"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."
Blunder is hardly the word that conjures XTC's meticulously crafted albums, which include the Beach Boys-lush Skylarking, the political new-wave of Black Sea, Drums and Wires' taut postpunk mania and Apple Venus, Volume 1's complex arrangements.
Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, Partridge's latest endeavor, is even more ambitious. The lavish compendium of eight previously released volumes of his outtakes, demos, rarities and half-formed thoughts is a must for XTC completists. For every nearly fully formed single ("Chalkhills and Children," "Earn Enough for Us") or beatific discovery (the watery folk-strum "Mermaid Smiled"), there are plenty of silliness (a minutelong 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.
"Constructing a listening experience is something I enjoy doing," Partridge explains. "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 care in sequencing reflects his perfectionist tendencies as much as his traditionalist 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.
This winsome snapshot and the hoopla-laden release of Warbles follow a dark period for the songwriter. While in the studio this summer, an engineer accidentally blasted Partridge's ears, he says, "at full volume with the sound of a snare drum or two," which led him to develop severe tinnitus, a constant ringing of the ears.
In the weeks afterward, during which he experienced a "screaming feedback sound in [his] head," Partridge says he contemplated suicide. But he somehow "blundered" into a remedy. He found that sitting in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber suppressed his tinnitus; daily treatments have reduced the symptoms, though he's unsure if further therapy will help.
Also this year, Partridge injured 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.'"
Here's hoping he keeps refusing to listen.