Nick Cave is pondering, in his tentative, slightly abstract way, on the lure of live performance. "On stage I think you have permission to be the person that you were designed to be, but for whatever reasons, you haven't quite become." He pauses, shifts in his seat and looks out of the window. "There's this feeling I get when I'm up there of being super-capable and super-confident," he continues, "that I can't do anything wrong. I just never got that feeling anywhere else, except perhaps with drugs."
Under different circumstances, I suspect the Australian musician might be good company (he certainly does a good line in self-deprecating humour). But being interviewed clearly isn't among his favourite occupations and as he sits, smoking furiously and struggling to encase his elongated limbs in a small leather armchair, he retains the anxious look of a schoolboy who has been hauled into the headmaster's office to receive his punishment.
Though he's never less than polite, he seems particularly ill at ease when the conversation strays on to matters of his personal life. You sense his reticence isn't just about protecting his privacy, although that is certainly a factor. Retrospection and re-evaluation just aren't in his nature. As he tells me with a note of helplessness: "What's happened in my life has happened, much of it wonderful, some of it not quite so wonderful. No matter how much you pick over it, you're still the same person."
I meet Cave, dapper as ever in a brown suit and scrupulously shiny shoes, in his office near his home in Hove, East Sussex, where he works nine to five. It's an airy room not far from the seafront, containing a computer, two pianos and a tiny kitchen. The walls are covered with bookshelves containing biographical tomes on Nabakov, Auden, Blake and Beckett, writers who have long been legible in his work, and at least two copies of the Bible. "I write here because I don't want to do it at home," he says. "I don't think my family should be subjected to the creative process which is undignified and shouldn't be seen by anyone. It's kind of like closing the door when you use the toilet."
At 47, Cave remains a vital force in music. As well as composing songs for other people, as he has recently done for Marianne Faithfull, he and his redoubtable backing band the Bad Seeds have just released a double album entitled Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. It is, Cave insists, "a masterpiece, and this is not something I say with every record I've done. It's well known that I've always been self-flagellating about my music but I really believe this is great. If other people don't it's just because they haven't listened to it enough."
It is certainly the best album he's made in a long while, perhaps even since 1997's elegiac The Boatman's Call. While the music moves between bluesy swamp-rock and piano-led balladry (replete with backing vocals from the London Gospel Community Choir), the lyrical narratives are quintessential Cave. "Cannibal's Hymn" sees him slyly defrocking a woman on a river's edge while "Hiding All Away" has its hapless heroine basted in butter and bundled into a bread oven.
Until now the creative process has been an isolated business, with Cave composing songs in his office and presenting them to the band. This time around, however, the Bad Seeds were involved from the start.
"I've had experiences in the past where I've taken something into the studio and as I've played it I've known it's really bad," Cave explains. "You finish it and there's this deathly silence. This time around we went into this studio in Paris for five days to see if we could write some songs as a group. It meant that we'd just sit there with our instruments and plough into something without any knowledge of what the song would be."
From his early days as the shock-headed singer with post-punk reprobates The Birthday Party through to his present incarnation as one of the leading songwriters of his generation, Cave has inspired fevered devotion among his fans. Arriving in Britain from their native Melbourne in the early Eighties, the band became notorious for their chaotic, often violent live shows, and Cave an emblem for disaffected youth, a depraved anti-hero whose articulation of wretchedness and obsession stood in stark contrast to the silly melodrama of New Romanticism. On stage this reticent young man was transformed into a demon preacher spouting darkly theatrical lyrics in a furious blood-curdling howl.
His off-stage antics were no less dramatic. With hurricane-like intensity he embarked on a relentless campaign of self-destruction. Legend has it that a stick-thin Cave was once seen on the London Underground writing a letter with a syringe loaded with blood. In the mid-Eighties he briefly moved to Berlin f where he subsisted on a diet of speed and heroin, leavened by hefty helpings of the Bible.
Musically, Cave didn't realise his full potential until joining forces with the Bad Seeds. From their earliest incarnation of Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Hugo Race and Barry Adamson, through to the seven-piece of recent years, the group has underpinned Cave's verses with dense atmospherics inspired by the fire-and-brimstone blues of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, the dark country of Johnny Cash and the lugubriousness of Leonard Cohen.
The Nineties brought a mellowing of Cave's spirit, a situation no doubt improved by the kicking of his heroin habit. He became a balladeer, albeit of a murderous variety. Cave is still probably best known for "Where The Wild Roses Grow" - the 1996 duet with Kylie Minogue where he imagined pummelling his muse's head with a rock - his one and only hit. (Though the inclusion of "People Ain't No Good" on the Shrek 2 soundtrack, has brought his music to another audience entirely). Success didn't agree with rock's most notorious curmudgeon, however. In requesting that his nomination for Best Male Artist at the MTV awards be withdrawn, he wrote: "My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel, this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!"
Cave's current muse is the English model Susie Bick, whom he married on the day of the eclipse in 1999 and with whom he has twin sons, Earl and Arthur (Cave has two more sons, Luke and Jethro, from previous relationships). While he admits to being contented with his present life, he takes pains to explain that this is not at the expense of his past. "I do know a lot of people who've gone through a similar thing and denied what has gone before," he says. "It's like a born-again thing where you clean up and fall in love and everything that happened before is suddenly worthless. I don't see my life that way at all. You still haul yourself with you, no matter what you've been through. You still have the same difficulties with the world. The fact that your circumstances have changed doesn't necessarily remedy that. You just learn how to duck and weave and not be constantly up against it, and I suppose I've learnt that."
"I have a really great relationship with my wife," he says with sudden tenderness. "She's enormously supportive and there's a general feeling between us that we're both on the same side. Not going at it toe to toe with the person I'm with is quite a unique situation for me. I feel very lucky."
As a child growing up outside Melbourne, Cave always knew he wanted to perform. "When I danced around privately up in my bedroom to Bowie records, it made me feel like the person I wanted to be, and not the schmuck that I felt I actually was," he says blithely. After being forcibly ejected from art college in his late teens, he started his first rock band. Looking back, he realises his parents were very supportive despite his best efforts to undermine their expectations.
His father, who died when he was 19, was an English Literature teacher and helped nurture his son's love of books. Was starting up a band an act of rebellion? "It may have been but I don't think he saw it that way," Cave replies. "I remember showing him my first record which had a song on it called 'Masturbation Generation'. He just looked baffled, which was quite crushing but at the same time I understood his reaction. In some fucked-up way I probably encouraged it. He thought literature was at the very top of the learning pyramid and that Shakespeare was there balancing on the top. He may well have thought that all his efforts that he had put into me had been squandered. And then he died, so he never got to see where that kind of stuff went." Cave's mother, to whom he is close, is a much-valued critic of his work. Of his own role as a parent Cave says: "I do make some efforts to guide [my children's] interests but I also encourage them in whatever they want to do. My game plan as a father is non-existent. It's only when you become a parent that you suddenly realise that your own parents were winging it day by day as well and that's enormously reassuring."
It has taken nearly 25 years for him to become comfortable with his position, if not as an icon, then as a singer and songwriter of acclaim. "I suppose I can write musician on an immigration document as my profession without blushing with shame," he says grudgingly. "I've come to understand music better in the last 10 years, and my place in it. For a start I can play it better - I'm a better pianist and singer, and with that comes a certain confidence. For most of my twenties and thirties I just felt like an impostor."
Which might explain why Cave has always sought to broaden his horizons. In 1989 he published his acclaimed first and only novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, an apocalyptic tale set in the imagined Deep South. While he hasn't ruled out a second, Cave says he's unlikely to find the time to write it. "If I have two years to spare I'll do it. If I wrote two I'd really be an author - having only written one I'm just some jerk who wrote a book. And the world's full of them already."
In recent years he's reinvented himself as an essayist, writing an introduction to the Gospel According to Mark for Canongate's mini-bible series, and delivering lectures on the love song at London's Royal Festival Hall and the Viennese Poetry Academy. This year he also completed a script for The Proposition, an Australian bushranger movie directed by John Hillcoat which begins production next month with Guy Pearce in the lead role. "Scriptwriting's an absolute trip," Cave says. "You're just telling a yarn without having to worry too much about language." But it is music and songwriting that he always comes back to.
"There was a time, 10, 15 years ago, when I thought the written word was more important than rock music," he reflects. "That it was something worthy one could aspire to. But the way I value music has changed. I guess it comes back to this feeling of self-validation. That I'm able to continue this adolescent fantasy of being a performer well into middle age is a remarkable thing. You can't take that for granted."
The single 'Nature Boy' is out on Monday. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Mute) is released on 20 September. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds tour the UK in NovemberReuse content