David Duchovny is best known as an award-winning actor, director, and novelist starring in the smash TV shows The X-Files and Californication, winning a Golden Globe Award for both. His first novel, Holy Cow, was released by Farrar Straus and Giroux in February 2015 and hit the New York Times Best Sellers’ List. Holy Cow was the follow-up to Bucky F*cking Dent, released globally in 2016, also hitting the New York Times Best Sellers’ list. He released his third nationally bestselling novel, Miss Subways, in 2018, and his most recent book, released earlier this year, Truly Like Lightning, is now in development as a television series at Showtime. He also released The Reservoir, an Audible original novella and recently wrapped shooting on The Bubble, a new Judd Apatow film.
When it comes to his music career, Duchovny will release his third album Gestureland on August 20th (GMG/Westbound Kyd). The set is the follow-up to his 2018 release, Every Third Thought.
Gestureland builds on its predecessor’s musical and lyrical themes while exploring new territory, as heard on the first single, “Layin’ On The Tracks.” Duchovny felt passionate about putting out a song around the election as the country braced. It premiered on Rolling Stone’s official website, and of the track, he says, “I just wanted to go on record in a way that was both personal and political.” The songwriting for Gestureland is indeed a mix of political and personal, exploring how people are more immersed in a virtual world, everyone making gestures rather than genuinely connecting.
Duchovny is eager to take Gestureland on the road and tour. “I always get such a kick playing live,” he said. “We make our show into a whole evening and take people on a journey. I can’t wait to do a version of this album for a tour.” Live dates should be announced later this year.
Our heartfelt thanks to David Duchovny for taking a healthy chunk out of his afternoon last week to field a few questions for us via Zoom. The video/audio (via SoundCloud) is available here if you’d prefer to hear his answers in real-time.
Good afternoon, David.
David Duchovny: “You’re in Toronto?”
Yeah. Just outside of Toronto.
“I’m going to be there in September for a week. My daughter is going up to shoot a Netflix series up there, and I’m going to visit her in September.”
Nice, that’s awesome. Do you think you might get up here and maybe play a concert sometime in the near future?
“I would love to. When those things are not matters of life and death.”
We only just came out of lockdown, right? Three, four weeks ago. We’re way behind you guys.
“I know. I’ve got a good friend, actually a high school friend, that lives in Toronto, and he drove across the border to go get his shot. I guess he’s still an American citizen, but he loves Toronto. He was dismayed at the pace of the vaccinations.”
Ironically, now we’re ahead of everybody else as far as vaccinations. But we have no in-country manufacturing, and that’s slowed us down, right?
“Yeah. Well, good. I’m glad you caught up and passed us. I can’t believe that we’re still less than 50 percent, or right around 50 percent. It shouldn’t be shocking. But it is.”
What did the vaccination mean for you? Because you actually contracted COVID-19. Are you now immune to it?
“I don’t know, and I had a pretty strong reaction to the vaccine; I think that was expected if you’d had COVID. I guess you already had antibodies. In my sense, my abode was like, ‘Hey, seen that before!’ That’s not a medical term I’m using there… the ‘Hey, seen that before!’ is not actually what the doctors say. I think what gets lost in all this is, yes, one should take care of oneself. But a lot of the mask mandate and the vaccinations is about keeping other people safe that we are breathing the same air. The selfishness of not playing along, of not trying to be a good community member. It’s not shocking, but it’s distressing to me.”
Yeah, I agree. So listen, I saw that your last album was attached to Pledge. Did you get stuck in the swale of the Pledge Music campaigns all going down?
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about (laughs).”
So, I did a bit of research on your last two albums, and I saw that Every Third Thought was a Pledge Music campaign. Pledge Music went down and took a whole bunch of people’s money with them. And artist’s money.
“God, I’m not even aware. That shows you what kind of businessman I am. I don’t know; I’m going to talk to my man Brad Davidson when we get off the phone here.”
Alright, so where do you think you will release the physical product of Gestureland? I went on your website, and you’ve still got some old products there. Do you think you’re going to release anything physical?
“Yeah. It’s just going to be vinyl; where does one release vinyl? I guess those places. But mostly, the physical artifact of the album these days is really a piece of merch for the most point. It’s an artifact. It’s a memento, unfortunately. I grew up buying and loving albums and fetishizing them, keeping them close, touching them, and reading them over and over and over and over again. So I love the fact that I get to make vinyl. The fact that somebody won’t be going through the vinyl bins at a store and chancing upon or looking for mine? Well, that’s just the way the world has changed. But no, I think it’s really like a t-shirt at this point, a vinyl album.”
Can you describe how you approach writing music? Is it different than when you are approaching writing a novel?
“Oh, yeah. Well, with a novel, I have an idea or a few ideas. But I’ll interrogate them and kind of see what they are, how heavy they can be. What kind of structure they can bear, what kind of unfolding of a plot, of a nature, of a character. If there’s a certain kind of weight to a novel idea that I have to feel in order to think that I can go forward with it. A song usually will just happen if I have a chord progression that I’ve been playing that I like, or I have a lyric that I like or a little bit of a melody that I like that I’m looking for chords for it. And then it’s just like something that happens like in the air at the moment. Most of the songs get written fairly quickly, over an hour or a couple of days. Some of them had taken a long time. Some of them are two half songs that I throw together. Some of them are a verse that I come up with and lay it on the band, and I let them come up with the rest, or chorus or a bridge or something.
Starting a novel is always kind of the same, where I have an idea; I interrogate it, I do a little research, and either go or I don’t. Songs are very different, the way they happen; I do know that they are of the moment. I’ve been watching The Rick Rubin Paul McCartney show (McCartney 3, 2, 1) on Apple TV, which is fascinating because you’re listening to him talk about songs that seem as inevitable as the weather. You realize that it was his mood. Maybe he had to pee; he was hungry; they needed to have it in 20 minutes; they had a new toy. And it’s like, yeah, that’s my experience of writing a song; it’s very, very of the moment, very just what’s happening now. And if I try to write a particular song today, it would be a different song than the song I would try to write tomorrow.”
You’re storytelling in such a short increment of time as well, not 500 pages or whatever to do a novel and tell your full story, you’re conveying something so short, and it has to be very concise. It’s different.
“Yeah, well, my approach to that… And again, it’s interesting to hear Paul talk about lyrics that have become kind of monumental; I realized they were just throwaways at the time. I actually watched a Paul Simon interview with Dick Cavett. If you’ve ever watched that old Dick Cavett stuff? It’s good. It was good interviewing, and Paul was really articulate about songwriting. They were talking about The Graduate, and ‘Mrs. Robinson and Cavett asked, ‘How did that happen?’ And Paul said, ‘I was trying to score a chase scene (mimes the riff in the song),’ and I was like, well, now that makes sense; that does sound a little bit like a car chase. At first, it was, ‘Where have you gone, Mrs. Roosevelt?’ And then Cavett said, ‘well, Why Joe DiMaggio? Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?,’ and he was like, ‘Well, it was just something that had the right amount of syllables, and it came to me, and I knew that it meant something, I just didn’t know what it meant yet’ (laughs).
And that’s really what songwriting is like. Stuff comes to you, some of it is logical, some of it is tracking, but then because a rhyme or syllable count or whatever, and you’re forced to just grab shit out of the air, and sometimes you go; that means something. I don’t know what it means, but that means something. I’ll figure out what that means later.”
With the preamble that came along with the press release on Gestureland, you are likened to The Wallflowers and Wilco, which I can hear on some of the songs, but I heard a little bit more Built To Spill. The reverb on some of the guitar solos on the songs reminded me of that kind of a recording style.
“Yeah, well that’s all production and arranging, that’s really something that’s collaborative with my guys, with my band, with Colin (Lee) and Pat (McCusker). My music education is limited, but my exposure to music is not, especially because I’m a lot older than those guys. So I’ve heard a lot more songs than have. So I will say on a song, ‘Hold on, I want it to sound a little more like this example.’ For instance, with ‘Nights Are Harder’ I was in Vancouver, I was in, and I watched Neil Young, and I’m not just talking about Canadians because you’re in Toronto, but I went to see Neil, and he did a solo at the end of either ‘Cinnamon Girl’ or ‘Down by the River’ where literally it was like a ten-minute solo where he ended up on the ground with the guitar, and it looked like they were just wrestling. I don’t know who won, but it was a good match.
And I said to Pat, that’s kind of feel I want, aside from that garage band with a little chunky, muddy guitar riff at the end, because he plays out to a long solo at the end. I just want to feel like you’re fighting the guitar like you’re trying to make it make a sound that you’re not getting, and you’re going to keep on rephrasing it until you do. And I love that; I love that idea. I liken it to acting when people ask me, ‘Who are my favourite actors?’ And I don’t like to talk about that, but I’ll say, ‘You know, I think the best actor I’ve ever seen is Meryl Streep.’ I wouldn’t say she’s my favourite actor, but it seems to me that she can do almost everything, and I find that almost unrelatable. She doesn’t have to wrestle her guitar at all. I mean, I’m sure she works her ass off. So my apologies to her if this sounds like an insult because it’s not – she’s the best, but it’s like, I love the wrestling as limitations, I love the fight against your own instrument, that’s just either your own skill, your own instrument, your own talent.
To me, that’s what art is all about; less the beauty of it and more of the struggle to get something out through what you’ve been given. If that makes any sense?”
That’s a nice segue into what was it like parking these songs for almost a year and coming back to them after the pandemic? How much did they change, and what did you bring to them because of the pandemic?
“I think they changed a lot in terms of production, in terms of the sounds we were going for, because we had a long time to live with them. We were nearly done when we had to shut down. So we had worked the songs, we had thought about them, we had lived them for a while, and then when we shut down, we had to live with them for a lot longer without being able to touch them. Because at that point, the melodies weren’t going to change, and the chords weren’t going to change, but what might change is the production. And for me, it’s always about the emotionality of a song. The sound obviously, I want it to be pleasing in some way. I want it to hit my ear in a way that I like. I’m not trying to game the system; I’m not trying to figure out what the marketplace’s ear wants. I couldn’t ever; I don’t have it in me. So it’s really just, I’m like the audience that I’m going for in a way because I kind of trust my musical taste; that’s all I have, really.
I’m not a great player, but I have a good ear. I think I do. So that’s what I go off of. And so these songs, we were at them for nine or ten months a year or whatever, we all started to have different kinds of relationships to the sounds. And I think when it came time to produce and arrange again and finish them up, we had different ideas. I think we stretched out a little bit, and I think we took more chances and used the varied approach, sometimes. Just little things like ‘Mind of Winter,’ it was one of those songs that just started!
Personally, I jump when a song starts like that. I like to have a little warning that a song is going to start, even if it’s just knocking sticks or whatever. Or a synth pad. So I was like, Eh, a synth pad? I don’t want to do that again. So Colin had written these charts for the horns in the chorus, and I said, ‘Can you separate those out, and can I hear those?’ So he sent those to me, and I said, Let’s start with that! And he was like, ‘But I didn’t write them to be naked like that,’ and I said, it’s ok, let’s just start like that. To me, it sounded almost like Philip Glass, like Koyaanisqatsi? I don’t know if you know that stuff?”
Oh yeah. I’m into that.
“Yeah! I love that sound. Obviously, totally different ball game here, but it was kind of a droning change without change that I liked. And then I found when the horns do play in the chorus, you can hear them better because your ear has been attuned to them in the beginning.”
That was one of the tunes that I was drawn to because of the horns. I liked that the horns were not buried two minutes into the song, you led with them, and that helps it out a lot.
“So that’s the best answer to your question in that that would not have happened had I not lived with it for a long time and jumped every time that fucking song started.”
Right. I noticed that you want to announce some tour dates. I imagine putting a tour together right now is much more of a logistic than it would have been two years ago. Is there anything that’s coalescing at the moment?
“I don’t know; I’m not sure. Certainly not around the release of the album; that’s too soon. I think we have the Delta variant; we have spikes; it’s just impossible to tell. I’m not playing outdoor festivals of 45,000 people; I’m playing smaller venues where people are inside, and it’s just not smart. As much as I do love to tour, I love to play live, and I’d love to support the album, I want to, and I will eventually, I just don’t want to make it a matter of life and death.”
You’re going to be in a box with a whole bunch of different people that have got different stuff. I get that.
“It’s not just me. I’ve had it; I’m vaccinated. I feel fairly safe about myself. I just don’t want to ask other people to do that.”
I didn’t know that your audiobooks were narrated by yourself, and just this morning, I went on and saw that you’ve literally narrated everything you’ve written. So I’m way more interested in your books now because I know I’m going to hear them with your candour, so kudos for doing that.
Do you feel that it brings something different to something that you’ve written when you can articulate it yourself?
“Well, thank you for asking that question, because I’m going to say something sad about that. I’ve only recently started to conceive of that as something that I didn’t resent. Because I thought the first two books that I did, Holy Cow and Bucky Fucking Dent, I was busy when I had to do the audiobook. I didn’t have much time, and I also thought, ‘I want people to read these books! I wrote them to be read. I didn’t write them to be listened to.’ And then I think I kind of gave a begrudging performance of the book. Plus as the writer of the book, I thought these words are meant to work. I’m not going to inflate them; I’m not going to conform them. I had this kind of chip on my shoulder. And it’s possible that you can hear that. (chuckles) I’ve never really listened to audiobooks, and then I finally came around to the fact that this is a way that people enjoy books, and it’s legitimate, and people don’t have that much time. And they have time to listen.
So Truly Like Lightning, I tried to do my best on that. I haven’t listened to it. I’m told that it’s not the best audio because I had to record it in my house during the lockdown. People in hazmat suits came into my house, and they set up the rig, disinfected, and then they left. And then I sat there for six or seven days during December in my closet for soundproofing, to read it. And I guess maybe it doesn’t sound as great as it might in the studio, but I tried. And also with this Amazon Audible (The Reservoir), I tried. I tried to think, this is not just relaying the words as I wrote them, this is a different performance, this is a different medium, so maybe something else is needed.”
There are some good audiobooks out there; David Sedaris; Neil Gaiman; they’re better because they’re narrating them.
“Right, right. Well, I wouldn’t say mine are better. Not yet. Maybe if I get a chance to do them again? In fact, I wouldn’t mind that. I wouldn’t mind re-recording, not that anybody’s interested, but I’d like another shot at Bucky Fucking Dent. But then again, you know, it’s something to think about handing it all over to somebody else. I’d like the audition that as well.”
Morgan Freeman! He’s waiting.
“(laughs) The voice of God.”
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like being a Special Agent, Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks? That was the first time that I’d ever seen you on screen, and you were in drag, and I liked that.
“And downhill ever since. I think that was such an exciting time because I was just trying to get work and auditioning. Twin Peaks was a huge show. Huge! It’s hard to convey; It was so huge, but for such a short time. It’s hard unless you were there. It’s hard to imagine how huge it was before the internet; it was a cultural phenomenon. It was a cable show on network television. And so what happened was James Spader, the actor, was very good friends with Mark Frost, who was running the show with David Lynch, and writing it. And they had come up with this idea of a cross-dressing DEA agent, and I guess James got busy and before he could do it, so the part got thrown to the world, and they just auditioned people.
Johanna Ray was the casting agent, and I had read for her a couple of times, and she was a fan of mine. She had been trying to get me work and had been unsuccessful so far. I came in and auditioned, and I got it. I just didn’t know what to do, really. I went at it on my own, just to figure out things to do, and I had a great time doing it. It was the second season of that show, and it was already kind of flaming out in many ways, but for me, it was just a wonderful experience to be able to be there at that time with those people, and also to inhabit such an interesting idea of a character.”
I mean, up until that point, we had a Klinger on M*A*S*H, Right? And it was tongue-in-cheek. Your character was taken seriously, and I thought that was really cool.
“I loved when we came back, and we did the show again in 2015. In fact, one of my favourite lines in the whole thing was with David’s character, Gordon Cole; he says to me, you know, ‘I told them to fix their hearts or die.’ It was this line about people that distrusted me or underestimated me. ‘I told them to fix their hearts or die,’ and I was like, wow, that’s a fucking great line.”
And you advanced. You were now Chief of Staff at the FBI. I thought it was great. It was just like, “Oh yeah, still there! And senior, at that!”
“Yeah, that’s right, I wish I didn’t… I always say about the whole experience that I wish the show had gone on for a couple more years, and I could have been a recurring character. I wish I could have played that character more. And I wish there would have been more for me to do in the reboot as well, but obviously, story demands are story demands. It’s not a cop show in that way.”
Oh no, no. It was 18 hours of unbridled Lynch (laughs)
“There were no episode breaks. It was one script.”
It was like an 18-hour movie, and it just got chopped into pieces, and I thought that was pretty cool.
“Yeah, did you like it?”
I loved it. I thought it was great. It was avant-garde television.
“Right? Just the fact that that that happened. I mean that it happened in the first place. That it was on ABC in the first place? I mean, who hires David Lynch of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet to make a TV show?”
Who thought that up?
“And it’s an ABC show. Now it’s less shocking that Showtime would have it because it’s prestige television, or whatever. But yeah, he’s a singular artist; he’s a singular vision. And they give him 100 percent control, so that’s what you got.”
So what’s the next year look like for you then? What do you have on your plate that’s coming up (that you’re allowed to talk about)?
“I have this movie that I did with Judd Apatow called The Bubble, which will be on Netflix. It’s a big comedy about a bunch of silly actors who decide it’s a good idea to make an action movie during the pandemic. They go into a bubble (of the title) and realize that they can’t stand each other and try to escape the movie at different times and try to escape back out into the real world, which is shut down. I did a little part for Amanda Peet, who’s a friend of mine, who’s got a show on that Netflix that she is show-running and created called The Chair Starring Sandra Oh that set around the in-fighting of colleges. It’s an academic comedy. And I’ve been developing Truly Like Lightning as a series for Showtime, and I’m trying to push that boulder up the hill to get to a point where I can act in it, not direct it, but just produce and act in it.”