BlackBook Interview: David Duchovny on Music, the ‘X-Files’ Reboot and Opening Up to Inspiration
Above: David Duchovny in The X-Files
There’s something about David Duchovny’s wry, seemingly detached persona, that you probably either love or otherwise feel slightly deterred by. After all, rock stars are generally idolized for their keenly cultivated ennui – but most people want to warm to their favorite actors…not marvel at their aloof sense of cool. (Which is likely why the hard-drinking, tattoo-plastered Johnny Depp has slipped decisively from the cute and cuddly list).
Duchovny could surely be forgiven, though, for allowing himself a sense of self-satisfaction these days. After all, he’s done the almost impossible: he had become a massive star based on a wildly popular sci-fi series, The X-Files, which turned him and co-star Gillian Anderson into icons of geekdom – their faces plastered across everything from comic books to lunch boxes. Yet somehow he managed to move seemingly effortlessly on from such a potentially inescapable pigeonholing, and had himself another incredibly successful television show – Showtime’s Californication – which ran for 84 episodes between 2007 and 2014…and found him chasing skirts instead of aliens.
For his next trick…The X-Files and his brooding character Agent Fox Mulder were revived for a Season 10 in 2016, to much fanfare and mostly upturned thumbs. And the current Season 11, possibly its last, has won considerable raves from audience and critics alike.
Not enough yet? He’s also written four well-received novels in the last four years, including his most recent, Miss Subways.
In the meanwhile, he went ahead and did the thing that successful actors should really know better than to ever do: he started making music. Behind him were a trail of embarrassments, including Keanu Reeves’ Dogstar and Russell Crowe’s awfully named 30 Odd Foot of Grunt (Wha???). But here’s the thing – Duchovny’s music is actually really quite good. To be sure, his low-key 2015 debut album Hell or Highwater was described by Rolling Stone as “likable, lyrically tart, vaguely Wilco-ish.”
His new long player, the philosophically titled Every Third Thought, is a much more vigorous affair. The title track, for instance, with its chiming guitars and somber bearing (Duchovny repeats bemusedly, “Why do I remain the same?”) almost reminds of Morrissey or The Smiths – as does the affectingly melancholy “Stranger in the Sacred Heart.” He also cranks up the proceedings like never before: you can hear the Pixies influence in the crunching “Last First Time,” and “When the Whistle Blows” builds around fuzzed out “Suffragette City” sounding guitar riffs.
His voice is at its most expressive on the stunning “Spiral,” a haunting lament (“I stared into the vacuum / And wondered where it all goes”) with mournful guitars and sweeping, widescreen atmospherics. It perhaps reveals the true scope of his songwriting talent – and leaves one wondering just what he might be capable of, musically.
As he was about to embark on a four-date mini tour of Australia this Saturday, February 24 (if you can’t be Down Under, watch the video of his January 29 live performance at Paste Studios in NYC), we caught up with him for a particularly enlightening chat.
At this point you could pretty much do as you please. Are you making music and doing The X-Files because you feel that’s where you’re happiest?
Well, the X-Files return was the opportunity to finish something I started 25 years ago, to take a character (Agent Fox Mulder) over that length of time. I know there are lots of reboots, and it seems to be part and parcel for all this nostalgia…
But this isn’t really about nostalgia.
It’s more that it’s a really interesting challenge to me, to play the character again after that long. The question becomes, How do you change that character at this age? Because you really can’t just go back and impersonate yourself; you have to figure out who this guy is now. I really enjoyed that part of it.
Do you feel the show is better now?
To be honest, I think we were all kind of slightly disappointed in what we did [with the original X-Files] – and so we had to come back and do it better. That’s what these episodes are about. And in a way it was fun to revisit the origin of it, and to kind of lay claim to it. There’s also this new sci-fi boom, and it was kind of like, “Let’s show the kids how it’s done.” We didn’t show them last time.
But Buffy and The X-Files were obviously the shows that first made sci-fi kinda hip.
Yes, of course. And geek culture has taken over – take the “geek” off now, it’s just culture. JJ Abrams rules the world…
And Peter Jackson.
Yeah, I’m somewhat surprised – but here we are.
The music would seem to be much more personal for you, though.
Music is very different; the music is the opposite of The X-Files.
Because with acting you are mostly doing it for someone else’s vision; with music you’re essentially doing it for yourself?
Well, that was always the impetus. But if you’re going to put something out, it’s really not just for yourself. I mean, I’m not trying to invade the Top 40 or anything like that…
The X-Files, Season 11
But you want people to hear it.
Yeah! You do.
Being an actor, who are you when you’re making the music?
If I think of my musician persona as a character…as I talk about it, I guess I am playing a character who is an actor, I also play a character who is a novelist…and this singer guy is a new character. With The X-Files I’m asking, “How do I age that guy?” With music it’s, “How do I make somebody new at my age now?”
This record sounds very different, I can almost hear the influence of The Pixies and The Smiths in there. What were you inspired by while writing and recording?
Well, I was inspired by collaborating with the guys that I was recording with. As a songwriter I’m very simple – I write my songs on a guitar, I come up with the melodies and the lyrics. I’m unplugged, I don’t play electric guitar. But I’m kind of like a producer, in that I will have a tune and I can hear it a lot harder or muddier than I can play it.
And that’s where the band comes in?
I’ll say to [keyboardist] Colin Lee or [guitarist] Pat McCusker that this one feels like a Bowie tune, this feels like a Petty tune, this feels like a Pixies tune. And they have the wherewithal to filter that in.
You seem to be expressing, if not cynicism, then a world weariness in regards to human relationships – especially on a song like “Marble Sun.” At this point in your life, do you feel a bit melancholy about relationships in general?
Well, it’s interesting that you bring up “Marble Sun,” because it was written by Colin Lee. He came to me with the first verse, and he wanted to end the album with it, to frame it. He played it for me and I thought, fuck, this is a beautiful tune, let me write a second verse. It’s funny, because he’s a 28-year-old guy writing those world weary lyrics.
Ennui does sort of span the generations.
I think when I was 28 I had the same world weary sense. But I agree with what you said, I don’t feel like it’s cynical. I feel like it’s more realistic.
On “Maybe I Can’t,” you proclaim, “I’ll talk to God.” At a certain time in most people’s lives, there does tend to be that discussion in your head about the higher power. Are you seeking divine inspiration or intervention these days – in music and in life?
I would think of it more like opening myself up to inspiration; or trying to get myself in a state of mind out of my own ego. But that song is about making huge romantic promises. It’s the gesture that I’m talking about – “I’m going to make it snow in July / Maybe I can’t, but I’m gonna try.”
Well, that is the definition of love, isn’t it? Finding that person for whom you always want to do more than you actually possibly can?
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s exactly the definition of that song.
Do you find the music is helping you to reconcile a moment in your life? There’s a lot of self-reflection on this record.
Well, I think that’s what music has been to me. I came to playing guitar and writing songs pretty late – so I’m not going to write the songs that a 20-year-old writes. I could try, but it would be obscene and horrific.
I’m most impressed by artists like The Beatles, who kept on changing with their concerns. They weren’t fixed like The Stones in a certain point of view.
Well, The Stones addressed the world in songs like “Street Fighting Man” – but they also pretty much created their own world.
Yeah! And they mostly addressed that world.
What do you want to get from making music?
What I like in an album is being taken into somebody’s world view, being ushered into a place that feels extremely personal. But one that is not detailed at all personally – and therefore you can relate to it on a universal level.
You can only hope that you make a genuine emotional connection with the listeners.
There’s some trick to the music and the words coming together, that gives great meaning to very vague statements. They become very specific somehow as you sing along. And it’s magical when that happens. I hope I can do that with my music…even occasionally.
Safe to say that people don’t trust actors with music?
Right, they don’t – but they shouldn’t trust actors with anything, you know?