"I didn't do it to be a rock star."
David Duchovny, troubadour? Yes, the former G-man is releasing an album. Of music. He's just as surprised as you are. After hanging up Hank Moody's black T-shirt on Californication, the actor picked up a guitar for his self-penned debut Hell or Highwater, out today, and the rock album features his brooding musings on pride, loss, and lots of remorse. (Sample lyric: "I see the sky in the ocean/The rise and the fall/What my mind regrets my heart accepts/Passing witness to the crazy costume ball.") Yet he might also be the most self-deprecating musician alive, admitting that he's never done karaoke because, well, no one ever wanted to hear him sing. Duchovny's in the middle of a frenetic season: He's riding the success of his new allegorical book Holy Cow (with another novel on the way next year), chasing Charles Manson as a cop in the new '60s-set NBC drama Aquarius,premiering May 28, and reuniting with Gillian Anderson to bring a little under-the-radar show called The X-Files back to life for a six-episode miniseries in January 2016. But first, the man whose Twitter bio reads "dilettante" wants us to believe that despite his many prolific projects, he's just as lazy as the next guy.
We recently talked to Duchovny about conquering pre-show jitters, escaping ghosts by moving to the Bronx, starting an X-Files band with Anderson and creator Chris Carter (who's using Duchovny's music in the new series), and getting paid for putting on a dress.
I've been enjoying your album, but with the downpour today in New York it seems particularly resonant.
There's a lot of rain on that album.
"Let It Rain." "The Rain Song." Were you in a rainy kind of mood while writing?
For sure. "It's always December," as it says in one of my songs. I was surprised there was so much rain in the album. I was a little embarrassed, but there it is. And rain is always a good rhyming word: rain and pain and again.
How long did it take to birth this album, from conception to release?
Well, I never really had a conception of it because I never thought I would record a song, or even write one. I first started writing songs three or so years ago, and even then they were just for me or a couple of friends that I play guitar with every Sunday. We just fiddle around. I sent a friend of mine named Keaton Simons some stuff and said, "Could we just record in your garage?" I just want to hear it and hear what I sound like, because I'm not a singer. And Keaton was kind enough to do the early demos for me, and I felt like they were songs, and I have something to say, and maybe somebody would want to hear this. Through Keaton I met Brad Davidson [the president] at ThinkSay Records about a year and a half ago, and he's the one who's pushed the album. I never would have pursued recording. It's really been Brad saying, "These are great songs, you should keep working at it."
How many did you record?
I've written probably about 25 songs. We recorded 13 and left one off, which will be a bonus track. There are two acoustic versions of songs we did record for the album, which will also be bonus tracks.
Overall, they seem to explore a feeling of transition. Was that consciously done?
It's like nothing on the album is conscious. [Laughs] I kind of dread any kind of critical response, just because it's always painful in some way. Even if it's 80 percent good, it's the 20 percent that's bad that you remember—and that's a higher number than I usually get, 80 percent would be amazing. But I didn't do it with any other goal in mind, except to express this particular something musically at this particular point in my life. I didn't do it to make money. I didn't do it to be a rock star. I didn't do any of this for any reason, except that these are the things that were coming out of me and these are how they sound. None of it is conscious. It is what it is. And therefore if you said, "I hate it," I'll say, "Okay, that's legitimate, I kinda get it, you don't like that." But then I wouldn't go home and think, "Gee, I wonder what I could have done differently?" Because honestly, I couldn't have done anything differently.
You could have said, "I'm an actor, this is how people know me," but there had to be a shift in your mind to offer up this music for public consumption. Was that a very scary thing?
It is. It is because there are people who are really great musicians. I've met a lot of them. And I'm not a great musician. I'm adequate enough to be able to throw some chords together and write songs, but I can only feel that because I'm expressing something honestly, or in a heartfelt way, or in some way that's not bullshit, that in some way the songs have merit.
Does music make it easier for you to reach the point of unselfconsciousness that actors try to achieve in performance?
Maybe because I'm writing the words, in that sense, the music comes from a place that's more organic to me. But I'm not a natural singer. I'm not a guy that can get up and karaoke and everyone goes, "Hey, you should be a singer!"
What's your karaoke song?
I've never done karaoke because nobody wants to hear me sing! [Laughs] The only reason I get to sing my songs now is because I wrote them. Nobody else would give me their songs. As I realized that I was going to record I thought, "Well, I want to at least see what kind of voice I have," and go to somebody who knows about voice and start studying voice, because it's not natural. I mean, I'm not in the choir. So I did that and at first it was paralyzing, because it was like, God, I don't know what I'm doing at all. All of a sudden you can't express what you want to express. I've been at it for a little over a year and still I'm not a great singer, but I understand more about how to sing my songs.
Who are some of your favorite musicians or lyricists?
I love Dylan's lyrics. Leonard Cohen. I love the Beatles, the Stones, Tom Waits. I love Aimee Mann. She's a great kind of disappointed-love songwriter.
Are you nervous or excited about performing in Boston and New York?
I'm getting more nervous because people keep asking me if I'm nervous. I imagine I will be, but I also know from experience that the nerves go away. Maybe I'll fuck up a couple songs, but at some point I'm going to relax and just enjoy myself. It's not about me. It's a live experience, like going to the theater. It's about saying, We're all in this together, we're here in this place tonight, and some of us are playing music and some of us are listening. Let's make something happen.
Do certain locations feel especially inspiring to you as a writer?
Anywhere I've lived for a significant amount of time that have memories, my past, and stories attached to them, and that's really New York and L.A. Any place where there's ghosts are inspiring.
They somehow turn up on every corner.
Exactly. In New York, I can't go anywhere. It's just all... I gotta keep moving. I think I gotta move to Riverdale or something to get away from them. I don't think there are any ghosts up there.
I've heard since The X-Files went off the air, Chris Carter has learned how to play the drums.
Yeah, Chris plays the drums and sings. Well, he says he sings, but I've never heard him. But I trust him. So we'll put together an X-Files band. I don't know if Gillian [Anderson] plays an instrument, I've never seen her play an instrument. I'm sure she can shake a tambourine if she wants to and sing with me.
Any chance Chris is going to put your music on the miniseries?
He said he was going to. He said two songs were appropriate and I can't remember which ones they were, but he said he was going to put one on. I thought that was so great.
Were you surprised by the enthusiasm for the show coming back?
I'm always a little amazed that there's still an audience for it. It's been a long time, but I had been aware that there have been movements that have been trying to keep it alive. I don't think we could do it if we didn't think there were people who wanted to see it.
The show ran during the advent of fan forums, but now actors are expected to live-tweet their shows and carry on along with their audience. Is that something you'll do?
I'll probably do some of that. My feeling about the live-tweeting thing is, I thought you were supposed to be watching the show? I don't want to distract you, like "I'm trying to watch the show and Duchovny keeps tweeting, shut the fuck up!"
What do you think Mulder and Scully's song would be? Who would score their relationship?
You mean, if it wasn't me? I've seen on YouTube a lot of fan stuff where they get clips of Mulder and Scully and play songs over them, and some of those are really good. I can't remember one of them, but I've watched some and thought, "Oh, this works, this is emotional." Definitely some kind of love song.
You also released the book Holy Cow in February, which hit the New York Times Best Seller list. With all these different avenues you're exploring, what's the endgame? Are you aiming for an EGOT?
There's no endgame. I feel lucky that I get to explore these things, especially musically. It's a big surprise to me that I get to make songs with really talented musicians and put an album out. But in terms of the book, and I have another novel that's going to come out next year, to me, that's less surprising than the fact that I'm an actor. If you asked me when I was 11 or 12 years old what I was going to do, I would have said, "Write." Not act. And what's in it for me? I don't know. The endgame happens if people enjoy whatever it is that I'm doing: Did it make your life better for a minute? Did you forget you were sad? Did you get happy? Did you learn something? All those are great things that could happen. Or you could just say, "This fucking sucks," and throw it out the window.
The book you're releasing next year, Bucky F**king Dent,a father-son story set during the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry in 1978, wasn't that originally an idea you had for a script?
Yeah, I wrote that as a script almost 10 years ago.
Is it easier now to just write a book rather than try to get a movie made?
Well, I don't need somebody to give me $3 million to write a book. I can do it on my own. I don't need to collaborate. I don't need to hire actors and get everybody together in the same place and hustle the money together that you need to make a film. The experience of writing Holy Cow really opened up my eyes to the fact that I could just sit in my apartment and do this. I can keep my vision this way. And then, ironically, if that leads to making a movie out of the book, how great would that be?
Do you sit there and say, "Okay, I'm writing a song now" or, "Today I'm working on a character for the novel" or do all your projects inform each other?
Well, with writing a novel, you—or at least I—do it by committing to really putting my ass in the chair for hours and hours a day, or else it's going to extend into oblivion and I'll never get it done. Songwriting just kind of happens. I've never sat down and thought, "Ooh, songwriting time!"
Are you working on the novel now before shooting The X-Files?
Bucky's done. And I've got a couple other screenplays that I've done, too.
How many hours do you have in a day?
I have the same amount as anybody else and I'm just as lazy as anybody else. I don't know, I don't know!
Do you listen to music while you write?
I don't. And I don't read while I write because I find I'll just write like whatever I'm reading. It's similar to playing music. I'll write a song about something and think, "I didn't write that song, I just heard that song and then wrote it."
And then you wind up in a Sam Smith/Tom Petty copyright situation.
Yeah. Pop songs are... it's a form. And there are only so many chords, you know? And rock 'n' roll is rock 'n' roll and it's really all about the melody. You can't rip off the melody, but you can only have so many chords.
I assume you did some research on Charles Manson for your new TV series Aquarius. Did you hear about the X-Files-esque report of his 27-year-old fiancée who apparently wanted to marry him to display his corpse?
I did. I thought it was funny last Valentine's Day when I was hearing people go, "Oh my God, Charles Manson's got a woman and I don't, what's wrong with me?"
Aquarius is set in the '60s and Bucky takes place in the '70s. What's so intriguing about exploring different decades?
I didn't write Aquarius, but I certainly have nostalgia for the time, and in terms of Bucky Dent, it was really because that particular baseball thing [the tie-breaker game] happened in 1978 between the Red Sox and the Yankees, so it became kind of a symbol for me as I was writing. The same thing happened with [directorial debut] House of D, which was based on a prison that used to be up in the Village. If that prison was still there on 9th Street and 6th Avenue, then I probably would have set the story in the present, but it was torn down in 1974. I'm not looking for periods to write in, it's more like if I'm lucky enough to have a story idea, it's going to tell me when it wants to take place.
House of D already came out a decade ago. Do you carry around any validation for discovering Anton Yelchin back when he was only 14?
Yeah, I feel like I got a really good casting agent. In fact, the person I cast before Anton, who dropped out right before filming, was a kid named Shia LaBeouf.
You also directed Robin Williams in the film. Were you terribly surprised to hear of his death last year?
Yes, yeah. We were friendly, we weren't in touch all the time. It was shocking and there was something about seeing the effect that it had on the the world. You realize how big he was as an image, as a person, as a performer. A lot of love came out for him after that.
Were you disappointed to hear that the Twin Peaks reboot seems to be shelved and you won't be transforming into DEA agent Denise Bryson again?
The last I heard was that it wasn't happening. Before I was quite happy to think that I might be able to put on a dress again and get paid for it. But we'll see.
You could always just do that for fun and not get paid.
[Laughs] It's better when I get paid for it.But I feel like these things have so many lives. The X-Files was dead so many times. We'll see what happens.
Between all of your recent projects, is there a moment that's felt the most gratifying?
It was very gratifying to hold the book in my hands, to have the physical weight of the story that I'd written. It was very satisfying on kind of a primal level. And I'd be lying if I didn't say making the Times Best Seller list. I had never dreamed that that was going to happen. You know when people make those fake Time Man of the Year photos? It felt like that. I hate to say that I'm gratified by rank and popular success, but it was cool, I have to admit. And then when I put [the single] "Hell or Highwater" on in my car and it came up on the dashboard with my name, and I was like, "That's a joke." I took a picture of it.
What's next? Any more touring beyond Boston and New York?
I'm going to work on The X-Files shortly after the album comes out, so it would be great if I could maybe put a tour together in a few months, depending on interest.
You could always ask Chris to write in the show that Mulder took up the guitar. Stranger things have happened.
I should get off the phone right now and tell him. I made Hank Moody a guitar player by the end of the show, and [my character] Hodiakon Aquarius, he's a guitar player. But I guess it's a little transparent if I make everybody a guitar player. It's gonna look a little weird.
That's fine. You'll just be known as—
—that guitar-playing actor.