When Chicago singer/songwriter Ryley Walker picks up the phone during a drive between stops on his North American tour, it's disorienting and a little bit hard to hear him. From the back of the tour van, where he's sitting, his phone picks up a substantial hum coming from the road, and there's some jazz playing on the CD player—something with a lot of piano and saxophone.
When Walker speaks, it's often in short, punchy, half-serious sentences. He's laid-back and sardonic, his personality at times mirroring that of The Dude, Jeff Bridges' zen stoner protagonist from The Big Lebowski. In fact, the similarity is almost too perfect when Walker says that his goal was to make his new album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, "kinda stoned sounding."
"I don't get stoned," he clarifies. "But that's the kind of sound I had in mind."
He's not totally far off. Golden Sings, released in August via Dead Oceans, isn't a stoner album by the more stereotypical measure. There's little in the way of extended jam-band noodling, the easy-going vibes of roots reggae or languorous plod of stoner rock. It is, however, an album of beautifully composed, slow-moving indie rock that nods to the post-rock legacy of his home city, namely bands such as Tortoise and Gastr del Sol. The intricate guitar work of opening track "The Halfwit in Me," for instance, heavily recalls the latter, its graceful yet climactic composition at once mellifluous and complex in its dynamics.
Much of the album works in a similar fashion as that song, maintaining a balance of gentle immediacy and challenging instrumental thrills. On "A Choir Apart," Walker and his band go back and forth between soft, breezy verses and stormy choruses, whereas "Funny Thing She Said" has more of a jazzy, late-night torch song vibe and "Sullen Mind" juxtaposes a swirling psychedelic aesthetic with the influence of British folk-rock bands such as Pentangle or Fairport Convention. Each song feels like a mixture of careful composition and live intensity, and Walker confirms that each track is more the result of hashing it out live with other musicians than any solitary form of songwriting.
"We just play it live for like a year straight," he says of each of his songs. "There's no time where it's me sitting in my room that overlooks the bay or shit like that. We're so busy touring that we work a lot on the road. That's how it all comes about.
"I guess a song's never really done," he adds. "Every song's just a seedling that keeps branching off and branching off. Even when we're done recording we keep adding to it live. The song is just a living, breathing thing. We always try to bring it new life. The moment it's done on record is the moment we're sick of doing it because we got the best possible version we could within our budget and time constraints."
Walker and his band have certainly had many opportunities to play the songs on Golden Sings before the album officially hit record store shelves. In 2015, Walker played 200 shows on what was more or less a non-stop period of touring throughout the world. That kind of relentless work ethic is the kind of thing that has historically broken up bands prematurely or caused the kind of physical exhaustion that could keep them from playing again for long periods of time. But Walker was eager to get back into the van. For him, performing in front of audiences is what makes it worth being a professional musician.
"The live show is great. It's the best part of it all," he says. "It's a chance to hang out with good friends and keep going. People mix cement for over 200 days a year—that sounds exhausting. I get to travel and hang out with my friends and play music. I love it."
Walker's travels throughout the world likewise influenced the title of the record, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. Its awkward phrasing is a sort of tribute to his treks around the globe, an indirect reference to various confusing conversations he's had with people in the dozens of countries where he's toured, including Morocco, which he alternately says is his favorite place to visit and the country where he feels most like an outsider.
"I wanted to do something with improper syntax that sounds wrong, because I'm traveling so much," he says. "I guess the anxiety of language barriers have been an important theme in the last couple years of my life. It kind of played an influence on the title."
With his new album just crossing its one-month anniversary, Walker is back to the place he feels most comfortable: Anywhere his touring takes him. He's as much a vagabond as an entertainer, the lure of the open road as compelling as playing music itself. And he's not done exploring yet.
"There's places, like, in eastern Asia: Korea, Vietnam," he says of his checklist of cities and countries to visit, before pausing, briefly. "Nah, just joking, I want to go to Indianapolis, Indiana."
Ryley Walker plays October 14 at Soda Bar