By Roy Kasten
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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.