Kevin Churko wears many musical hats, and has worn them to hit-making effect. The multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer/songwriter first broke through via his work in the hard rock genre, with major acts Ozzy Osbourne and Disturbed – the kind of stuff that’s won him four JUNO Awards and two Grammy nominations, so far. Churko’s best known as a producer and engineer for talents as diverse as Five Finger Death Punch and Shania Twain.
Truth is, his first love was writing songs with brother Cory. Saskatchewan-born Kevin left school after Grade Nine to tour Canada in the family band Churko, which mostly played country music. It was also the situation in which he became interested in the recording process, becoming the band’s equipment guy, which eventually lead to his emergence as a top-flight producer.
“At this point in my career, the songwriting thing is somewhat of a full circle,” says Churko. “I’m doing a number of country music projects, including Canadian act [and SOCAN member] Cory Marquardt, who’s just signed a worldwide recording deal with our parent company, Advanced Alternative Media.
“I feel songwriters fall into two main camps: those who write from passion and those who are commercial writers. If you’re writing from passion, you write whatever you want. I rarely write something close to my own heart. I’m writing for the people I’m working with. I write with other voices in mind. Be it male or female, aggressive or passive, my job is to write something that makes them feel passionate. It’s a situation where I’m really there to serve them, and that dictates the writing.
“With Cory, the songs are very personal to him. Pretty much every song, Cory starts and then [my son] Kane and I come in and work to capitalize on what he has, trying to make every section as good as it can possibly be. Almost all the songs on the album are co-writes by the three of us.
“I’m a very goal-oriented producer and writer. We’re currently working with a rapper and the responsibilities are very distinct. He comes up with the verses and we contribute the choruses, and make sure it’s hooky.”
Churko made his mark producing and engineering, and allows that his involvement with songwriting for major acts was a gradual, almost organic process.
“I’m not one to push myself into a situation,” he explains. “When a project comes to me, if the songs are solid as they are, and they don’t need anything from me, I wouldn’t get in the way. I respect those songs but I’m ready to help in any capacity I can. At the end of the day, the projects where I contributed to the writing were the most successful ones I’ve had.
“I tailor a song to the client. Be it metal, rock, country, or what, a good song is a good song.”
“I tailor a song to the client. Be it metal, rock, country, or what, a good song is a good song. I’ll just say, ‘This song could use a better chorus. Let’s see what we can do.’ So I do this and that and see if they like it. Sometime I do more, sometimes I do less. It’s all in the service of getting the song at its best.”
And, he might add, at its most successful. Churko co-wrote all but one of the songs for, and produced, the Disturbed album Immortalized, which debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 album chart in 2015, and scaled the peaks of four other Billboard charts: U.S. Top Hard Rock Albums, U.S. Top Rock Albums, U.S. Top Alternative Albums, and Canadian Albums. The same year, he also produced and co-wrote the Got Your Six album for Five Finger Death Punch, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and sold 114,000 physical copies within the first week of its release.
In the two-year period from December 2013 to January 2016, Churko co-wrote (and co-published, via his company Gumpofwump) no less than six songs that reached No. 1 on the Mediabase Active Rock charts in the U.S.: “Battle Born,” “Wrong Side of Heaven,” and “Wash It All Away” by Five Finger Death Punch; “The Vengeful One” and “The Light” by Disturbed; and “Face Everything and Rise” by Papa Roach. He recently moved his Las Vegas studio, The Hideout, to new digs, decorating them with his multiple SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards.
Churko’s burgeoning reputation as a maker of bespoke tunes has taken him to the stage where acts come to him for a specific type of song, and he’s only too happy to oblige.
“Artists will come in and say, ‘I need a song like one of your bands, so-and-so. Will you help me write that song?’” he says. “My son Kane and I work in collaboration lots of the time, and when we get one of those, we can start working it out ahead of time. It’s almost ‘skeletoned’ when the artist comes in for the fleshing out.
“Kane is a songster in his own right. He’s already co-written on some of the hits we’ve had, and has his own band, Modern Science – so he’s well along the songwriting road. I don’t show him the ropes, any more than he brings fresh stuff to me. He wrote a couple of hits off the last Papa Roach album by himself. I work with Kane not because he’s family, but because he’s the best I could find. He brings a new generation’s ideas and often he guides me along.”
In 2013 Kevin and Kane were jointly JUNO-nominated as Producer of the Year, for their work on In This Moment’s “Blood” and “Adrenalize,” and won the Recording Engineer of the Year honours for In This Moment’s “Blood” and Five Finger Death Punch’s “Coming Down.”
“Early in my career I was hired to write dance songs,” says Churko the elder. “It was a very educational experience, and it was interesting to put myself outside my comfort zone, away from my interests. I scoped out the genre and got down to writing songs that were good when stripped to the core. That project was where I proved to myself I could do this songwriting thing.”