I have been instructed to meet David Duchovny in Santa Monica at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday. I roll up to a mutually agreed-upon restaurant at 3:20. From the hostess station I can see Duchovny in a street-facing mirror. He’s wearing shades and one of those Henley shirts that really look good only on a David Duchovny–type guy. He’s rapping with another dude his age over a chip-based appetizer.
I should wait at the bar, let them wrap up. But the hostess is looking at me, bright and expectant. I am seized by an irrational need to demonstrate that I Am Supposed to Be Here. I tell her I’m meeting somebody and he’s right over there. Which then obliges me to go over there, to Duchovny’s booth. So now I’m standing at Duchovny’s elbow. Like impending doom, Joe Pesci would say. I might as well be in a gingham dress and my big-city hat, holding out an autograph book.
“I’m Alex from Grantland,” I say, as Duchovny removes his glasses and his understandable This better be good face flips to How the hell are ya cheerful, “and I’m supposed to meet you here in like seven minutes.”
Duchovny, still smiling, but firm: “Can you give us like seven minutes, then?”
Fair enough. I go back outside, stand in front of the balloon store next door to the restaurant, and take this picture with my phone.
I come back at 3:32. Duchovny is alone. I order a Diet Coke. I pull out my tape recorder and we preamble while it boots up. He is in town to do press for his new NBC show. It’s called Aquarius. The year is 1967; Duchovny is a straight cop whose missing-persons case puts him on the scent of what turns out to be the Manson Family. Duchovny has just come from screening the show for an audience of “influencers” — 22-year-olds with Twitter accounts, don’t ask him why. He is some combination of tired, wistful, and on edge, although to be fair this is how he always seems in everything he’s ever been in.
“Since you like Diet Coke,” Duchovny says, “I won’t give you my spiel about aspartame.”
“Well, now you have to,” I say.
So he gives me his spiel about aspartame. Seems it was developed by Monsanto as an insecticide before G.D. Searle chairman Donald Rumsfeld strong-armed the FDA into approving it for human consumption.1 We toast Dandy Don, wherever the lecture circuit has taken him this week — Duchovny with half a glass of white, me with my cup of poison.
Duchovny has a record coming out, Hell or Highwater, on which he sings 12 self-composed Gin Blossoms–y rock songs. It’s pretty good, which is a relief. We talk about music. Duchovny was born in 1960. His four-years-older brother’s record collection grounded him in the Beatles/Stones/Who, plus some funk, like Sly & the Family Stone; left to his own devices, young Duchovny vibed on Elton John and Yes. He liked and still likes Chicago, which he knows is a reference point “no real rock-’n’-roller” would be caught dead invoking. We find some points of consensus. We agree that the arrangements on those old Springsteen records are a bit much (“It’s always very similar — like, ‘Here comes the sax solo!'”) and that “Home at Last” by Steely Dan is one of the greatest songs ever written.
“‘Home at Last’?” Duchovny says. “‘Home at Last’ makes me cry. ‘Tied to the mast’ — when he realizes he’s home, tied to the mast? That’s a big revelation. That’s an adult revelation. It’s not, ‘She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.’ It’s like, an adult person wrote that song.”
All I want to do is talk to David Duchovny about Steely Dan. I suggest we cut the interview short and go out to my car to listen to Aja. Duchovny laughs in a way that makes it clear this is not going to happen.
Duchovny didn’t play music as a kid. And unless you count this 1999 Tonight Show appearance when he jumped onstage with Barenaked Ladies to dance like an overserved wedding guest while shaking a rhythm egg …
… he didn’t do it as an adult, either. “I just never had the stick-to-itiveness,” he says. “I always wanted to play guitar. I just never put in the time.”
But then about five years ago he realized that if he bought a very expensive guitar, it would force him to learn to play, so as not to be that guy with the very expensive guitar sitting unplayed on a stand. “I went out and bought this beautiful Martin guitar,” Duchovny says, “and sure enough the next morning I was like, Oh, shit, I just spent that much money on a guitar — I’d better play that shit.”
“That much money” was $3,000. Duchovny played that shit. Just play for five minutes every day, a friend told him. Commit to playing. If you play 10, play 20, play an hour, that’s great. But play five minutes a day and you’ll be amazed.
The first song Duchovny taught himself was “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” by the Flaming Lips. An easy one, not a lot of chords, although there’s a D minor in there that still gives him trouble. (“Not my favorite chord.”) He looked up guitar tabs online, realized that everybody was building with the same blocks, chordwise — Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, the Beatles (“They like the seventh chords, as do I”). Duchovny wondered if he could put chords together, hear a melody on top of that. He could. After that the words came easy.
“I mean, I don’t want to say that they were easy,” Duchovny says, “but they were the easiest part of the whole thing.”
In addition to having played one on TV, Duchovny is an actual writer. His senior thesis at Princeton was entitled “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels.” His doctoral dissertation at Yale would have involved Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and been called “Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Poetry and Prose,” had he finished more than a chapter of it. (He was at Yale when he started acting, which he says “still feels like more of a stretch than writing.”) In his satirical novel Holy Cow, published in February, a talking dairy cow named Elsie Bovary discovers the truth about industrial meat production and flees the farm with her pig friend Shalom. She wants to go to India; Shalom has his eye on Israel. “I’d be a god and he’d be a devil,” Elsie says, “and we both would live.”
He’d written poetry; it wasn’t a huge leap to start putting together words that rhymed.
“A song like ‘Stars’ — it starts with a commonplace thought,” he says. “We’ve been told by scientists that some of the stars we see have burned out, because they’re so far away. And I had it in my notebook — that could be like love. You’re looking at a love, but it’s dead. That seemed like a good song. Not too complicated. Just one simple this equals that, and then you work off that.”
“So you published a novel this year and now you’re putting out an album,” I say. “Are these things you always wanted to do but felt too self-conscious to do before?”
“I think I was probably too concerned about making my way as an actor, my chosen profession,” Duchovny says. “I didn’t have the mental focus to turn my energies completely to something else that wasn’t pushing me forward in some way. Then at some point I just kind of gave up on whatever my acting [career] was gonna be. I was gonna work or I wasn’t gonna work. I stopped striving in that area. I didn’t quit, but I was happy with what I was doing. I was content with what I had done, in a way. And it became, What else do I want to do? What else do I want to express?”
Also, he says, “I wanted my kids to see me fail at something very badly. When you have a kid, you’re often telling them, You just gotta keep trying. But they look at you as an adult, and they don’t see you trying — they just see you do stuff.”
His daughter is playing guitar now too. “That was the evil plan all along,” Duchovny says. “Watch Daddy suck, be frustrated, and not give up.”
I point out that Duchovny went from learning his first chord to putting out a solo album within five years. The day the record comes out he’ll do one of his first live performances, in front of however many people are watching Today. I ask if this undercuts the lesson just a tad. “I think it does,” Duchovny says. “But I can find other things. There’s a lot of things that I suck at.”
“You get into some real shit on this record,” I say. “Was it therapeutic, in a way?”
“I don’t know,” Duchovny says. “I can’t tell. I don’t know if I’m better or worse because of it. I feel like it got me to hang out with people, not to isolate. I can play music with friends. Share certain things. So that’s good. Therapeutic? Yeah, I’m sure it was therapeutic.”
He’s looking straight ahead. You know how it sounds when someone’s deliberately conveying no information whatsoever through their tone of voice, and wants you to hear them not-conveying? It’s like that.
“But you can’t really point to how it was therapeutic?”
“No,” Duchovny says.
“Do you have a tendency to isolate like that?”
“Yeah,” Duchovny says. A beat. I look at his forearms. They’re sinewy. “I was teaching myself to play the guitar alone in my apartment. That was where I was at. I was going through a divorce. I had a lot of time. That was an aspect of the whole thing. I never really had time before that, to sit in my living room and teach myself to play guitar.”
“So you’re alone for the first time in a while, sitting there with your guitar,” I say. “That’s the context these songs were written in?”
“That’s where the album comes from.”
“Was this late at night?” I ask.
“Usually in the morning,” Duchovny says, smiling. “I was like, I want to get my five minutes out of the way.”
That divorce — from Tea Leoni, whom he married in 1997 — was finalized last August, after years of public struggle. Duchovny’s person asked me not to bring this up, hoping against hope that someday stories about Duchovny will not include the words “voluntarily entered rehab for sex addiction.” His person is in luck: Duchovny is off on a tangent about his voice coach (Don Lawrence, whose teachings were an “amazing gift,” and who also mentored Lady Gaga, Bono, and Axl Rose) before I can slide in a question about how the split framed or shaped Hell or Highwater.
Honestly, I don’t really have to. The image of Duchovny at home alone writing these songs about how sometimes love is like the light from a dead star tells that story well enough. As do the lyrics about a cycle of recrimination and reconciliation and resignation (“One year’s golden and the next one blows”) on the twangy “Let It Rain.” As does “3000,” whose narrator cuts across Central Park on foot to meet someone for what might be the last time, thinking things like, “If we survive this civil war / Then we’ll recover what we’re fighting for,” and, “Three thousand steps, forget about 12.” And so on.
Maybe the narrator of that song is not Duchovny. Maybe it’s a coincidence that when he started writing lyrics what came out were songs about men of a certain age, confronting the irreconcilable, admitting their own culpability, still holding out hope. Maybe this is not his melancholy divorced-dad record, or not simply that. But it’s hard not to hear it that way. And given how nakedly and helplessly it lays out its reflections on those themes, it’s hard to mock this album as just another celebrity ding-dong amusing himself.
Also, he’s going out of his way to not be a douche about it. He’s honest about the limitations of his voice and the fact that while he sings on the record, the songs he wrote are being played by hotshot kids from Berklee because Duchovny still isn’t that great at guitar.
“I’m not trying to be anything or anyone,” Duchovny says. “I’m not trying to be a rock star. It’s a pure expression of a moment in my life.”
On a slightly less intimate note, there’s “Positively Madison Avenue,” a seven-minute SMH at the sacrilegious sight of “Bobby Dylan selling cars” that saves some extra vitriol for “critics, bloggers, vultures / Tak[ing] their percentage off the carcass of the culture” and “corporations … givin’ Mother Earth a facial.”
“Personally,” Duchovny says, “I take no shots at Bob Dylan. But since you bring it up, I will say this: As far as I’m concerned, Bob Dylan can do whatever the fuck he wants. He doesn’t need my approval. I want him to make as much money as he can. He’s Bob Dylan. What happened was, I was watching the Super Bowl with my kids, and getting numb, watching this spectacle of American violence and patriotism. Then Bob Dylan came on with this Chrysler commercial, and I was like, Oh my God, it’s just getting worse and worse. That became the symbol of the whole thing. I’m all for Bob and I’m all for Bob making money — but that song, to me, is more about America.”
“So it’s a symbol of how pervasive that corruption is,” I ask, “if even Bob Dylan is corruptible?”
“The thing is,” Duchovny says, “Bob Dylan never held himself up as incorruptible. I always felt for him on that. In a way, I feel bad that my song is in the tradition of, like, Bob, how could you go electric? He never promised that he wouldn’t sell his songs. I know all that. So it’s kind of bullshit, [me] using that in a song. Bob is way smarter than me or anybody else — I’m sure he understands it in a way that I don’t.”
“He did a Victoria’s Secret ad, too,” I point out.
“It’s in the song!” Duchovny says proudly. “I put it in the song. ‘I’ve learned the victor’s secrets / You can shill panties and still remain a genius.’ I’m pretty proud of that line.”
“It’s pretty clear from that song that you’re also indicting yourself,” I say. “You’re swimming in the same water.”
“Absolutely. I say, ‘I shouldn’t be throwing stones / Because chasing spooks on Fox is how I made my bones.’ Yeah. I’m no role model.”
This seems like a window to bring up television. When I ask Duchovny if he’s excited about NBC’s plan to release all 13 episodes of Aquarius online for Netflix-style big-gulping, he says, “I’ve been told to be excited about it.” He says that when he signed on, “I thought it was gonna be HBO or AMC,” and there’s a tiny whiff of disappointment in the way he explains how it’s still the show they wanted to make.
Later, the part of our conversation that jumps out at me is when Duchovny says he isn’t striving anymore, that he has decided to let his career be whatever it’s going to be. It’s an interesting admission. Duchovny was great as the kimonoed actor who tries to talk masseuse Mary McCormack into giving him manual release in Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, as a long-suffering screenwriter in Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set, and as Mimi Rogers’s mullet-headed husband in Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture. But he’s never really clicked with audiences as a movie star. His highest-grossing film is the first X-Files movie, from 1998; not counting cameos and Beethoven, his next-highest-grossing is Ivan Reitman’s 2001 sci-fi bomb Evolution.
TV, intimate and negotiable, was Duchovny’s zone. It found better uses for his lambent feline energy, his low-flame delivery, his aura of unspoken and seemingly untortured kink. I didn’t have much use for Californication, a dad-rock Entourage about a screenwriter whose true calling was pipe-laying. But in most of the rest of his small-screen work, Duchovny has been a dreamy sleeper agent helping termite television shows gnaw away at genre expectations, including the expectation that a hero should hold the line against strangeness and difference instead of opening up to it.
On Showtime’s Red Shoe Diaries he was an amateur detective whose quest to solve the riddle of his fiancée’s suicide fueled an anthology of softcore-porn tales told from the female perspective. He was a transgender DEA agent on Twin Peaks, dated Carrie Bradshaw while furloughed from a mental institution on Sex and the City, and showed up on The Larry Sanders Show as “David Duchovny,” a famous married actor who insists that his intense crush on Larry is “definitely a heterosexual feeling, but it’s directed at you.” (The story line was Duchovny’s idea.) And for seven-and-a-half seasons — plus guest-star turns thereafter — he was Fox Mulder on The X-Files, vibrating on the wavelength of every weirdo in the world and turning to his collection of analog pornography when it was quittin’ time.
That show made him a cult figure. Women wrote songs about him; so did men. As a movie franchise, The X-Files petered out after 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe. But the original show keeps finding new fans on Netflix and new torch-carriers for the Mulder-Scully relationship on Tumblr. In June, Duchovny and Gillian Anderson will start shooting a new X-Files “event series” for Fox. It’s six episodes. (“There’s no way I was ever going to do 23,” Duchovny says.)
By the contemporary standard that all serialized TV shows must constantly progress in an orderly fashion toward a satisfying conclusion, The X-Files blew it. The show vamped too long, adding far too many layers to an alien-invasion mythology I challenge you to explain in fewer than eight paragraphs. But there was a freedom in that narrative aimlessness; Mulder and Scully could charge off into the dark, chasing chupacabras or extraterrestrial super-soldiers or liver-eating mutants, and if instead of “solving” one of the show’s many dangling mysteries they ended up discussing Moby-Dick while stranded on a rock in the middle of nowhere or holding hands in an ambulance after tripping balls on alien spores in a cave, critics and bloggers and vultures didn’t freak.
Apart from what he cheerfully describes as “pure greed,” this was part of why Duchovny thinks it’s worth another shot. “It was a great strength of the show,” he says. “The flexible frame. It could be comedy, it could be drama, it could be a thriller, it could be a horror movie, it could be a conspiracy movie, it could be a love story.”
Right, the love story. My grasp of late X-Files continuity and specifically the status of Mulder and Scully as a will-they-or-won’t-they TV couple is foggy. I ask Duchovny to remind me where they left things, sexwise.
“I mean, we had a baby,” Duchovny says. This is true, although neither Duchovny nor I can remember if it was a real baby or some kind of alien trick-baby made through nonstandard means.
“I don’t know,” Duchovny says. “We didn’t know. We’d be like, Are we married? What are we? In the last movie, we were married.”
This is actually not true. But at the end of the second film, I Want to Believe,2 we saw them in bathing suits, riding off in a speedboat to a tropical island, a sexy place where they might well have had sex. Or had it again, depending on your interpretation of X-Files canon.
Mulder and Scully were far more interesting as platonic colleagues than they’d be as a couple, but ’shippers gonna ’ship; the portion of X-Files fandom that wants this relationship consummated is almost as fervent as the portion that longs for Anderson and Duchovny to hook up in real life. “I’ll get back to you on that,” Duchovny says of the latter scenario. “I don’t see it happening, but, y’know, I’ve been wrong before.”
He can’t tell me anything else about the new X-Files. He’s not being cagey; he just doesn’t know. His mind’s on the album and on Aquarius. The latter’s creator is John McNamara, best known (to me) as the man behind the short-lived 1996 series Profit, an ahead-of-its-time Fox antihero show with Adrian Pasdar as a corporate terminator who sleeps naked in a cardboard box. On Aquarius, Duchovny’s Sam Hodiak sleeps in a crappy Hollywood apartment, sports a Bigfoot Bjornsen flattop, and holds the line against the social upheaval tearing at the fabric of the America he went to war to protect. Instead of researching the ’60s, Duchovny reached back further, imagining the history that might shape a guy like this. “What was his life like? What did he believe in? I hated my dad’s music, but I was listening to everything my dad would listen to.”
“So does that mean your next record is going to sound like Benny Goodman?” I ask.
Duchovny corrects me. “Django Reinhardt.”
“You better start practicing guitar,” I say.
“I’m just going to cut off a finger,” Duchovny says, “and see what happens.”