Rain In Hell - A Conversation with David Duchovny
The 'Californication' star talks about his new music album, touring, and more.
David Duchovny is what you might call a modern-day Renaissance Man. Throughout his career as an actor, he's starred in two of the biggest television series of the last two decades, creating two cult characters worthy of icon status. He's stepped behind the camera to direct and behind the scenes to produce. He even wrote a few episodes of The X-Files, the hit television show he starred in from 1993-2002 (which is making a triumphant return next January on Fox).
In the same vein, the man with a masters in English Lit published his first novel Holy Cow back in February. With a seemingly incessant need to be creative, Duchovny picked up a guitar and dove head-first into the realm of rock 'n' roll. After much fiddling on his guitar and penning lyrics onto paper, the end result was his debut alt-rock album Hell or Highwater, a melodic and moody (pun intended) outing that captures melancholy at its best.
Just before David wrapped up a brief tour with back-to-back shows in New York and Philadelphia, he spoke with us exclusively about his music, touring, and what's next for the Renaissance Man.
Going back to the beginning, how did this project come to fruition? Was it in the works for a long time or was there a sudden lightbulb moment where you said, "You know what?" I'm going to make an album."
I never had that lightbulb [laughing]. It was really just an organic process from beginning to end. The way it started was, I picked up a guitar and decided I was going to teach myself how to play just because I love music and I thought it would be nice to be able to amuse myself that way. That went on for about a year and I was looking at these songs that I'm playing, these rock 'n' roll songs that are fairly simple. I'm not saying there not great, but they're just chord structures that get repeated; blues and rock 'n' roll and they don't belong to anybody, like folk music, and I thought if I could come up with a new melody to put on top of these chord structures then I could write some songs, and some lyrics I thought would come easiest because I've always written. Then I just started writing songs and I went to my buddy Keaton Simons and I said, "Hey, can we record these? I want to hear what my songs sound like, if they're songs at all." And he taught me a little about song writing. I had never written a bridge before, so he said, "Oh, you need a bridge in this song." I said, "What's a bridge?" Things like that. So, we recorded them and I thought it was cool. I have songs that I wrote on my phone and now they sound semi-professional and I'm kind of singing on them and thats more than I thought they would ever be. Soon after, Keaton was playing down at the City Winery here in New York and he asked me if I would come down and sing one of the songs, and I did. Brad Davidson from ThinkSay Records was there and he said, "Dude, lets make an album. How many songs you got?" I said, "Oh, God, I've probably got about 20. And he said, "Lets work on them. Lets make them into songs that you would want to hear on the radio. Like real songs." And I said, "Well, if you want to do that then I'll do that with you." He said I should go work on my voice, so I went and worked on my voice, and then we ended up recording the album last December. So, it was never my lightbulb - it was other people's lightbulbs.
You mentioned that you started writing the songs and that you write all the time. You have a Master's in English Literature, you've written episodes of television shows and a novel. Did you find that your past experience, even though it wasn't music, translated well into songwriting and lyric writing?
I've always been interested in lyrics as well. As I've been a fan of music, I've very much liked listening to songwriters who were good with lyrics. I've always loved The Beatles, The [Rolling] Stones, The Who. They may not have been the best lyricists, but I love their lyrics. And Tom Petty and [Bob] Dylan, Tom Waits, Steely Dan, bands like these whose lyrics are interesting. I don't know if my writing prepared me to do that because lyrics are a very funny, tricky thing. They're very bare. You have to leave room for the music. The lyrics can't dominate the song. You'll see great lyrics to song, you'll see them on a page without the music, and you'll be underwhelmed. There's a magic that happens when the words are just right for the music and really, there's no preparation for that in any other kind of writing. Its just special to music the way the words and the music fit together.
You mentioned Tom Petty as a lyricist you enjoy. When I listen to the record, I definitely hear a lot of Tom Petty musically with the sound of the guitars, the song structure, and the sound of your voice. Also some R.E.M. Who were some of your musical influences as far as sound goes while making this record?
I can't say that I have influences because I'm not really that good of a musician that I could copy anybody, but I think it's something I unconsciously do because it's what I listen to. I love R.E.M., and when my songs are going into production and they're starting to sound like songs by rock 'n' roll bands, when they start to sound like more than just me and my acoustic guitar, when we start to layer in other sounds, I'm going to gravitate towards sounds that I like, and it's those bands [that I listen to].
When I listen to the record, I get an overwhelming feeling of melancholy. Not an awful, terrible sadness, but a good kind of sadness. A sadness you want and need to feel. Was there a certain theme or concept in mind surrounding this album?
No, no concept. I think we went with all the songs that went together out of all the songs I had written, so that they went together as a piece, even though it wasn't a concept album in any way. But, I think that's a good description of them. I guess I've always listened to sad songs or music that can be sad. I've always had a special place for that. But I never feel sadder after those songs, I always feel better. Its like bloodletting. It get's the sadness out of me.
Yes, exactly. It draws it out of you, and the sadness of the song meets your own sadness I guess you could say. And I've always felt like that's almost joyful in a weird way. The sad songs are extremely joyful. So they're [the songs on the album] are sad, I feel like they're in that vein, but I like to think that they're songs written by an adult person. They're not about first love, really. They're not about kissing a girl in the backseat, there about love and loss. They're about life and death. They're not very radio-friendly, which are [radio-friendly songs] about falling in love for the first time [laughing].
If you had to choose, what is your favorite song on the album?
I think the most complete song, musically and lyrically, is "Stars." It's kind of a self-contained good idea and it capsulates what all the other songs are saying in a simple and, I hope, elegant way.
You have been doing some live shows and you have a few more coming up. What has it been like transitioning from the studio to the stage, and bringing these songs to life in a live setting?
Well, probably the most shocking part of all of this to me was performing live. When Brad [Davidson, ThinkSay Records] approached me at the City Winery and said, "Let's make an album," and I said "Ok, so we can auto-tune and we can get the melody to where we want it, you know, with machines, that's what you guys do, right?" And he said, "Eh, I don't know. Maybe you should work not he voice." So, I've been working on my voice for over a year and I don't go out there to try to sing. I mean, I do my best and I try my best to stick to the melody of the song, but I don't get too hung up on if I go flat or if I go sharp, because I know I'm going to do that. I don't have perfect pitch or anything close to that. I just know how to inhabit these songs. They're my songs, and I know what they're about. I think the most important thing about my performance, at least for me, is getting the song across. You talked about it earlier - if its the sadness, then put the sadness out there so the audience can feel it and they can give something back, and we have a thing. I'm not just going to sit up here and put on the album so we can all listen to it. This is just happening tonight, and my voice is gonna be what it's gonna be and it's way better than it was a year ago when I started. I'm going to try my best, but what it's really about is the feeling of the music and lets have a good time.
The Webster Hall show is coming up next week in New York City. I imagine that's going to be a homecoming of sorts for you. Is there a special energy around this particular performance?
Well, when the album came out we did a show at The Cutting Room which holds about 800 people. We've played some bigger rooms of about 800 to 1,000 people, and I enjoy that. But it is a homecoming in a very real sense because Webster Hall is two blocks from where I grew up and across the street from where I went to grade school, so it's a very interesting sense of dislocation in the sense of me doing what I'm doing now - singing - in this place, this building that I've walked past at least a thousand times.
And now you're playing it. Full circle.
That's right, that's right [laughing].
Is this album a one-time project that you just wanted to accomplish and see what would happen, or is there potential for more David Duchovny music in the future?
Yes, I continue to write songs with the guys who are in my band when we play [are touring]. They're all these Berkeley School of Music graduates who are way more knowledgable than I am musically; better and smarter. And we're working on a batch of songs that are conceivably the next album. So, until somebody forces me to stop, I guess I'll keep going.
I don't think anyone is ever going to force you to stop.
Alright, then I probably won't stop [laughing].
Throughout your acting career, we've seen you step behind the camera and direct as well as produce. You've also written some tv episodes as well. Is there any chance that you might try to round out your resume and write original music for an upcoming film or television project in the future?
That's an interesting question. I really haven't thought about that. I'll certainly pitch my music to be on the soundtrack [of a new project] if I think it fits, although it could be a bit distracting if the guy on screen is also the guy singing the song. I would think that would be weird, haha. But I think if you're talking about scoring a film, I'm not that kind of music writer. I put chords down and I try to write melodies for them. Its really about the songwriting rather than the symphonic, orchestral music writing that movies have.
Your long-running show Californication wrapped up last year. Throughout the show, there were so many musical references from famous guest appearances by musicians to shots of you playing guitar, even one episode when Hank [Moody] was so devastated because "Surfer Girl" stole all of his vinyl records. Was that your influence on the show, or did the show influence you to eventually want to be a musician and write music?
No, that was Tom Kapinos, the show's creator and an excellent guitar player. He always made sure that Moody had excellent taste in music, and if we could have guest stars on they were always heroes of Tom. We had Lemmy from Motorhead, we had [Marilyn] Manson on obviously, we had Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society, Ozzy Osbourne), so Tom has a bit of a heavier metal flavor than I do but we shared a love for Elton John and Warren Zevon. Those two were on the soundtrack a lot, "Rocket Man" [by Elton John] we used a few times. And for me, Warren Zevon was like the patron saint of the whole show in my mind. His LA-centered lyrics and his point of view of the world were the key to Hank Moody for me. So, Tom and I kind of danced around on that. I turned him onto Warren Zevon and we were both surprised that we loved Elton John and we pitched songs to each other all the time. Eventually, when I was interested in learning guitar, I was teaching myself and then I figured out that a really sleazy way to get free guitar lessons was to ask Tom to help Hank learn how to play guitar [laughing], and that's what I did the last couple years.
Two birds with one stone.
- Matt Bishop