When XTC's Andy Partridge is reached via phone at his home in England, he's doing exactly what one expects 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, OK. 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, OK. 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's speaking with authority about the Fleischer Brothers' 1940s Superman cartoons or imitating 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 lushness of the Beach Boys-esque Skylarking and political new-wave of Black Sea to Drums and Wires' taut post-punk mania and Apple Venus, Volume 1's complex instrumentation.
Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, his latest endeavor, is even more ambitious: a lavish compendium of eight previously released volumes of his outtakes, demos, rarities and half-formed thoughts. (A ninth 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).
Unlike most collections, though, Fuzzy's songs aren't arranged from earliest to most recent, so it's hard to tell from which era each comes.
"People have said, 'Why didn't you do it chronologically?'" Partridge says. "And that's very easy: The reason I didn't do that was '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. 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 is as much a reflection of his perfectionist tendencies his supposedly lousy piano skills owe to his being "a real bananafingers" as it is 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, cartoonish children and a sheet of stickers.
"I love packaging! I'm a complete packaging slut!" he exclaims. "I love it all. I lay there with my legs in the air saying, 'Fill me with packaging!'" (There's that bawdy British humor again.)
As he talks, his voice betrays an obvious grin. "I just love the stuff. I'm one of the few people on earth, as a kid, I actually cut out the moustache from [the Beatles'] Sgt. Pepper's [Lonely Hearts Club Band], 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 moustache and I clipped it on and looked at myself in the mirror."
This winsome snapshot and the hoopla-laden release of Warbles contrast with perhaps some of Andy Partridge's darkest 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 lead him to develop severe tinnitus, or ringing of the ears.
Partridge says that the initial weeks after the incident where he had a constant "screaming feedback sound in my head" were the only time in his life he's ever had suicidal thoughts. But he somehow "blundered" into the fact that sitting in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber could suppress tinnitus; daily treatments have reduced it to around 40 percent, although he's unsure if further therapy will help. Plus, "to scrape the violin a little bit more," as he puts it, Partridge "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.'"
He's certainly not, one hopes but in case he is, the Partridge musical lineage lives on through his daughter, Holly, who plays guitar and sings in a power-pop-meets-Motown band called the SheBeats (myspace.com/theshebeats). Unlike with other famous progeny of musicians, though, there's no Svengali action on Partridge's part (his sage advice is just that she shouldn't "sign anything before she shows it to me") nor any 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 dogshit. 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 in 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 UK bands, many of whom appear fond of copping their 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 their 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 say that they'll admit to sounding like us. But you know they damn well do."
In fact, he admits to being jealous of R.E.M. and Talking Heads in the 1980s, since both groups were considered somehow more "authentic" because they're American whereas the Swindon-formed XTC were "working-class scum from the projects of the joke town of England."
"We're much more appreciated in America than we were in England," he says. "In England, we were considered this joke group. That was tough. That was rather tough for us."
This lack of appreciation clearly still frustrates Andy Partridge, but it's something he's used to (if not resigned to) after more than 30 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, his 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."