made that chord is showing me how to play it – and I’m learning. Randy is a solid guy. He’s a really good-hearted man. He’s a real dude and I appreciate him so much. And we had Billy Preston, John Entwistle, Felix Cavaliere. Oh, my god – just the talent that was there on that stage and nobody ran into each other. I mean, you know, it was like such respect. And when we landed in Tokyo and had the press conference and Ringo was sitting at the table – the band was down both sides, it was kind of like the last supper with Ringo in the middle and the band going down both sides. And a lady came up and she’s from a magazine and she said, “I’d like to ask Mr Farner a question.” So I stand up and she said, “What is it like playing with a Beatle?” And I go, “Let me tell you something, Ringo puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everybody in this room.” Ringo stands up and he goes, “Thank you, Brother. And he comes over and he gives me a big hug. A sincere man thanking me for just giving him this recognition of just being a guy. Because he is tormented by people who want his autograph, who want it – because of their imagination. Their parents had it. Their parents’ parents had it for the Beatles. It just gets passed on and then your imagination carries it to this next level. So I feel for him and I understand why he went on YouTube and he did that thing but he’s a great guy and he’s a good-hearted man. He really is.
DJ: And tell us about your new DVD From Chile With Love – which includes a charitable donation doesn’t it?
MF: It’s going to be released April 6th, the official date. It is Mark Farner’s American Band ‘From Chile With Love’. It is available on my website markfarner.com It is sixteen performance tracks with two bonus videos, one of which is available for a free download right now markfarner.com. It is ‘Rock and Roll Soul’ taken from this live DVD concert and we got five audio tracks. Five bonus tracks – songs that people will hear for the first time. All for $14.99 – such a deal!
DJ: When was the concert recorded?
MF: It was a couple of years back in Santiago, Chile at Teatro Caupolicán. It’s a very good concert. My wife, Lesia, and I take three dollars from each of the DVD sales, and we contribute to Veterans’ Support Foundation. And they are an outfit that is of veterans, by veterans, for veterans that take care of, you know, transitional housing, they take a veteran off the street, if somebody’s had a hard time getting what they’re owed by the government there is somebody who will advocate for them and stand in the gap there and make sure that they get what they served their country to get. And we believe in them because we’ve been working with these same people since the ‘70s and this is a get-it-done operation and there’s nobody getting paid there. It’s all voluntary work – so we put our money where our mouth is and we thank the buyers of this DVD, the fans who will help us contribute to our veterans and their families in this way. We appreciate it so much. And if I could give a number if anybody knows of a veteran who could use some help or knows somebody in a situation call free: 800 882 1316
DJ: You also performed on several tracks on Alice Cooper’s latest album Detroit Stories. How did that come about?
MF: Well my manager, Bobby Steinman, gave me a holler he says, “Hey listen. Alice Cooper’s doing an album. It’s going to be a tribute to Detroit. There going to use some early Detroit funk, some Suzi Quatro, some Bob Seger and I’m thinking, “Wow man, a tribute to Detroit and Alice Cooper’s asking me? What a privilege that would be – yeah count me in.” So, it was getting into the studio with Wayne Kramer – a friend from the past and I have the utmost respect for him. I remember seeing MC5 at Detroit fairground for a concert that was there with all the local acts. That was Iggy and the Stooges, Amboy Dukes and oh my god, yeah, a lot of local acts. And we saw the MC5 take the stage and every head within a half mile turned right towards the stage and went, “What the heck is that?” And I shared that with Wayne. Loved working with him.
Loved working with Johnny (Bee) Bedanjek on this same project. Jonny Bee played drums for me back in the ‘80s in a solo thing. I did a three-piece with Mark Gaughan and Johnny Bee and we went out down through the south and toured three-piece and rocked the place. It was great. And it was great because Johnny Bedanjek puts it down. He lays such a deep back-beat. You can’t fall out of it. He would drag you into it.
DJ: Did you hang out with Alice Cooper back in the ‘70s or did you just get to know each other through this project?
MF: No, it was because he was a headliner, and we were a headliner we never did. Our paths didn’t cross. But I did play music with Dick Wagner who was Alice Cooper’s guitar player. But it was gas to hang with him. And Alice is a perfect gentleman. He’s a humble person. What really impressed me, Darren, we’re sitting in a restaurant. We just get our food. His fork is half-way between his plate and his mouth, and somebody walks up and says, “Will you sign this?” And he puts the fork down and takes the pen. I’m telling you, he’s a humble guy and to work with Bob Ezrin – what a terrific producer. A talent. That guy is intense. He’s the most intense producer I’ve ever worked with, but I love that intensity about him, and I love the depth of his heart.
DJ: And my final question, and I must ask this on behalf of your British fans, is there any chance of you and your other two original band-mates from Grand Funk ever reuniting for one last time?
MF: It wouldn’t be for lack of participation by me. For over twenty years I have been attempting, for the sake of the Grand Funk fans to put the band back together – the real band. Listen, I don’t know what it is. I know it’s not nice or not good what keeps us apart. But I keep proposing this and it never gets met with any… like it’s for real. “Yeah, well put a plan together.” “Me? A musician put a plan together?” No, you get a promoter to put a plan together. You get somebody that knows what they’re doing, that’s been in the business, that stands to make a lot of money. That’s the person you put in charge. You don’t put the musician – you keep his head in the creative place. Thank god, that’s where mine has lived most of my life and I haven’t had to deal with the business shit that keeps bubbling up. Somebody’s got to deal with it and thank god my better three-quarters, Lesia, has a better grip on it than I do.
DJ: And is there one final thought you want to leave us with today?
MF: Yes, Brother Darren, I just like to leave everybody with the thought of being free in our minds, disconnect ourselves momentarily from every indebtedness, not just monetary indebtedness but the indebtedness that comes from unfulfilled expectations of other people and the like. People are moved from the place of comfort by this weapon known as debt. It is the most foul word in the English language. It encompasses more than it could ever let on, so reckon with yourself in your time, in your heart closet and know that you are free and you are the one that controls the gate. Owe no man anything except to love him.
Thank you to the music legend that is Mark Farner.
The DVD Mark Farner’s American Band ‘With Love From Chile’ is released 6th April 2021 and is available via https://markfarner.com/