Arthur McBain Performs ‘Muddy Water’ For Words To Lift The Soul
In a time where there is so much to feel overwhelmed — or even panicked — about, it’s crucial to take the time to care for and nourish yourself. Which is why What We Seee is running a “Words To Lift The Soul” series, starting with Arthur McBain.
We’re asking artists and performers to share a song, poem, or another piece of art that is especially meaningful to them and explain why it is so significant. For McBain, this is ‘Muddy Water’ by Free.
“This is an excerpt from Muddy Water by Free, who are, in my humble opinion, the band that Led Zeppelin could have been,” McBain tells What We Seee. “Also when I was a baby my mother used to play this album full blast under my cot to get me to sleep.”
You can see the whole performance here:
McBain also took the time to answer a few questions about his life, his passions — as well as some of the impactful and formative pieces of art in his life.
Where do you live?
Where do you feel most yourself?
On a mountain!… Or on the toilet – that’s probably where people are the most themselves and the most honest answer this question will ever get.
What are a few songs, or parts of songs, that have very personal meanings to you?
‘Do You Realize’ by The Flaming Lips. Not only is it a complete tune, but is also very powerful for me. It took a very important place in my life when my grandfather died (known only as Grumpy – but not because he was grumpy, rather for some other inexplicable reason that I don’t think anyone knows). Suddenly I understood the weight of the lyrics – which on first hearing can sound quite basic. From memory, the bit that will never leave me is: ‘Do you realise that everyone you know some day will die / and instead of saying all of your goodbyes / let them know you realise that life goes fast / it’s hard to make the good things last / you realise the sun don’t go down / it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round’.
And it’s that last bit that I remind myself of all the time – do you realise the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round… Everything will pass, good times will come and go, bad times will come and go. So don’t fret if you’re having a bad time, and don’t get complacent if everything is going well. In fact, I’ve got the astronomical symbols for the sun and the earth tattooed on my arm to signify that exact section of the song.
What are a few films, or scenes of films, that have had a significant impact on you?
David Lowery’s film ‘A Ghost Story’. Can I even call it a film? It’s more like an essay. But for some reason it hurts me to watch, but in a kind of masochistic way. I get enthralled by it, but it makes me feel so lost and insignificant. Plus the soundtrack is insanely good. This film has an effect on me that’s visceral. I don’t think when I watch it, I just feel stuff. I showed it to my ex-girlfriend, though, and she fell asleep so I don’t think it has that amazing effect on everyone. Bo Burnham’s ‘Eighth Grade’ knocked me for six too. One of the films that I grew up with was ‘The Princess Bride’. To this day it makes me howl with laughter. My Uncle Roger has two young daughters, but won’t let them watch it until they’re both eighteen… Apparently it’s very important to him that not a single joke is lost on them. I don’t agree, there’s something for everyone in that movie.
What is a piece of art or a photograph that has lodged itself in your consciousness?
Okay. Here’s a story for you. I’ll try and keep it brief… I went to Argentina one year for Christmas with my mum. Often we go travelling over Christmas. Towards the end of the trip we were staying in Buenos Aires and I spent a whole day going around the antiques markets. I found a big graphite drawing in a heavy frame right at the back of a market stall, behind hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of old paintings. The drawing was of the Madonna (as in mother of Jesus, not ‘Material Girl’) and honestly it took my breath away. It was then that I noticed the signature ‘Velasquez’. It would make sense that a piece by Diego Velasques ended up in Buenos Aires because of, y’know, colonialism… Anyway, I’m almost certain that it was an original and so I bought it. I can’t tell you how much that drawing made me feel. I couldn’t stop getting it out in my hostel and looking at it. Anyway, long story short. It got taken off me at the airport on the way home because you need a permit to take any visual arts out of the country, which I didn’t know, even if you did the drawing yourself you’d still need a permit. I did actually try to claim that I’d done the drawing myself… But they didn’t believe me. I wonder why. I almost missed my flight. I was gutted. I got home and tried to draw it myself from memory – turns out that claiming I’d done it myself was a ridiculous idea, because my version looked a bit like Snoopy.
What is a piece of writing – a book, poem, play, or quote – that is a touchstone for you?
My favourite novel is ‘Darkmans’ by Nicola Barker. And my favourite non-fiction book is ‘Zealot’ by Reza Aslan. But there’s a section from ‘Island’ by Aldous Huxley that is something that I read quite often, and share with people quite regularly. It goes like this:
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig. Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me. When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic. No rhetoric, no tremolos, no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell. And of course, no theology, no metaphysics. Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling, on tiptoes and no luggage, not even a sponge bag, completely unencumbered.”
Is there a smell or food that takes you to a special place… and why?
TINNED SARDINES! I’m mostly vegan these days and haven’t eaten fish for years. But the smell of cold tinned sardines reminds me of going for outdoor adventures with my mum as a child. Speaking of smells, I actually work occasionally for an indie perfume label called 4160 Tuesdays. It’s run by perfumer Sarah McCartney. I met her about six years ago and asked if I could come and see how perfume is made. Since then she’s not been able to get rid of me. I go into the studio quite regularly and help bottle perfumes. We have collaborated twice, once on a perfume called ‘Freeway’ which was for a store in LA called Luckyscent, and once on a fragrance called ‘Rehearsal Room’ which was based on the RSC’s rehearsal studios in Clapham. I’d recommend checking out her fragrances, they’re great!
There is a lot you can’t control right now — but there are some things that you can. In order to stay healthy, mentally and physically, focusing on what’s in your power can be a transformative step. We can still create, we can still share, and we can still connect. And we’ll keep doing so.
Header Image: Kevin Voller