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. …