We’ve Got A File On You: David Duchovny

Ekaterina Gerbey

We’ve Got A File On You: David Duchovny

Ekaterina Gerbey

Life is a bowl of cherries for David Duchovny. No, literally: He’s actually munching from a bowl of cherries while we chat. It’s the actor and musician’s last interview of the day, but he barely looks winded from a full afternoon of conversation. “I’m never talked out,” he says to me over Zoom from a living room that decoratively toes the line between bachelor-pad masculine and movie-star plush. “You know me. I’ll just talk about myself forever.”

That sort of comment is peak Duchovny: super smart (and aware of it), wry, utterly charming and yet quite self-effacing, especially when talking about his music, which he only began writing and recording six years ago. The 61-year-old’s dry delivery has also colored the majority of his screen roles, from a shmucky investor-type in 1992’s Beethoven to an unorthodox special FBI agent on The X-Files (1993-2002) to a womanizing, bender-prone novelist in Showtime’s Californication (2007-2014).

In case you didn’t realize the actor had a musical side, though, I’ll elaborate: Duchovny released his debut, Hell Or Highwater, in 2015, and its follow-up, Every Third Thought, showed up three years later. Aesthetically, Duchovny’s sound is a straightforward blend of rock, folk, country, and alternative, borrowing clear influence from genre greats like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young. Now, on his third effort, the distinctly more collaborative Gestureland (out on Aug. 20 via King Baby/Westbound KYD), Duchovny brings his backing band into the songwriting process, a decision that pays off with lush, pleasantly mid-tempo compositions that distract from the fact that Duchovny is an average singer at best. (I’m not trying to take any cheap shots — the actor admitted as much more than once during our conversation.)

As Gestureland‘s release approaches, Duchovny joined me for a look back at the musical moments that have dotted his decades-long career, including a late-’90s hit named after him, presenting with J.Lo — wearing the Famous Green Dress — at the 1999 Grammys, playing an egg onstage with X-Files superfans Barenaked Ladies, and more.

Gestureland (2021)

On Gestureland, which is your third album, I noticed some aesthetic changes. For instance, it sounds like you’re diving a little deeper into the gear world, implementing guitar pedals to create more reverb. Was it your intention to experiment more with sound?

DAVID DUCHOVNY: Yeah, it was more of that. I think it’s probably more of a collaboration, this album, with the band. It’s more of a full band output than the others. Not that they weren’t a huge part of that but it was more like me saying, “What sounds are you guys hearing?” As well as just … it was a feeling out process I think at first. Certainly the first album, I think they thought they were servicing me musically or whatever and just the bare bones of the Stones was pretty much what they were trying to get across.

The second album was maybe a little less of that and this album was more like, let’s just approach this as a band and you bring your tastes in as well because my musical touchstones are always going to come to ’60s and ’70s. I’ll bring that in. I might say, “More cowbell.” I’m the guy that gets into that, for instance, like on “Holding Patterns,” there’s a synth intro. That just came out of the blue for me when I heard that song coming together, and I love it, so it’s that kind of stuff. Certainly I’ve asked co-writer and guitar player Pat McCusker [to] play that fucking talk box.

So, there are sounds that I was habituated to when I was young that I have a soft spot for. They come from a different generation. They’re going to have different sounds, so I love that. Let’s throw them all together because I like to think of us as a band now and not just, “Let’s try and make what David does in his room, sound like a song.”

I was hearing a little bit of The War On Drugs, too, as far as influences go.

DUCHOVNY: I think Pat loves that band.

You describe a lot of the songs on Gestureland as being “for you,” as in, the listener. How does the name Gestureland plug into that objective?

DUCHOVNY: My favorite songs are always ones that you can leap into, put yourself in the persona of the singer or something that happens in the song. It’s just like, we’ve all had that experience and say, “Oh my god, how did he know? How did she know? That’s my life. How did they know?” Being able to leave that kind of room in a song for other people is the magic of it, for me.

The Gestureland stuff, it’s not like a concept album where all the songs are pointing towards the title or whatever. Gestureland was just a thought that I had. Just watching the way things go down with social media and stuff and it’s just like, you have a T-shirt, you have a hat, everybody’s identifying through certain gestures rather than the meat of it. What are we talking about? We’re just throwing signals at each other and fighting over these signals, or loving over these signals. And it’s like, whoa. This is dangerous. It felt dangerous to me that we’re… everything’s like a red flag, like, “Oh, there’s that thing. I don’t like those people.”

Performing With Barenaked Ladies (1998)

Do you recall performing “It’s All Been Done” with Barenaked Ladies in 1998? I believe you made a special appearance shaking an egg and singing the “ooh-ooh-ooh”s.

DUCHOVNY: Yeah. We had shot the first five years of The X-Files in Vancouver but now we were shooting in LA. And the Barenaked Ladies had a big hit song that referenced The X-Files. [Sings] “Watching X-Files with no lights on, we’re dans la maison, I hope the Smoking Man’s in this one.” Like that.

And so we were aware that they were fans. I thought they were great and it wasn’t a band that I heard that much in the States. They were obviously aware of us and they wanted to come visit the set. And so they came out and visited the set, and I said, “What are you guys in LA for?” And they said, “We’re doing The Tonight Show on Thursday.” I said, “I’m doing The Tonight Show on Thursday. Can I sing with you?” And they were like, “Do you sing?” And I said, “No. I don’t sing at all. I sing very badly. What song are you doing?” They sent me “It’s All Been Done.” I was like, “Don’t know it, but send it to me and maybe I can do background vocals.” And they just said yes.

I said, “We don’t need to rehearse. I can do that falsetto. I’ll do that. And I’m quite a good egg player, so I will play egg for you and I’ll sing, ‘ooh, ooh, ooh,’ and at one point I’m just going to spazz out, like during a guitar solo. Just don’t be afraid. I’m not actually spazzing out. I’m just trying to be funny and maybe you can lead me back to my mic stand.” They just said yes to no rehearsal, no idea what I’m really doing, no idea what I sound like. They were just so open and wonderful about it.

Bree Sharp’s “David Duchovny” (1999)

A few years ago, you and Bree Sharp had a nice full-circle moment when she performed her song named after you at your book signing in New York. Had that been planned in advance?

DUCHOVNY: No rehearsal, literally 20 minutes before doing that, we decided to do it.

I was in the car going down to the reading and I had known Bree since that song. And there was a video made for me as a present that was to that song. That somehow got out and was on the internet.

[Anyway], I was just walking down the street in New York and this woman comes running out of a bar and she said, “I’m Bree Sharp.” I was like, “Oh my god, thank you. My own song. It’s amazing. I love that song.” We stayed in touch over the years and she just happened to text or call me on my way down to that reading and I said, “You’re getting a sense of how my life works.” So I said, “Come on down and sing ‘David Duchovny.’” She’s like, “Okay.”

That music video you mentioned is a real time capsule of 1990s pop culture. You’ve got Brad Pitt on the set of Fight Club. You’ve got the cast of Frasier. You’ve got David Spade, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Michelle Gellar on the set of Buffy. What was the genesis of its creation? Do you recall how you became aware of Bree’s song?

DUCHOVNY: The song came to me [from] my good friend Joe Blake. He was making a movie which was a country mockumentary called Dill Scallion, or something like that, and because it was in the country world, he was listening to a lot of country artists and he says, “There’s this song, ‘David Duchovny.’” And he sent it to me. And I was like, “It’s a good song.” And I didn’t know that I rhymed so well with lots of stuff. I was like, “Wow, this is so fun for me to have in my life.” And I think I played it for Chris Carter, who created The X-Files, and I guess he played it for his assistant, who is one of the guys who did the video. I think it might have been Chris’s idea, as a Christmas present or as a wrap gift, they were going to make this video of the song for me. Bree Sharp had nothing to do with any of that, and neither did I. I didn’t know it was happening.

And so they went out and whoever they got, they just said, “We’re doing this as a present for David. Will you do it?” And whoever did it, did it. Being that they got some good [people]… My great friend Garry Shandling is in it with Kevin Nealon and people that I’m very close to, as well as people I didn’t know and never met. And people that I’ve worked with, like Brad [Pitt].

Presenting with Jennifer Lopez at the Grammys (1999)

Speaking of peak X-Files era, you presented at the 1999 Grammys with Jennifer Lopez, who was wearing her now-famous green dress. You said something endearing like, “I can guarantee that no one is looking at me on this stage.” What are your memories surrounding that moment?

DUCHOVNY: I had met Jennifer before, so I knew her. I wouldn’t say that I knew her but we had met and so we met again backstage. I don’t remember a rehearsal for this again, and I noticed the dress was very revealing but it didn’t seem crazy like iconic moment to me, but I realized … I just thought momentarily, “Oh, I can say something funny about the fact that everybody is going to be looking at Jennifer.”

Oh, that wasn’t a scripted line or anything? That was improvised?

DUCHOVNY: Yeah. I just got out and I said — and then it became — that dress became a thing. No, I had no idea. I didn’t notice that it was any more revealing than other dresses that were there. I thought she looked great.

Yeah, it was a charming moment, in retrospect. Especially now, when we’re revisiting so many moments in pop culture history involving famous women and the gross stuff men have said to them in the public arena. It was a classy acknowledgement of like, “You look fantastic but I’m not going to make you feel uncomfortable or leered at.”

[Jokes] “I’m going to make it about me.”

It worked, though.

DUCHOVNY: Yes. It’s self-effacing in a funny way. I don’t ogle women like that. I don’t think it’s cool. I would never say anything like that. I don’t think that way. I just thought, “Yeah, you’re invisible right now.” That was the joke I wanted to make.

Strumming “Big Yellow Taxi” on Californication (2013)

By the time Californication was wrapping, did you feel that your interest in performing music was crossing over into the show? Towards the end of the show’s run, you’re playing “Big Yellow Taxi” in bed, and that’s only a couple of years before you’d put out your debut album.

DUCHOVNY: Yeah. I forgot I did “Big Yellow Taxi.” Naked, right?

You do appear to be undressed, yep.

DUCHOVNY: And I remember saying, “This is hard to play guitar when my wrist isn’t in the right position.” Yeah, it wasn’t really so much that I was getting interested in making music. It was more like it’s a very utilitarian kind of half-Jewish, half-Scottish part of me where I was like, “Hey, I think Hank should take guitar lessons.” And that way I could get free guitar lessons. We spend so much time in the trailer just goofing around. I was like, “I could be learning how to play guitar. And I could get free lessons here and it would be part of my job.” I like everything to kind of match up that way, everything to be worth something.

So that’s how I started taking guitar lessons there, and then Keaton Simons, who’s the son of an old, old friend of mine — I used to actually babysit for Keaton Simons when I first got out to L.A. in the late ’80s. Keaton is a phenomenal musical talent and guitar player and singer. It was really with Keaton that I started to write songs. Not with him, but I would write what I thought were songs and then Keaton had this little setup in his garage where we could record. It was really just for me, and this was around the time of the end of the show, but we recorded a couple of songs from the album. Not as they appear on the album, but started working up songs, just for me.

Covering “The Weight” with Keaton Simons and Maggie Grace (2012)

Yeah. It looks like, toward the end of Californication, you were up on stage a handful of times, one for a wrap party with a bunch of special guests, and another time for a show taping?

DUCHOVNY: Yes. One was, we had Tim Minchin, who’s a terrific musical talent, he was a guest star for the whole year, and we had a scene at the end of that year where Tim was playing the Hollywood Bowl and we needed people there and nobody wants to pay for 5,000 extras, so when we’re going to Hollywood Bowl, we get a free concert of Tim and Marilyn Manson was there and Keaton and I and Tom Kapinos, who’s a great guitarist. We were like the bait to try and get people to come in and then stay for the taping of Tim — not that Tim couldn’t fill the place on his own.

I was actually going to bring up your performing next to Marilyn Manson at the Californication wrap party. You’re playing, he’s singing, and he’s very, shall we say, touchy with you onstage. The moment, I guess, hits differently now, given the allegations of rape and abuse that have come out this past year around him. I had to wonder — and I know you could easily write this off as a performer persona — but: did his performance style register as invasive?

DUCHOVNY: You know, it’s like … no. Not invasive. It’s just, first of all, I am not privy to any information and if I was, I wouldn’t want to speak about it. But me, I’m trying to remember, me up there, I’m barely … I’ve got about four chords that I’m responsible for. I can barely play. I’m just trying to play my four chords and then I see this guy who’s a rock and roll star and he’s doing his rock and roll star thing and I’m thinking, “Oh, this is like I’ve seen Keith Richards and Mick Jagger do this thing where they kind of… they drape themselves on each other and stuff like that.” I’m just like, “Well, I’m just along for the ride here. I’m just watching a great front man do his front man thing.” It was like that.

But it was awkward only because I wasn’t used to being on stage playing music. It wasn’t awkward for whatever one might bring to it these days. No. But I remember what you’re talking about.

Yeah, I imagine that it’s a totally different environment, filming versus playing music onstage.

DUCHOVNY: Yeah. I’ve had moments where I’m performing live and I’m doing stuff that I would make fun of as hackneyed rock and roll moves or gestures. Like, shit, it’s kind of inescapable. I don’t know. Where did that come from? I saw the Stones do that 40 years ago or whatever. It’s like, why am I doing that?

As Billy Crystal says, “You do the white man’s overbite.”

DUCHOVNY: No, I don’t quite do the white man’s overbite, no. But maybe I do a little chicken walk. I do a little Mick Jagger walk. A little of that. Some of the pointing and stuff like that, but you get up there and you’ve got all these people. I’m not talking about 60,000 but I’m talking about like, say two, 3,000, and you want to connect with them all. You can’t be intimate being small. You’ve got to make a grand gesture.

Performing “Helpless” with Gillian Anderson (2015)

I knew that there existed a video of you and Gillian Anderson performing “Helpless” together, but I didn’t realize that your TV daughter, Madeleine Martin, later joined in to perform “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Were these moments as organic as the ones with Barenaked Ladies and Bree Sharp?

DUCHOVNY: Again, I have to say that at those times, I’m just in the moment. That’s like … geez, that’s probably one of the first of five times I’ve ever sung in public,

The thing with Gillian showing up, I knew Maddie was going to show up, because we stay in touch and I’d say, “Hey,” you know. She took guitar lessons first on Californication because she joins this band, the Queens Of Dogtown. Lords Of Dogtown? Something like that. I forget. Zoë Kravitz is in the band. I knew she could sing because I’d heard her. And then I think Gillian … we were in town for the upfronts, so I knew Gillian was around, and I said, “Hey, I’m going to do…” Don’t we do… isn’t it a Neil Young song, I think we do? I think we do a Neil Young song. “Helpless.”

So I was like, “Come on and just sing background vocals and you can stand away from the mic. You don’t have to … if you’re uncomfortable.” She was like, “What key is it?” And I was like, “Fuck if I know. I don’t know what keys are.” And she wanted rehearsals. I was like, “We can have rehearsals. Show up if you can and if you can’t, that’s cool, but I’d love… or come up, if you want. Or just be in the audience and enjoy. I’d love for you to be there.” And she was kind enough to come up.

I think they figured out a key that was good for her. It’s funny because I did “Helpless” in Vancouver when we were shooting a couple of years later and Nick Lea, who plays Krycek in the series, he came. He’s got a beautiful voice.

You’ve always had a sort of self-effacing attitude around your music in interviews. Like, “I’m not trying to reinvent anything, I’m just enjoying doing this.” Has that feeling stayed consistent as you’ve put out more albums? Or has it shifted into something else?

DUCHOVNY: Both, I think. I think I’m more confident that there’s music in me because it keeps coming out. It wasn’t just this initial burst, but that I’m a musician of sorts. I’m not a great guitar player, I’m not an American Idol type singer, but I’m a musician of sorts. I can put words and melodies together and I can make songs, so I can acknowledge that now and say, yeah. I’m a musician of sorts. We’re all musicians of sorts. There’s that, and then I think I’ll always just retain the same wonder and surprise that I can do it, and that comes across as self-effacing because it wasn’t something that I ever thought would really be part of my life, so I’m joyfully shocked whereas somebody else might be less joyfully irritated that I want to do this, or that I do do this.

If I talk about my guitar playing or my singing, I’m being 100% honest from my objective point of view. I’m a decent, mediocre guitar player, that’s it. But I play well enough to sling chords together. I don’t have much of a range, I don’t have a natural ear as a singer, but I can put a song over and I can sing melodies pretty well after a while, if I rehearse them, if I get them. So it’s really become an acceptance of my instrument, to use a long word. My instrument can put a song over. I can objectively listen to it. Hitting the notes, whatever, but I’m getting a feeling like I’m understanding the song. I’ll brag about that, if I have to brag. I won’t be humble about that, but I’ll be humble about my fucking range. If you sing me a melody, it’s 50/50 whether I’ll be able to give it back to you in that way without practicing it. I’m no natural but I worked hard. I work hard. And geez, I’m amazed that I can do what I do.

//

Gestureland is out 8/20 via King Baby/Westbound KYD.

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