When I first interviewed David Duchonvny back in 2013 or so on the set of the brilliant Californication, he was just starting to play guitar. But he was an admitted novice.
Now, he has just released his third album, the superb Gestureland, a collection that stretches from the rocking “Layin’ On The Tracks” and “Pacific Coast Highway” and the literate and engaging “Chapter And Verse” to the touching ballads “Call Me When You Land” and “Stay Until.”
It’s actually back in 2013 where Duchovny and I start out talk. Every time we speak we touch on the genius of Warren Zevon, a shared favorite. And jokingly years ago I suggested Duchovny should play Zevon in a biopic. Recently I mentioned the idea to one of Zevon’s best friends and peers, Jackson Browne, who found the idea “Interesting.”
So I start my talk with the versatile Duchovny, who weaves his music and literature into a very funny cameo on Netflix’s captivating new series The Chair, which premiered this weekend, talking about the biopic. And from there we touch on songwriting, opening himself up, seeing Prince and Bette Midler while he worked at Radio City Music Hall and much more.
Steve Baltin: The record is wonderful. And the last song of the record, “Sea Of Tranquility,” has a definite Warren Zevon feel to me. You will never remember this but we did an interview back about 2013 on the set of Californication, and it was when you were just learning guitar. And I suggested to you that you should do a Zevon biopic. And you said, “I don’t write songs, so there’s no f**king way.” Then I actually ran into Judd Apatow, who’s a big Zevon fan, and I pitched him this idea. And so now, of course, I know you guys just did a movie together. And bringing this all full circle is that I just did an interview with Jackson Brown for an hour and I suggested this to him. And he goes, “Hmm, that’s really interesting.” So if you get Jackson Brown’s blessing, it has to happen.
David Duchovny: When I was doing Californication, I think Tom Kapinos, the creator of the show, had somebody who came to him with like a Zevon biopic. I think Billy Bob Thornton had the interest and was trying to get it written or was trying to get it done, ’cause I think he was friends with Zevon. And I don’t know if we talked about this the last time we talked, but I really didn’t know that much about [Zevon] outside of “Werewolves of London” before I started prepping for Californication. I don’t know why I came to Zevon, it was really just dumb luck or just good sense. And I just started listening and listening, and it was like, “Oh God, this guy’s world. This is California that we’re doing.” And I turned Kapinos onto Zevon, and then he became the patron saint for us, so not only in the show but also getting him in on the soundtrack whenever we could.
Baltin: As a massive fan, I don’t care who does the biopic as long as he gets the respect he’s due. But would you feel comfortable playing him?
Duchovny: Yeah. I can get comfortable playing anything if I have time. It’s always tough to play an actual person that there’s a lot of footage of and the people know what he sounds like and what he looks like, so you need help. A lot of it is hair and make up. His voice to mine are not similar. I wouldn’t wanna like re-record his songs. I’d wanna use his songs, so I don’t know, man. I think it just depends. Aside from loving Zevon, the movie has to have a reason to be. Like, what’s the reason to be? What is the tale of his life gonna mean in a movie? If that could be answered then, yeah, then I’d love to see that done, whether it was me in it or not. What’s the tale that you’re telling, you know?
Baltin: You say it was dumb luck you got into his music. But when did that happen?
Duchovny: When I was prepping to direct a movie that I did called House Of D, my father died, and this was probably 2003 or 2004. Right around when Zevon died. So he had just released posthumously that last album, The Wind. So there was a version of “Knocking On Heavens Door” on that, and I was just kind of trying to keep my s**t together, prepping this movie, trying to keep my mind right, and I would listen to that song over and over again. And I know everybody who was working with me was probably thinking, “He’s lost his mind,” ’cause it’s the only song I listened to for two weeks over and over and over again. And then on the call sheet sometimes you’ll get an AD that likes to have sayings on the call sheet. So he asked me if there was something that I wanted to be, like the mantra of the movie while we were shooting, like every day on the call sheet says this thing. And so I said, “Yeah, enjoy every sandwich.”
Baltin: I love “Call Me When You Land.” For you as a writer when you start to tap into those moments of vulnerability does it almost surprise you in a way to see that?
Duchovny: Well, I’m glad you bring that up, cause of all the songs on the album, I think, “Oh, that’s the softest, right?” I go through my life and every time “Cats In The Cradle” comes on, I lose my s**t. And I know it’s a hokey song, but I’m crying every time that song comes on. So I was like, “I wanna write my ‘Cats in the Cradle.'” Or “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, “She’s Leaving Home” by the Beatles, songs that are really about the pain of being a parent from the parent’s point of view, not from the kid’s point of view of rebellion against the parent, which is what most of rock and roll is gonna be about. So I was like, “Yeah, I gotta write my ‘Cats in the Cradle.'” And I think my daughter just said to me, when she was starting to travel around on her own, she just tossed off that, “I’ll call you when I land,” which is one of those things we say on the phone that are so emotive. These things that are hugely symbolic. So “Call You When I Land” was like, “Oh God, that breaks my heart.” It’s like the idea that you might not land, the idea of landing as an adult and all this stuff, and I was like, “Okay, okay, there’s something in that phrase that makes me feel like I’m in the ‘Cats in the Cradle’ area,” so I wanted to pursue it. You’re absolutely right, it was all about vulnerability, because that’s what being a parent is all about.
Baltin: But there is also a healthy dose of guitar and heaviness on the record.
Duchovny: Yeah, they are gonna be fun to play live, for sure. And that’s always an interesting thing to think about when you’re recording the songs. Because a song, it’s like you really want to do the production that brings out the heart of the song, and you don’t always get it right. Cause sometimes I’ll have a song that I think is really moving when I play it on guitar, just that’s my opinion. And then it goes through production and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and my singing gets better and everything is better, and yet I’m not moved anymore. And I’m like, “What happened? Where did it go? Where did the heart of the song go?” And then there are songs where you’re just like, “No, this is gonna be fun live. This is just a f**king rock and roll song.”
Baltin: So are there songs for you, though, that immediately you’re particularly excited to see how they come to the stage and how an audience will respond to them?
Duchovny: Yeah, it depends on the size of the audience sometimes. I feel like the harder songs, the more rock songs like “Nights Are Harder These Days” or “Layin’ on the Tracks,” I know how to perform those live, I know they go over live loud well. I’m not concerned about them. It’s really always how do I get across the emotion of some of what I feel are more vulnerable on the quieter songs and how do I do it after having played those other songs? How do you take the audience on the journey and not give them whiplash? I can never answer that correctly until I get out there.
Baltin: Are there artists that you’ve seen who take you on that journey that you look to as the masters of that art form?
Duchovny: Arena rock isn’t like that. It’s just hard to do. Not that I play at arenas, but I used to bar tend at Radio City Music Hall when I was 21 years old, right after college, and I saw so many different acts coming through. I saw Prince there before. He had “Little Red Corvette,” but no “When Doves Cry” yet, no “Purple Rain” yet. I saw Peter Allen who was remarkably great. I saw Marvin Gaye. On the Sexual Healing tour, for the encore for “Sexual Healing,” he’d come out in a silk bathrobe. But crazy enough, the one performer that I saw take the audience almost like a great movie or a play, made them laugh and then made them cry, and was entertaining all the way through without any kind of general rise to the top and then down but almost like a waving, waving sad song episode, jokes, tears was Bette Midler. I don’t own one Bette Midler album, I don’t know her music at all, but I watched her and I was like, “That person just took that audience, just grabbed them and said, ‘We’re going here, we’re gonna laugh; we’re going here, we’re gonna cry.'” And I’ve never seen anything like that. And that’s Radio City Music Hall, so it’s not a huge venue but it’s pretty big.
Baltin: Obviously, she’s a performer and has been an actress for years and has done some great work. So do you feel like in a way, it almost gives you an advantage, because you know how to work with an audience as well?
Duchovny: Yeah, you’d think so. I should probably think about it more that way. I think, at first, from my experience of just going out and playing live, I was so terrified of just, “Oh s**t, are my pants gonna split? Is my mic gonna work?” All the little things. And then just, ” Am I gonna be able to sing like this?” And then, “Can I hear the bass? Where’s the bass?” All these things. And then eventually, as you get more experienced, then you just start to get into the luxury idea of, “Okay, the music is gonna take care of itself. I know the songs and I know how to sing ’em. They’re gonna be within a certain range of good. Now, well, what’s it about? It’s about this evening. What do I want this evening to be about? What journey do I wanna take? How do I do it without being an a**hole? How do I do without being a cheesy kind of ‘Clap your hands, everybody?’ How are we gonna do it?”
Baltin: Have you had a super embarrassing moment yet on stage?
Duchovny: Yeah, I tripped in Warsaw. I move around a lot and I’m not that careful, and there’s cords and shit. And I have a mike that has a cord and I was moving backwards, not looking where I was going, and then the next thing I knew I was flat on my back. And I was in the middle of singing a the song, so I just stayed there. I tried to own the moment like, “Yeah, I know that happened but I’m not gonna try to run away from it too.” So that was probably the biggest surprise and embarrassing klutzy move. It’s always like the klutzy rock and roll move.
Baltin: So then, after it happens and you survive it, does it then just make it easy like you’ve had the moment and survived it?
Duchovny: Yeah, it’s all about how you react to it. It’s like, what does Miles Davis say? There are no wrong notes? It’s like what you play after. So it’s just like, “Yeah, that happened, that’s life. This is not a canned performance, this is happening in real time, this is not a choreographed thing.” Some accident just happened. So we’re all human. I think that it’s actually a great moment, it’s like that can actually make a connection to an audience. Instead of, “You thought you were rock or roll, well, you f**king fell on your ass,” it can also just be like, “Yeah, we’re all people, motherf**ker.”
Baltin: Good writing is subconscious, it leads you. So are there moments then on Gestureland that really surprised you?
Duchovny: They were mostly written before the lock down, ’cause we were actually recording the album in the spring, right before the lock down. And if we had another month to get into April and May, we would have finished it over a year ago. But lyrically, “Sea of Tranquility” really surprised me because sometimes I’ll just start writing a song. You don’t want to admit this, but sometimes I just write a song where basically I’m saying, ‘I’m sitting here writing a song. That song starts, it’s almost like the motor trying to turn on, it’s like sitting here tonight. Like sitting here tonight, how many songs start that way? It’s because you’re like, “I’m just trying to get it out tonight.” And you’re like, “Sitting here tonight, missing you, and then missing Blue, which sounds like you’re blue because you’re missing someone, but in fact, I had a dog named Blue. So it’s like the personal meaning is way different from how it sounds so I kind OF like that. I’m actually missing a dog in the first line.