Stories for Ways and Means is a project that feels like both an anachronism and a multimedia creation that could only exist today. That's because the illustrated collection of musician-penned children's stories is both—or, as creator Jeff Antebi puts it, a "literary mixtape."
Landing at more than 350 pages, the book features 29 original tales penned by as many musicians, ranging from Nick Cave to Justin Vernon to Kathleen Hanna to Devendra Banhart, which are broght to life by custom illustrations from contemporary visual artists like Anthony Lister, Ronzo, and James Jean. It's an unusual collaboration centered around a good cause—specifically, the support of children's education. Proceeds from sales go to benefit Room to Read, Pencils of Promise, 826 National, and a number of other nonprofits.
Antebi compiled the book as a side project to his main gig heading up LA label-publishing house-management company Waxploitation, which boasts a long history of both nonprofit support and collaboration, including groups like Gnarls Barkley and the Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse project Dark Night of the Soul, the latter of which Antebi cites as inspiration for SFWAM.
Compiling the eclectic, marquee mix of talent wasn't exactly an overnight job; the book has been more than ten years in the making, and is all the more robust for it. The evolving work is as much as much an ode to storytelling as it is to music, illustration, performance, and collaboration.
"It really has turned into a platform for other people's imagination," Antebi says. "[You'll have] Zach Galifiniakis narrating a story by Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers, which was painted by a painter in Ghana who does those hand-crafted movie posters. Very strange combination."
Beyond the print tome, Antebi has enlisted musicians and actors like Galifiniakis, Danny Devito, Nick Offerman, Andre Roy, King Krule, and Lizzo to narrate the stories in a series of short films. You can watch the premiere of D.R.A.M. reading Amadou Bagayoko's "Fishing with Music," illustrated by Will Barras, below.
But before you get all "cool aunt" and pick up a copy for your sibling's kid, keep in mind that it's less a book for children than about them. Selections like Will Oldham's "Death to Boys," which is about exactly what it sounds like, isn't exactly choice bedtime reading for your six-year-old niece.
"What was so strange to me was that I assumed, when I said 'children's stories,' I was going to get stories for toddlers," Antebi explains. "I don't know why I assumed that. But a lot of the stories are like young teen kind of range. Some of them are for babies, some of them are clearly for grown-ups with no children."
Stories for Ways and Means instead takes on childhood—and all of the complications that accompany it—as common ground, explored less as a time of idealism, than a moment of vulnerability when the world shapes us.
"The thing is that children's stories are often fables. Or they're often moral set pieces," Antebi says. "Songwriters [similarly] have a moral compass. Often they are communicating in amazing ways that are not obvious, their perspective of right and wrong, but for grown-ups. It's pretty crazy."
In addition to the book's initial run, Waxploitation will release a limited edition colored vinyl for Record Store Day on April 22, featuring the narrated stories and insert with an excerpt from the book.
Antebi recently stopped by the VICE LA office to discuss the project and its unique challenges for an episode of Noisey Radio on Beats 1. Listen in here, and read on for an extended version of our conversation and the video premiere of Amadou's "Fishing with Music" read by D.R.A.M. below.
Noisey: This project took ten years to come together, in part because you didn't give participants a deadline. Why tackle it that way?
Jeff Antebi: When I contacted artists to see if they were interested, I'd tell them their was no deadline so there wouldn't be a reason to get out of it. I told them, if you're legitimately interested, I will call you every year. If you're not interested, then just say no. So I called everyone once a year, and eventually everyone that I wanted said "Ok, this is the year."
We kept it secret. I knew that it had to shock and awe. Especially after I had put a bunch of years into it, I knew I had better make it great the one time it was gonna come out. So the important thing was to just get it right. I knew that I had to keep going until it was undeniably bizarre. Because I owe it to the contributors, I owed it to the nonprofits, to just have this come out the one time and have it be insane. And be ready. If I had cut it short and just put it out, I know that it wouldn't have been as good as it is.
I also kind of lost track, honestly. How big the book had gotten. It was really last year that I asked the person doing the layout, "How many pages is this thing now?" And when he said it was about 350 pages, I was like, "We're done! We're done!" The thing is huge. It weighs like nine pounds, I think. So I knew it was becoming too big a ship. But I'd like to say that there are still a ton of artists that I am calling every year. There might be a second book, or there might be a deluxe edition. There's definitely no shortage of great artists for this.
How did you choose the musicians you worked with? You've said you were drawn to "outsider artists"—was it based on that element, or were you looking for storytelling skills, or something else?
Initially, I chose the artists that I chose as really just a superfan. I really just kind of thought, "These are all my favorite artists." And so it was a selfish act—"God, I really wonder what it would be like to ask Gibby Haynes to write a children's story," or "I really am curious what a collaboration would look like if it was Anthony Lister and Nick Cave."
But as it went on, I realized the thread that kind of runs through all of it is that every artist that I asked has a very, very specific point of view, artistically. They may write about different things, and over the course of a long career, a lot of them have had different personas, like Tom Waits. But these are artists where if you mention their name, I think people who are familiar will immediately wonder what they're gonna get. I think the magic in it is when you pick the author who has a very specific kind of point of view and almost force them to work with someone you pick.
How did the specific collaborations come together? Did you pair up the musicians and illustrators, or did they ask to work together?
That was the second part of the delay. After the stories were delivered, I would recommend painters to the authors, and then go back to the painters. In most cases they'd be a fan, and then I'd have to say, again, "No deadline." So the process was a very long process.
What kind of directive did you give the artists once they were on board?
The direction I gave the artists, just like I gave no deadline, was that I said there was no direction. They're definitely not the type of artists where I felt I had the right to tell them or request or ask them anything. It definitely seemed intimidating to say, "Could you please focus on this or that, or do a minimum or maximum length." So I definitely ended up with a very wide variety. And what was so strange to me was that I assumed, 100 percent of the time, I was going to get stories for toddlers. I don't know why I assumed that. When I say "children's stories," I thought that meant stories for children. But a lot of the stories are like young teen kind of range. Some of them are for babies, some of them are clearly for grown-ups with no children. Will Oldham's story is just terrifying. And it took me forever to get someone to illustrate it. It's so scary. I would say to painters we're doing a book of children's stories, they'd say great, and then they would read that like "This is not a children's story!"
Since this was a creative collaboration really meant to benefit some of the most vulnerable members of our society, the ideas was just to keep it cool. Don't be a jerk that tells us artists what you want.
Why do children's stories?
I chose the theme of children's stories because it's a pretty easy one to ask. It just made sense, the idea of children's stories for a children's benefit. But the thing is, a lot of people are buying the book to read to children. And we're trying to make sure people get a sense that—well, about halfway through reading it they'll realize it's not meant to be read to their kids. [
It's interesting because in a way, if you think about it, children are the original outsiders. So many of the artists that you mention, there's a vulnerability to their respective points of views. I wonder if maybe subconsciously that's why you were drawn to some of them. When you're a child, the world hasn't happened to you yet. And many of these artists represent the world having happened to you, in one way or another.
I think probably subconsciously. But yeah, it's totally true, now that you phrase it that way. There is something really unique and beautiful about these authors. And I do think that they're tapping into something—maybe when I say "point of view," I can see where in a lot of their cases, it's uncluttered by adulthood. And maybe that's—I mean Tom Waits is clearly often writing stories that are so fantastical. And Nick Cave, same. Or Amadou. So a lot of the stories are stories about children. Many are about children learning to play instruments as a child, and obviously they're writing about themselves. You're getting a little glimpse into their childhoods. Amadou, same thing. He writes about learning to fish. Children really are outsiders. I have a five year old and a three year old, and boy do they view the world different from us. They're on another planet. They see the world in a very profound way. So maybe in a lot of ways, the point of view of these outsider artists, it really is a very direct path to a very simple way of explaining things.
Kids are outsiders, but at the same time, we've all been kids. It's this experience we've all had. And that's a very wide range of experiences that defines us all in very different ways, but we've all been there in a sense. It's been interesting to see how many different ways that's been interpreted.
I think a lot of the contributors on the music side, when they're writing lyrics, the sacred skill that they have is the ability to write something that a lot of people will understand without having to write something specifically for each one of them. And that's what a lot of them do successfully in this book too. Dr. Seuss did that. So I think oftentimes with great lyricists, they're writing the equivalent, but for grownups. You hear that in a great lyricist like Bruce Springsteen. You know, children's stories are like, three minutes long. A great song by Tom Petty or Paul McCartney, those are three minutes.
Learn more about Stories for Ways and Means and how to purchase the book, prints, and limited edition vinyl over at Sfwam.org.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.