Also expand your mind with David Duchovny Through the Ages, an authoritative timeline of David Duchovny through the ages.
Long ago in New England, a young man entrenched himself in Ivy League academia, first earning a B.A. from Princeton, followed by an M.A. from Yale. Both were in English literature. The twentysomething intellectual stayed on to pursue his Ph.D., thoughtfully ruminating on Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry—this being the title of his dissertation. Alas, that dissertation went unfinished—for the young man was distracted by something glinting in the distance, off in the far-away west.
So the young man abandoned his bookish trajectory and set forth on a journey to Los Angeles—and soon, he launched an illustrious career as an actor. His name would soon come to be known far and wide: David Duchovny.
David Duchovny spent years being other people: Twin Peaks’ cunning DEA Agent Denise Bryson; The X-Files’ obsessive FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder; Zoolander’s retired hand model J.P. Prewitt; Californication’s troubled novelist Hank Moody. But Duchovny’s also tried his hand at directing, and has also written two novels, 2015’s Holy Cow: A Modern-Day Dairy Tale and 2016’s Bucky Fucking Dent. In 2015, he also dropped a debut record, Hell or Highwater, featuring 12 tracks of alt-country/dad rock. This week, he’ll bring those tunes to Portland.
Regardless of what your favorite Duchovny work is—his acting, his writing, or his newfound musical expressions—his passionate devotion to creativity, in all its myriad forms, inspires all who come in contact with him. That’s what happened to me, at least, when I spoke to him, on the greatest day of my life.
MERCURY: I had no idea you played music before I heard your debut. What’s it like to be a touring musician now, after your decades-long career as an actor, director, and author?DAVID DUCHOVNY: It came as a surprise to me, because I picked up a guitar six or seven years ago, just kind of for myself. You know, the idea of writing songs had never occurred to me until I started playing. I’ve written, I have words, so lyrically it seemed to be something I could do. But the fact that I could hear melodies as well was shocking to me. But still I thought, “Okay, these are just songs I’ll play for myself or whoever else is in the room.” And then I met people—better musicians than me—who were willing to play better than me and to record, produce, and fill songs in, to write bass parts and riffs that I could never write. So, you know, I wrote the bare bones of these songs, I wrote the chords and the melodies and the lyrics, but to record a song is so much more than that. I was lucky to find people who saw enough in my songs to want to fill them out. And then to perform live is a whole different kettle of fish, you know—it’s like, I don’t have a great singing voice. I’ve worked on it, I work on my tunefulness, I work on my ear, but it’s not natural... I do fuck up, you know.
Did you ever get stage fright?
I didn’t. I don’t know why. I can’t explain why, because it has all the elements of something that would make me seize up in fear, for sure—singing in public without any kind of help. But at some point early on, I just realized that a song is not about getting it perfect. A song is about communicating an emotion or a feeling.... That doesn’t really have much to do with singing the song as perfectly as you recorded it; it has to do with what’s happening in the moment in that setting. It’s like, “Let’s just connect. Let’s just be real, be present, and let’s see if we can take a journey here tonight.” And in that case it’s not about whether I’m hitting a B or a B-flat. It’s about what kind of a journey we are all taking here tonight.
You have a lot of experience writing, but was coming up with lyrics any different?
It’s very different, because lyrics are kind of magical within a song—but then you can see them written down on a page and they’re flat, they’re trite, or they’re clichéd and they don’t work at all. Part of the great thing about writing lyrics and matching them to music is that all of a sudden these clichéd moves, these kind of vague formulations that we’ve all heard before about slipping into darkness or whatever—that suck if you’re a poet—work lyrically because the music somehow fills it in.
That reminds me of “The Things,” my favorite song on Hell or Highwater. It seems like you’re also grappling with the futility of words there.
That’s the first song I wrote. I’m very aware of it not being a confessional. I don’t want to write a song that’s just like, “Hey, on April 10 this happened, this person did that and that person did this.” For me it was like, how do I write a song that’s really vague but impactful, and just keep talking about “the things” that they did... I feel comfortable talking about my personal experience using that vague language, and it becomes kind of poetic. Therefore it’s less personal, so that you can adopt it, so it’s universal.
The distance makes it more relatable for listeners.
Right, which is weird. It’s the kind of thing when I talk about clichés in songs; the cliché somehow makes it more relatable.
Do you think your decision to try music was at all related to any dissatisfaction or frustration with words?
I think I was looking for other modes of expression. Trying to find a different voice, even if it was through the sound of the guitar or me trying to sing. It was like, “Let’s sing the words and see what it’s like to do that. Let’s put the feeling through strumming this guitar.” Because I’d spent a long time expressing myself, expressing feelings through characters as an actor. I think there was a certain dissatisfaction, or even a hunger to try something else.
Making music is obviously new for you, but it seems like you’re a big fan. The alt-country sound and conversational tone of your lyrics on Hell or Highwater remind me of Neil Young, and the way you sing reminds me of Lou Reed’s ambling delivery. Who are some of your all-time favorite bands?
Well it’s funny, when you mention influences I’m more like you when it comes to my own music, where I’m like, “Oh, that sounds like...” but I wasn’t trying to do it. It’s just in there. Definitely Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, although I can’t sing like Paul or John. More like Ringo (laughs)... I’ll be playing music from my phone and I’ll hear a phrase somebody sings a certain way and I’ll go, “Shit, I totally ripped that off.” But I didn’t know (laughs).
Well, all of our experiences are so cumulative...
Exactly. We’re gonna cover “Sweet Jane” this tour. I’ve just been listening to a lot of Lou Reed recently, like “Perfect Day” and “Heroin.” He was a really unique performer.
Is there anybody making music right now that you really admire?
Yeah, I really like Wilco. I’ve liked R.E.M. for a long time. Um... I don’t listen to the most popular stuff so much, not because I don’t like it, it’s just... in a way, I’m kind of insulated. Or I kind of insulate myself... I like Tame Impala. I like Broken Bells.
You’re working on a follow-up album. Is there anything that you’re actively trying to do differently?
Not actively. Well, maybe actively. I think we’re branching out a little and I think that maybe it’s a little harder rock sound. Maybe a little funkier, less country-folk... I think I’m getting more emboldened to try different production styles, and give individual songs different flavors in that way.
It seems like you’re this modern-day Renaissance man—you have all these different creative outlets, starting with your career as an academic. Do you ever regret not getting your Ph.D.?
I guess that I’ll always regret that I didn’t finish the degree, but... I don’t think I was gonna go into teaching at a college level. So I regret not having written [my dissertation], I wish I’d written it, but I don’t regret the two years more that I would’ve had to have taken to write it. Those were two years when I started pursuing acting and auditioning, so I was busy doing my thing, it wasn’t like I was just sitting on my ass. I know why I didn’t write it. I don’t know if it’s a regret, but do I wish it were written? Sure.
Is it frustrating that some people still only see you as Fox Mulder? Or any of the characters you’ve played?
Of course you want people to just be in love with your music, but I’m not naïve enough to think that people don’t know me from somewhere else. I also use it—I wouldn’t be able to play the size of a room I’m playing if people didn’t know me. That’s totally legitimate, and I’m fine with it. I don’t think anybody’s gonna like my music because they like me as an actor. They may listen to it because they like me as an actor, but the music has to stand on its own, and I’m perfectly fine with that.
You’ve tried your hand at a variety of creative endeavors, but would you say that music is the main thing you want to focus on going forward?
No, I don’t think I can focus on any main thing going forward. I still love acting, I love directing, I love writing, I love making music. I know I’ll never be a great guitar player or a great singer. At best, if I work very hard, I will be a mediocre guitar player. I just want to be good enough to write songs, and I’m kind of there already. I don’t want to get up there and wow you with my guitar solos. I mean, I’d love to, but it’s not gonna happen.... There should be enough time to do all of those things. I hope so, if I’m lucky.