David Duchovny on the influences behind his new album ‘Gestureland’
David Duchovny is always busy. A writer, director, producer, novelist, musician and, of course, award-winning actor, Duchovny is a creative polymath who’s surprisingly laid back in the way he creates. He allows inspiration to crop up organically and runs with his ideas, even if the meaning is foggy. For example, the album art for his third musical project, Gestureland, is merely a photo of his manager’s wife when she was a child, posing with a monkey. “I said immediately, ‘That’s the album cover. This is exactly what I want it to be because it looks like it means something,’” Duchovny says. “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.”
This organic form of creation, and the languid manner with which he speaks on his talents, can easily inspire envy or jealousy. In Netflix’s The Chair, Duchovny’s accomplishments are frequently questioned by Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon Kim, who stars in the show as the first female chair of a prestigious college English department. “He is a New York Times bestselling author,” the school’s dean reminds her at one point. “No, he’s not,” she replies.
But while Duchovny plays an exaggerated and more pretentious version of himself in the show, the truth is that he isn’t trying to step on any toes. He’s merely just creating what he likes. The sludgy grunge backbone of “Nights Are Harder These Days” or the waxen folksy chorus of “Everything Is Noise” won’t necessarily translate into a chart-topping blockbuster in 2021, but Gestureland is for the enjoyment of those who can connect with it, and if you don’t, then it’s not for you. In an exclusive interview with AltPress, Duchovny spoke about the importance of gestures, the fear that comes with being a father in 2021 and how he wants this new album to therapize its listeners.
So tell me about the process behind Gestureland. You’ve been sitting on these songs for a while.
I think it’s really three years in the making. It’s been three years since the last album. We had 18 songs, demoed 14 and kept 12, and there were songs that were just fading over the years. Songs before you release them take on a lot of different aspects of whatever you’re going through as you continue to work on them, and we were almost finished with this album when we were locked down the first time.
I remember I sang a few songs some night late in March, and that was the last thing I did. Obviously, you can’t belt in a room spitting everywhere. So it was a long time before we could all get in a room and make music again, and those songs, they didn’t change so much in terms of structure and melody and things like that, but they did change in terms of feel. Because we had that time and experiencing what we experienced over the year, it just colored our approach a little bit.
Talk to me more specifically about how these songs changed over the years the longer you lived with them.
I don’t know what changed specifically. I just know that we all changed. I know that we were all affected. I was very grateful to have these songs to play around with. It gave me something to dwell upon in terms of how I wanted it to sound for this time, and I think just naturally I was opening up more to different sonic landscapes from the band. They’re younger than me, and they got different sonic references than I do.
What were they referencing mostly?
Well, I don’t wanna get in trouble ’cause I’ll say something, and they’ll be like, “I’ve never listened to that.” [Laughs.] But like Tame Impala or the National. They’re very wide-ranging. They love Phish, and I never really listened to Phish. Father John Misty was someone they were all into before he blew up. For me, obviously, I’m coming out of the ’70s, so I’m referencing Patti Smith and those singer-songwriters. They know it, but I’ll play them bits I like, and I’ll say, “Something is happening here,” or I’ll ask, “What’s happening here between the bass and the drums? I don’t know. Something is just getting me. Let’s work on that.”
There’s a lot of grunge energy on this record as well. What kind of role has grunge played in your life?
Well, I’ve thought about that with this album because I do think it sounds a little grunge. I think grunge was like a ’70s redux. The ’80s was synth-mode—Bon Jovi, Depeche Mode, those kinds of things, and I like them, but they haven’t influenced me in that way I don’t think. To me, the ’90s went back to ’70s-style songwriting but with a different guitar and different production, but Neil Young existed in both places. I think you can take some of the Crazy Horse stuff, and it sounds like it could be ’90s.
So when writing “Nights Are Harder,” I gave it to Pat McCusker [guitarist], and he said it sounds like something off of Zuma. I wanted it to be muddy. I wanted it to be big. I wanted it to be simple. I wanted a riff that just blasts you in the face, and it’s just crunchy, muddy—all these non-musical words ’cause I’m not an educated musician. [Laughs.]
To be fair, those are the kind of words us music writers would use to describe it.
Yeah! Muddy. It’s muddy.
Tell me more about the album title. What is a Gestureland?
I mean, like you and like everybody else over the past year, I was mostly tied to the world through my screen. I was just at the mercy of these quick bites of meaning that felt almost inhumane and gestural from time to time. It felt like I was looking at hats. I was looking at T-shirts. Or I was looking at hand signals and asking, “What’s the right one to make? Am I gonna make the wrong one?” I felt illiterate almost, and I was yearning for a deeper discussion, a more human contact, and I was afraid of devolving into just gestures on either side. Whether it was the red hats over here or the other hats over here. Like fuck, how do I get out of this hall of mirrors?
Do you feel we’re starting to exit this Gestureland or not really?
I hope so. In the past two months, we’ve succumbed to the greatest gesture bullshit argument of all time, which is the masking. This thing could save lives so easily, and it’s become a hazing gesture. If I wear a mask, it doesn’t mean I don’t like Trump. I may not like Trump anyway, but these guys will think, “What does wearing a mask mean to you, stranger?” It means all these gestural things, but I’m just trying to save my life.
And other people’s lives, too!
Yes, exactly. In fact, to me, the gesture is more, I care about you. ’Cause this mask isn’t really gonna help me. It’s gonna help my aerosols from not getting on you. So I felt this was the worst hall of mirrors, gesture, fuck up. How did this happen?
The stakes are higher with this gesture, too. It’s different from just the clothes or hats you wear. It’s actually not solely about making a statement. The stakes are so high, and lives are on the line.
And I’m certainly aware of social media and all that stuff. I don’t love it. I don’t play on it. I don’t know it, but I’m afraid that something like that is just one-dimensional. You’re seeing merely the surface of things on those [apps]. Those are all gestures. So this was all kind of rumbling around in my head, and it was partly confusion and fear and wanting to make the right gesture. How do I show you in five seconds that I’m on your side?
I imagine that you had to tap into a lot of those feelings when writing these songs. I’m thinking specifically of “Everything Is Noise” and “Call Me When You Land.” What places creatively did you have to go to tap into those songs?
I think I’m always in that place for songs. I’ve always felt that when I’ve listened to great sad songs, they alleviate sadness in me. So I don’t see them as increasing sadness in the world. I think of them as a bloodletting, if they’re working.
Those songs in particular sound therapeutic.
Right, but not to me. It’s not about my therapy. Again, like, “Fuck you, David. This isn’t your therapy. Go fuck yourself.” I want it to be your therapy. That’s the only thing that’s important with music and getting stuff out there. I couldn’t give a shit [about] what so-and-so is going through—wait, that’s the wrong gesture I just made. I do care about so-and-so as a person, but I don’t think it’s art to just display your therapy. I think it’s art to turn it into something else.
So something like “Call Me When You Land” is obviously about my kids. They’re both getting older, and I’ve always been moved by “Cats In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin, and I wanted to write my “Cats In The Cradle,” and that first flight alone you put your kid on. Like, “What am I doing?” And then they say, “I’ll call you when I land,” and that could mean so many things. When I land as an adult or when I have my life. So I just started writing from that place about how all of life is up in the air. To please let me know you’re safe, and I’m sorry I missed certain things, and I did my best. The things that seemed callous or hard I did only because I thought they were the right things to do.
What about the album cover? Did that have any specific meaning for you?
It’s funny ’cause Brad Davidson, who I work with, got married last year, and his wife is from Russia, and he just sent me that picture of her when she was a child. I said immediately, “That’s the album cover,” and he goes, “Right, sure.” I was like, “No, that’s exactly what I want it to be ’cause it looks like it means something.” I was watching an old Dick Cavett and Paul Simon interview the other day, and Simon was talking about writing “Mrs. Robinson” for The Graduate. Dick Cavett asked him, “How did you come up with the line ‘Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?’” Paul Simon was like, “Well, it had the right amount of syllables.” So when I looked at that photo, there was just something arresting about it.
It’s very innocent and radiates youth in a way.
Yeah! And her gaze is so young in the sense [that] she’s not hiding anything. There’s this monkey in it, which it’s like, who knows what that means? It’s about working from your unconscious. With me, I didn’t know what that cover meant.
Being the type of creative polymath that you are, do you ever find yourself tapping into your other toolboxes when you’re crafting a record? Or does making music flex an entirely different muscle for you?
Absolutely. I think every song is sung by a different character. It’s obviously me, but I feel like that world, that consciousness that is talking in that song, is new. I may not be right, but to me, it feels like this person is talking. I also say I feel like songs have acts. I like songs that go through something. Maybe the form is the same, but I want to build something that has that movement. That there is some kind of journey for the consciousness.
Has the Delta variant deterred you from taking these songs on the road?
Yep. It’s really a wait and see at this point. I’ve also seen people are starting to get vaccinated again because of Delta, which is great. I mean, it’s horrible, but it’s great. Things may be looking up, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I really don’t feel like it’s the right time. The silver lining of the pandemic was being locked up with my son for that long. It was tough, but it was great. I will never have that experience again. It’s rare to have that much time with your kid, so I loved it.
Did he love it as much as you did?
[Laughs.] I doubt it. I’m sure he loved hanging out with his dad more than he ever had, but I’m sure it was a little too much.
I feel like we can’t close out this interview without talking about your role in The Chair. How did it feel having your accomplishments picked apart in this world? Do you often find that academics such as Sandra Oh’s character are quick to question the legitimacy of your academic achievements?
I would say it didn’t bother me because I know what I’ve done. In general, I have a pretty good feel for what I’ve done that’s good and what I’ve done that’s missed. I disagree personally with Sandra Oh’s character, and I would argue for the guy in the show named David Duchovny. Even though there are new trends and fads in criticism [since the ’80s], no one discipline or angle owns the truth of a text, and nothing beats going back to the text and giving it a good close read. That guy Duchovny, even though he was a bit silly, could’ve done that in the classroom.