He’s mostly known for his acting skills — in The X-Files and Californication as well as films including 1993’s classic Kalifornia and the 2000 rom-com Return To Me. But David Duchovny is a renaissance man: he’s a writer with three novels to his name, and a musician with a two-album discography.
He’s currently working on album number three, and we recently caught up with him to discuss his music. But soon the conversation turned to his love of David Bowie… and his favorite Christmas song.
A couple of months ago you tweeted a photo of yourself in the studio and said, “Writing new songs.”
Duchovny: Yeah, we’ve got 20 songs we are working on. We are just at the stage where we are trying to demo each one of those and then whittle it down to 10 or 11 and see where we’re at.
And play around with the orchestration and the arrangement of them and see. The songs are really interesting. They kind of demand different storytelling approaches and stuff like that. Sometimes they don’t really reveal themselves until you have f—ed around with them a little bit, and given them strings or horns, or change the tempo or the key. It’s a fun process, but it can be a long one.
Some artists, like Bob Dylan, will change the arrangement of a beloved song for decades.
Duchovny: Yeah. One of my favorite Dylan songs is called “Blind Willie McTell.” I used to box at [Dylan’s] gym in Santa Monica. And I said, “Why didn’t you ever release it?” It’s only on The Bootleg Series 1-3 box set. And he said, “I never got it right.”
And I said, “I disagree.” [Laughing.]
That’s one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs.
Duchovny: Me too. I’m quoting him in a novel I just finished. I use it as the epigraph for the last chapter.
When will that novel be out?
Duchovny: At this point, it can be out in winter 2021. Everyone is afraid to publish in the next year, because people think that the election will take up all the oxygen. We will see. It’s pretty much done right now. It could come out sooner. I always want it to come out sooner.
When you play live, you do covers of stuff that old-school hipsters love, like the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” But you also do the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You.”
Duchovny: Well, look, you know, it’s all bulls— distinctions, right? Music is music. Led Zeppelin got s— on for years, right? They’re not s— on anymore!
Duchovny: Right. And I relate that to when I first started to work as an actor. It was like, yeah, you are doing TV [as opposed to movies]. And now we see there’s really no distinction. I think eventually when you just look at it, a great riff is a great riff. It doesn’t matter that the guy [guitarist Donald Roeser] calls himself “Buck Dharma.” Maybe that offends you in some way. You know, because you think it’s whimsical or fake in some way. But bulls—. Music is music.
A lot of it has to do with the way a record company would put it out or try to market it. And then some critic takes offense because they are trying to fill stadiums rather than fill downtown New York City clubs like the Velvet Underground did. I just think that’s all bulls—. If you hear a song and you are like, “That rocks,” or “Wow,” then I’m like, yeah! Play “Godzilla.” I love “Godzilla.”
I remember reading about you performing at a wrap party for Californication a few years back: you played “The Weight” by the Band, and you mentioned that you’d just learned guitar six months earlier. Were you thinking, “I might want to do more of this?” Is that when you decided to start making albums and touring?
Duchovny: No. It wasn’t until I started writing songs. I was not under the impression or the illusion that I had anything to offer as an interpreter of somebody else’s music. I’m certainly not a good [guitar] player and I don’t have a voice where you go, “Hey, can you please sing my song?” You know? So that was never an issue.
I read an interview where Rick Rubin was talking about producing those albums for Neil Diamond; he hadn’t played guitar on his albums in decades, and Rubin asked him to play. He felt that there was something distinct about the way he plays.
Duchovny: I kind of taught myself [guitar]. The way that I play guitar is almost like a drum. I’m heavy on the downstroke and heavy on the tempo and there’s no picking. I don’t know if those guys [in his backing band] would let me. I mean, they don’t mind if I play live. I don’t think they want me to record.
It’s the holiday season; do you have a favorite Christmas album or song?
Duchovny: No. My dad was Jewish. My mom is from Scotland. Didn’t have the tradition. That stuff kinda bums me out. I don’t really like it. I mean, who wants Springsteen doing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town?”
Duchovny: It makes me sad [Laughing.]
Duchovny: I don’t know. It’s just like, why are you doing that? [still laughing.] When I hear it on the radio, I’m like “Ugh.”
But I like the Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy.” That’s amazing.
So what does your 2020 look like? Do you have other acting things going on?
Duchovny: I got a couple of things in development. I just finished a movie called The Craft. It was a remake of that ’90s witchy movie. I think it’s going to be really good. I don’t know when it comes out.
And the novel, and the album, and then I’m just looking to develop or figure out the next kind of [television show]. Not necessarily a long-running show, but a television show that can sustain a couple of years.
Even when you are the lead in a TV show it’s still probably more of a democracy because there are other producers, co-stars, directors. Is it fun to kind of do music where it’s like, “I’m the boss”?
Duchovny: No! Well, when I’m writing a novel I have an editor and I certainly listen to him. He’s really good. If he gives me notes I don’t like, I still execute them. I still try.
But these guys [in the band] are way better musicians than me. Our battles really are around taste. And I don’t even know how to execute necessarily, but I will bring in a song. Because they are younger… they didn’t know Sweet Jane.
Did they know David Bowie’s “Stay” [which Duchovny covers in his live shows]?
Duchovny: No. They didn’t know “Stay.” I love “Stay.”
Station to Station is an underappreciated Bowie album and I don’t feel like you hear many covers from that.
Duchovny: I’ve never hear anybody talk about “Stay.” It’s such a great funk song.
I think that’s when he had Carlos Alomar playing guitar in the band.
Duchovny: I talked to Carlos about it! Carlos had a book coming out last year and I asked him about it. He said, “Yeah, the reason all those songs are over five minutes is because we got better royalties if the songs went long. So we would do these long intros. David would let us do these long intros, so that we would get paid more.”
I saw him play Low in its entirety at Roseland once.
Duchovny: I love Low. “Breaking Glass,” I love that song. And “Sound and Vision.” There’s a couple of great songs off Diamond Dogs too. I love “We Are The Dead.” [Recites lyrics] “Something kind of hit me today.” I love that song.
Carlos said he would come in with an idea and then Bowie would let the guys do it. Because he couldn’t play like that. He didn’t have that funk in him. That’s not him. And that’s Carlos.
Like on “Golden Years.” I don’t think that’s his riff. He was enough of a collaborator and artist to go, “That’s great. I will put my name on it.”