When XTC's Andy Partridge is reached via phone for a rare chat at his home in England, he's doing exactly what you'd expect the prolific studio musician to be doing.
"You caught me having a secret strum on the guitar," the 53-year-old says cheerfully. "I just blundered into quite a nice chord change that I haven't blundered into before. That's kind of how I do most things -- I just blunder. If it looks good in that door, hey, I'll go in that door for a bit."
Well, okay. But don't forget those chord changes in the course of our conversation.
"No, hang on -- just have to print it in my skull once more. Don't go away." Partridge stops and plays said chords and sings a pleasant melody. "Nice drop; I'm not going to forget that," he says, almost to himself. Then he returns to the conversation. "Right, okay. Now my mind's clear."
Partridge is the very definition of affable, a chatterbox with a wicked sense of humor -- equal parts erudite and ribald -- and charmingly clever. One minute he'll be telling Paul McCartney-Heather Mills jokes or talking about Walt Disney's (supposedly) cryogenically frozen head, and the next he'll speak with authority on the Fleischer Brothers' 1940s Superman cartoons or imitate the lothario French cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew.
But it's interesting that Partridge uses the term "blunder" to describe his motivations, since that's hardly the adjective that conjures XTC's meticulously orchestrated albums -- from the calculated lushness of the Beach Boys-esque Skylarking and political new wave of Black Sea, to the taut post-punk mania of Drums and Wires and the complex instrumentation of Apple Venus, Volume 1.
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Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, Partridge's latest endeavor, is even more ambitious: a lavish compendium of eight previously released volumes of outtakes, demos, rarities and half-formed thoughts. (A bonus disc, Hinges, is worth it for the jaunty soundtrack rarity "Happy Families.") It's a must for XTC completists and those obsessed with found sounds. For every nearly fully formed single ("Chalkhills and Children," "Earn Enough for Us") or beatific discovery (the watery folk strum "Mermaid Smiled"), there's plenty of silliness (a one-minute skiffle version of "Dear God"), lost gems (the disco-silly "I Defy You Gravity") and glimmers of beauty (Partridge's lovely instrumental snippets for the late TV show Wonderfalls).
In contrast to most collections, though, Fuzzy's songs aren't arranged from earliest to most recent, so it's hard to tell what era each came from.
"People have said, 'Why didn't you do it chronologically?'" Partridge says. "And that's very easy: The reason I didn't do that [is] 'cause all the crap stuff would be at one end, and people would've thought, 'Oh, my God, what am I wading through all this primitive, badly recorded stuff for?'
"Constructing a listening experience is something I enjoy doing," he goes on. "It's like planning a meal: You have great openers, a little palate cleanser; you have spicy things followed by something a little bland so you can appreciate the spicy thing you've just had."
Partridge's insistence on sequencing and arranging reflects his perfectionist tendencies as much as it does his traditionalist, old-school bent. He laments the death of the vinyl gatefold and has tape recorders scattered around his house for immediate access when ideas strike. But Warbles is also a throwback to simpler times in other ways: It's lovingly modeled after a children's sticker book and comes decorated with ornate drawings, pictures of smiling children and a sheet of stickers.
"I love packaging! I'm a complete packaging slut!" Partridge exclaims. "I love it all. I lay there with my legs in the air, saying, 'Fill me with packaging!'" (There's that ribald British humor again.)
As he talks, his voice betrays an obvious grin. "I just love the stuff. As a kid, I actually cut out the mustache from Sgt. Pepper's, the sheet of stuff you were sort of supposed to cut out but nobody in the world did. But I did. I had the little picture of Sgt. Pepper by the side of my bed. I cut out the mustache, and I clipped it on and looked at myself in the mirror."
This winsome snapshot and the hoopla-laden release of Warbles contrast with some of Partridge's darker days. While in the studio this summer, an engineer accidentally blasted his ears "at full volume with the sound of a snare drum or two" -- which led to severe tinnitus, or ringing of the ears.
Partridge says that the initial weeks after the incident -- when he had a constant "screaming feedback sound" in his head -- were the only time he's ever had suicidal thoughts. But he somehow "blundered" onto the fact that sitting in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber could suppress tinnitus; daily treatments have reduced it to around 40 percent, though he's unsure if further therapy will help. Plus, "to scrape the violin a little bit more," as he puts it, he "busted" the tendon in his left ring finger and couldn't play guitar for six months.
"I've had a really weird year," he says. "It's actually been the worst year of my life. Someone up there is telling me to stop making music. Ironic, isn't it? The finger that does all the hard work on the guitar, the tendon got busted -- and then my ears went. Somebody up there is saying 'Please stop.'"
Thankfully, he's not going to -- but if he did, the Partridge musical lineage would live on through his daughter, Holly, who plays guitar and sings in a power-pop-meets-Motown band called the SheBeats (www.myspace.com/theshebeats). Unlike with other famous musical progeny, however, there's been no Svengali action on Partridge's part (his only advice is that she shouldn't "sign anything before she shows it to me") or sharing of songwriting secrets.
"I didn't teach her how to write any of this stuff -- and to be truthful, I didn't really even know she could play the guitar," he says. "So she's got this little secret world going on.
"The first so many hundred songs I ever wrote in my life were just dog shit. They were awful. The first few songs she's written in her life, they're better than the stuff that was on the first XTC album, for chrissake! She just sprang fully formed from my head, like a Greek myth." He sighs with mock exaggeration. "It makes you want to spit. I'm proud of her. I keep threatening to turn up at one of their live gigs."
Partridge is equally self-deprecating about XTC's seemingly rising influence on modern U.K. bands, many of whom appear fond of copping its herky-jerky rhythms and askew melodies. He says that journalists are the ones placing those influences upon new bands, because XTC still gets no respect in its home country.
"Even now, young English bands will admit openly, 'Oh, we're very influenced by Gang of Four, oh, we're really influenced by Wire,'" Partridge says. "But not one of them will openly admit they're influenced by XTC. We're still too uncool [for them to] admit to sounding like us. But you know they damn well do."
In fact, he admits to having been jealous of R.E.M. and Talking Heads in the '80s, since both groups were considered somehow more "authentic" because they're American -- whereas the Swindon-formed XTC was made up of "working-class scum from the projects of the joke town of England."
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"We're much more appreciated in America than we were in England," he says. "In England, we were considered this joke group. That was rather tough for us."
Still suffering the effects of this today clearly frustrates Partridge, but it's something he's unfortunately gotten used to (if not resigned to) after more than thirty years making music in the spotlight. And while it's more than a little criminal that he gets no respect for his deft lyrics, crisp melodies and dazzling wit, he does have his music, his guitars, his racing mind -- and, perhaps most important, balance.
"I'm not rich, but I'm occasionally happy, and I think that's the best you can hope for," he says. "I think anyone who's happy all the time just needs locking up. People will say, 'Oh, I'm always happy!' No you're not! You must be insane if you're always happy!
"You're on neutral, and occasionally you're sad and occasionally you're happy. I love being balanced. I've had enough tipping wildly one way or the other. I really like the idea of being a fulcrum. Good word. Tonight's word: fulcrum."