David Duchovny Talks Third Solo LP ‘Gestureland’ & Songwriting Chops (INTERVIEW)

David Duchovny is a modern-day Renaissance Man, something that was never really in his plans. He was an academic and a jock who eventually pursued acting as a way to live inside literary characters. But life has a way of opening doors to opportunities you may not have imagined at fifteen or twenty-two or even fifty. So at sixty-one, Duchovny has found himself with numerous titles attached to his name: actor, director, singer, songwriter, author, athlete, humanitarian, father, and celebrity. It’s enough to keep one busy 24/7, even for a seemingly laid-back kind of guy like Duchovny. Except the pandemic came along and changed up the atmosphere and on the day we spoke for our interview, this man of Russian/Polish/Scottish ancestry was simply “sitting on my ass.”

That may have been so but Duchovny is not as idle as he’d like you to believe. 2021 has already seen him publish his fourth novel, a captivating 400+ page story called Truly Like Lightning, and his third solo album, Gestureland, dropped on Friday (August 20). Both are complex, deeply emotional ventures that show Duchovny reaching out to find human nature at its core. “The songs are obviously inspired by present-day life and problems but we hope to make them universal,” Duchovny said in a press release explaining the makeup of the album. “You want to know which songs are about me. None of them. They’re about you.”

With members from his band returning to the studio with him – Pat McCusker on guitar, Colin Lee on keys, Mitchell Stewart on bass, with the addition of Keenan O’Meara, also on guitar, and Davis Rowan on drums – Duchovny made this album more of a group effort. “The album represents three years of songwriting over which time I think we developed into a band so there’s a stronger element of deep collaboration here.” The songs on Gestureland are indeed tighter and freer than on his previous album, Every Third Thought

Ekatrina Gerbey

“I’m not interested in telling my specific story musically, or as a fiction writer. I’m not going to write a memoir,” Duchovny told me during a Glide interview in 2018 about his songwriting. “That kind of stuff doesn’t interest me. I’m not saying I’m not interested in reading other people’s memoirs, sure. But I do think of each song almost as a different person.” Duchovny also sees that coming to music so late in his life may have actually been somewhat of an advantage. “I would have loved to have been educated musically and to have played my whole life but that didn’t happen for me so I come at it from a different place. I’m not saying I come at it any better, I’m just saying it doesn’t disqualify me.”

His early life was mostly entrenched in emoting characters via a different forum. Once the actor side of him emerged from his focus on literature in college, the roles kept coming steadily: The X-Files, Californication and Aquarius on TV; Kalifornia, Return To Me and Louder Than Words on the big screen are just a few of his acting credits. He made his directing debut with a 1999 episode of The X-Files called The Unnatural, for which he also added a writing credit to his resume. He has finished a Judd Apatow film called The Bubble, which is currently in post-production, and there is big talk for his latest novel to be turned into a mini-series.

For now, Duchovny is getting the word out about his new music and hoping to play some shows with his band at some point this year. I talked with him about his new album, his songwriting, and his latest novel.

How do you see your music has evolved since your last album, Every Third Thought? What have you noticed within this group of songs that maybe wasn’t there before, in whatever way?

Musically, I think I collaborated more with the band this time around. I had a lot of trust in them as writers and as creators, and I think the same for me, so we could offer up half ideas to each other and say, hey, let’s try to finish this together rather than just kind of bring something fully made to each other. And that also extends to the production side of it, where I come from just a different era musically than they do and when it comes time to produce and arrange and stuff like that, just being open to each other’s ideas and feels to kind of create a hybrid out of my experience or the sounds that I love, that I grew up loving, or whatever got stuck in my head forever, and I want to try and enter into that kind of sound. They have different kinds of references they want to bring so we kind of meld them. That’s what is happening more on this record. The other two, I think, were more like, okay, here’s one from you and here’s one from me and here’s one from you and here’s one from me, in terms like the sound.

At least you all got to record this in person.

Yeah, yeah, over a long period. We meant to record and have this album out probably a year ago. We started recording it over a year ago and at the time we had fourteen demos and we were about to really start recording the final mixes just as the first lockdown happened. Obviously, music is probably the worst thing you can do with that virus cause you’re like breathing hard, you’re expelling a lot of saliva and particles when you’re singing or blowing into horns and stuff like that, and you’re indoors. So it was the exact opposite of what we could do and we shut down for a while. So we waited out of necessity and we got back together last spring. I mean, we were kind of sending stuff back and forth during it, cause we had a long time to sit with the demos and sit with how did we want this finished song to feel and sound. It wasn’t like we shelved them for a year and then came back and finished them. We were living with the songs for quite a while and I think that helped in a way.

What was something you did not want to infiltrate into these songs?

I like songs that are timeless but timeless because they can kind of adapt to situations. I’m fascinated by the way songs can get new lives depending on different situations. A song has to be open enough to be interpreted a number of different ways. So what I try to keep out of my songs is anything too specifically personal or detailed that would keep anybody out of it, you know. It’s like saying, “That’s obviously just David, that’s not my song.” So I try to keep that out and try to figure out what’s universal about my experience and translate it.

That being said, what was something that was on your mind that you now see weaving in and out of these songs that maybe you didn’t realize when you were writing them?

Well, every song now is going to get interpreted through the lens of covid, right, a certain kind of lack of connection that we’ve been forced to go through for the past year. But I think some of these are love songs, some are about longing and loneliness, and that’s fine. You don’t have to address it specifically. It’s part of what we all experienced, we just all experienced it to an exponential degree in the last year or so.

There is a line in “Holding Patterns” that says, “I’m a wedding ring in the lost and found.” Was that an A-HA moment for you, that this one line encompasses everything you wanted to say?

(laughs) I like that line. Yeah, that image came to me. It was like, oh, that would be an interesting phenomenon to have a wedding ring in the lost and found but for that person to say they ARE actually a wedding ring in a lost and found, that’s even more complicated. So that’s a good line to sing aloud. I won’t run away from that one.

Did you know from the beginning that “Nights Are Harder These Days” was going to rock out this much?

I mean, I wrote a riff, I don’t think it’s the riff Pat came up with that is so good in the song, but I had just like a three-chord rock song and it felt just pretty straight ahead. So I felt like it was going to rock and then when we went to record it, Pat wrote that riff, whether based on the riff I wrote I can’t remember, but then I just started leaning into that and going, let’s just muddy it up, dirty it up, and it should sound like a seventies garage band kind of feel, you know. Early on in the life of that song, I realized it was no ballad, it was going to be an up-tempo rocker.

Is there a song on the record that really changed from its roots and became a whole different song?

Sometimes we struggle with songs to kind of figure out what’s the best, and this is going to sound really ridiculous cause I’m just like putting into words, what’s the best delivery system for the feeling of this song? What’s going to be the best tempo or the best instrumentation or the best volume? Cause always the sense is, the song is supposed to have a feeling, make you feel something, so what’s the best form that this particular song with its particular point of view and melody is going to be delivered. Sometimes we will slow one down, speed one up, try to figure it out. Sometimes we abandon them and then come back to them later. There are a couple of songs we’ve been working on like four years that I like a lot but we haven’t decided what the delivery system is. 

But I think to answer your question more specifically, a song like “Tessera” is just a bunch of lyrics that I would have dumped on the band. Like, they’ll sometimes say, “Do you have any lyrics lying around?” And I don’t really but I have like little notes. I don’t have full song lyrics without a melody but I have notes and ideas so I just dumped a bunch of pages on them and Tessera rhymed with que sera sera was in that and Collin wrote this beautiful melody around it. That was amazing to me. I had forgotten about that little couplet that I wrote.

I want to take a moment and ask you about your latest novel, Truly Like Lightning. It has a history with you I understand.

Yeah, there had been parts of it that have been in my head for a long time and it centers around a modern-day Mormon family out in the middle of Joshua Tree, kind of raising their family off the grid. I had gotten interested in the Mormons through writing an X-Files in like the year 2000 where there was a very famous case of a forger, a Mormon guy, who had ended up planting a couple of car bombs to try and get away and killing some people and getting arrested. There’s a Netflix documentary on the guy that came out a few months ago. So I kind of used that idea for an X-Files, but I changed it, obviously; they weren’t Mormons in it but because of that I had researched that area and it was in the back of my head. Then I’d also had an idea about a high school kid unionizing a fast food joint and comes into like a political consciousness at the age of fifteen or whatever. There were all these kinds of stories in my head that were circulating and at some point, I just realized if I join them, it’s going to be a big sprawling novel, which is what that is.

Do you remember the first scene that you wrote for it?

I started from the beginning. I’m not like a very methodical plotter. I had a sense of, I guess, of three sections, three acts, and I knew what was going to happen. I had an idea what the big events were and I knew what I was writing towards in each section so I thought, okay, I should just start. Then that day was just craziness, cause you’re like, I’m writing a novel right now and I have ten words behind me and I feel like I should quit. But you’ve got to keep on. I think of it like a cartoon where – and I can’t remember the exact cartoon but it’s either Mickey Mouse or Yellow Submarine or something – but it’s where a guy can paint his own escape hatch in the middle of the rocks. Like, he gets a big can of black paint and makes a tunnel. So in a way, that is what writing is like. I’m always kind of getting my black paint out and trying to make a tunnel in the rock (laughs).

Do you recognize in your songwriting any authors, since you majored in Literature? Do you recognize anything like style, vibe, or subject matter?

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t want to just give you a quick answer cause I need to kind of think about it but I would say, sometimes I think Samuel Beckett is in there because it’s kind of very universal, in the sense that Beckett is not recognizably autobiographical at all. Almost like a voice that speaks rather than a person and I feel like that’s a good place to be in when you’re writing a song, cause you really want to be a voice that other people can adopt as their own. But I think the influences on me lyrically would be other lyricists more because the form is so different from other things I’ve studied.

So who are your favorite songwriters?

There are so many, so many different kinds of music, but lyrically to me the best lyricists have been like Dylan, Cohen, and Lou Reed, someone like Aimee Mann; lyrically way different like Steely Dan, kind of opaque, obscure lyrics, surreal almost. Petty I think is a great lyricist. These are kind of like old references but that is the kind of stuff that formed my song consciousness.

How do you see your songwriting process? 

Well, what I think is interesting about songwriting is that you write a song if you say you’re going to write a song, you know. Like if you said to me, “I really need you to have a song for me this afternoon.” I would write a song. I don’t know if it would be any good but that’s kind of how I write all my songs and some of them are better than others. But I think it’s cool, I like the pressure of somebody saying, “Write a song.” Otherwise, it just means one day I’ll just pick up my guitar and start strumming and go, okay, I’m hearing something here, let’s try to write a song. But I think they are always in the air. I think they are always around you. It just depends on if you sit down and open yourself up to it. It’s very weird when I’ve written a song, they just seem to come. I’m not saying they’re great but I’m always amazed, like, wow, there it came, the song just came.

You have an unusual last name so where is your ancestry, your roots? 

Well, I just sent in my DNA to that show, I’m going to do that show [Finding Your Roots on PBS], so I’m going to find out. I’m excited. I don’t know that much. I don’t know past my grandparents really anything at all so it will be interesting to hear. My father was born in Brooklyn but his dad was born in Ukraine and his mom was born in Warsaw in Poland. They met in America and had my father in America. And my mother is Scottish, born in Scotland, and actually met my dad in Europe after WWII when they were both teaching English in Rome and they fell in love and came back to the States. I don’t think I’ll find any kind of surprises in the DNA, cause nobody was in this country before but I will be very interested to see what my people did.

 Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I saw Alice Cooper on the street once when I was a kid. That was exciting but I didn’t meet him. Oh, I used to cater parties as a waiter in my twenties and I catered a birthday party for Freddie Mercury. That was a wild party (laughs).

So what happens next for you musically?

We’d love to be touring but can’t right now. We’re just kind of waiting for things to be safe again and then we’d love to go out and support the album and play the songs. We’re looking forward to playing the songs live. That’s really what we’re keeping an eye on. In the meantime, we’re always writing songs and thinking about songs.

Portraits by Ekatrina Gerbey

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