"Rock Patriot" Mark Farner Can't Fake The Funk
As the lead singer and guitarist for Grand Funk Railroad, Mark Farner has powered songs like "I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home," "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "The Loco-Motion" into the Classic Rock Canon.
Along with drummer Don Brewer (who sings on "We're An American Band") and bassist Mel Schacher, the three men from Michigan moved a lot of vinyl in the '70s and - at their peak of popularity - sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles did. Oh, and according to an episode of The Simpsons, they are also Homer's favorite rock band.
And while Farner split for good from his bandmates, who continue to tour under the GFR moniker, more than a decade ago, he continues to perform and record, arriving at the Arena Theatre Friday as part of the "Hippiefest" package tour.
Rocks Off spoke with the "Rock Patriot" about gunfire in the Bayou City, his messy musical divorce, and where politics, God and car engines come together.
Rocks Off: I was just listening to the Deep Tracks channel on Sirius, and they played the Grand Funk Railroad song "People Let's Stop the War." It could have been written this year. Any plans to pull it out for the show?
Mark Farner: We're stickin' with the hits because that's what the people want to hear, but you're right. Those words could have been written today. The words apply, and it's the still the same creature. We just haven't caught up to it yet.
Rocks Off: Any specific memories of being in Houston over the years?
Farner: Oh yeah, Houston was always a big city for us. There was a lot of love there for Grand Funk. I remember one time we were doing this theatre in the round, but out back, after the show, people were scuffling around and there was some gunfire. As it turns out, a couple of the cops were shooting at each other. So that's how I remember Houston! That had to have been in the early '70s.
Rocks Off: Grand Funk's music was always hugely popular with listeners, but never so with critics. In the end, are you glad it has turned out that way rather than vice versa?
Farner: Oh yeah. Because in the end, being true to one's self is the ultimate goal and not try to measure up to someone's expectations. Because then you're in debt consciousness and to be free, you need to be debt-free. Even the crap that people put on you because you didn't fulfill some expectation and they get you on some poo-poo list. The music is coming from a place that's void of that.
Rocks Off: Any plans for more live archival GFR releases?
Farner: Well...I would hope so. But the other two guys are trying to promote a different image for Grand Funk Railroad with their current lineup of three others guys and them. They don't want to release that stuff because they don't have anything to compare it to.
Rocks Off: I interviewed you back in 1998 and you were on tour with Don and Mel. I've read so many conflicting stories about why the three of you dissolved the next year and are no longer in the band. What's your perspective?
Farner: In the early stages of [the reunion] we had talked to two [managers] who were handling Bob Seger and Kid Rock and some acts from Detroit, and they were going to handle Grand Funk Railroad coming back out. The first summer, we only did about 14 dates. But we initially agreed that I would not go out and tour any solo dates because Brewer thought it would be too much competition for Grand Funk if I did that. And I said that I wouldn't do [solo shows] for two years, but then I would pursue some of those dates.
David Fishof, who does the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camps and Ringo's All-Starr Tours, handled us the next year, and we did the  Bosnia record and helped put a wing on a hospital. David went to negotiate for a higher [royalty] rate at the record company - we were still getting paid on the rates of 45s and cassettes and not even CDs. Don got mad at him for doing that and, I don't know...I only had a high school education. Don went to law school after the band broke up.
So one night in 1998 after we did a show in upstate California, Don Brewer comes to my room and says, "We need to sign our individual ownership of the trademark into the corporation" to have this protective umbrella. And I thought "Well, he went to law school, he knows what he's doing." I thought he was my friend.
So he says "I got it in my room and I'll go get it." And I thought why didn't he just bring it into the room [at first]? And it didn't dawn on me until after I signed it that then him and Mel were going to throw me out of the corporation as an officer and go out with these other guys. And there I was.
I reminded them of the two years [limit] they agreed to and they said "We don't remember no two years." It was very shady. It's the same way they go out and don't tell people it's not the real Grand Funk. [I'm] the guy that wrote and sang 90% of that original music!
Rocks Off: It's like when the current lineup of Styx craps on Dennis DeYoung...who wrote and sang on most of their hits.
Farner: Yeah! I hear ya, brother!
Rocks Off: Despite all of Grand Funk's popularity, you're not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now that the Stooges and Alice Cooper and other harder Michigan-area bands are in, could it be time for you?
Farner: Well, I always tell people that we aren't in because we have not obtained the brown ring around the lips! (laughs) And I am not bound to that God!
Rocks Off: How is your son doing? [Jesse Farner suffered a spinal injury in 2010 which left him mostly paralyzed]
Farner: Doing better. He's fallen in love, and the gal he's fallen in love with was one of his nurses. She was paid by the state - Jesse has no insurance - so he comes in, and they fall in love. And that's an answer to a prayer. He was not feeling too good about going on with life. And for whatever reason, this gal - who was engaged to be married - fell in love with my kid. And they can't get enough of each other. She takes care of him, it's unbelievable.
Rocks Off: Finally, you've been outspoken about your born-again Christianity and conservative politics as "Mark Farner, rocker," but does it ever come up when people don't necessarily know who you are?
Farner: It has been on that way several occasions, like sitting next to person on a plane. It comes about "Oh, what do you do?" and my guitar is in storage, so they don't know. I tell them I'm a musician and they ask "Would I know any of your songs?" And I say "Well...you might." And Then they're like "Wow, you're that guy!" (laughs) But sometimes the conversation goes political, sometimes it goes spiritual, and sometimes it stays on engines and motors!
For more on Mark Farner, visit www.markfarner.com.
"Hippiefest," featuring Dave Mason, Mark Farner, Rick Derringer, Felix Cavaliere's Rascals, and Gary Wright ("Dream Weaver") is 8 p.m. Friday at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Fwy, 713-772-5900.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.