In the First Class carriage of the Eurostar from London to Paris, Richard Ashcroft is fidgeting. He plays with the zips on the two coats - a designer overcoat, a pricey leather jacket - he's wearing inside the comfortably warm train.
• Richard Ashcroft, exploring hip-hop influences with RPA & The United Nations Of Sound
He fiddles with a fat, banded, silver and diamond ring on his wedding finger (his wife, Kate Radley, formerly the keyboard player in Spiritualized, is sitting in another carriage). He repeatedly reaches for an inside pocket, eventually retrieving a plastic cigarette.
Has this renowned smoker finally given up the fags? "On the contrary!" he laughs in his Lancastrian baritone. "Soon as we get off this train…" He's a lean, sinewy figure, his cheeks as hollow as they were 15 years ago, when the sometime Verve frontman's Mount Rushmore appearance was one of the defining faces of 1990s British rock. Age, fatherhood (Sonny, 10, Cassius, six), and a short-lived Verve reunion two years ago have not withered him. Nor have they diminished his fighting spirit.
"Other than certain Class A (drugs] that aren't part of my life whatsoever, nothing's really changed," says this enthusiastic marijuana smoker. Nope, he doesn't regret the hedonism that gave Ashcroft and the rest of The Verve something of a reputation when, alongside Oasis and Blur, they were one of the biggest Britpop(ish) bands in the world. There's a famous photograph of Ashcroft midway through one particularly crazed American tour. He's being loaded into the back of an ambulance, wild-eyed and wired and clearly not well. He's giving the camera the thumbs up.
"I'm the same way Dennis Hopper was when he died - he wasn't lying there with regrets. But I do count myself lucky that I made it through that. I've known a lot of casualties - friends, acquaintances and peers that lost it along the way. Anyway, it was amazing. I saw more of America than most 'cause I was up so much," he chuckles. "I saw 12 hours more America every day than everyone else."
Ashcroft also sought to explore America in his latest album. After four albums with The Verve, and three as a solo artist, he's made a record called United Nations Of Sound and released under the name RPA & The United Nations Of Sound - the RPA being his initials.
"When I read about Gram Parsons' dream of this Cosmic American Music when I was in my late teens," remembers the 38-year-old, Wigan-raised singer and songwriter, "that stuck with me. That idea, that ambition to draw off the roots of music, but take it somewhere fresh."
This meant seeking out Chicago hip-hop producer No ID. Ashcroft liked the work he had done with Common and Jay-Z, notably on the latter's DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune) and Run This Town. Last autumn the Englishman relocated to New York.
No ID had a ten-day window in his hectic schedule, and the pressure was on Ashcroft to come up with as much music as he could in that time. He recruited a couple of New York musicians who were more used to working with R&B stars such as Mary J Blige. And he managed to secure the services of Benjamin Wright, the string arranger who worked on Michael Jackson's Don't Stop Till You Get Enough.
"I just wanted to change things for my own personal interest more than anything. Just because I love making music and it was time to spread my wings a little bit… I really didn't know whether it was gonna work with No ID at all. It was just a gamble."
It's paid off. Ashcroft has made his most consistently satisfying non-Verve album. United Nations Of Sound is by no means a hip-hop record. But the likes of Are You Ready, Born Again and Beatitude are big, swaggering Ashcroft anthems underpinned by convincing, hip-shaking grooves.
He was so moved by the musical contribution of his new cohorts that he decided United Nations Of Sound wasn't "just" another solo album. Rather, the band deserved a name that reflected their diverse backgrounds and outlooks. So what did his black American musicians know of Ashcroft before they met him? "I don't think they knew that much really," he shrugs. Presumably they knew Bitter Sweet Symphony, the deathless anthem from The Verve's 1997 Brit Award-winning Urban Hymns?
"Everyone in the world knows that," he shoots back. "The fact is, it's one of the biggest hip-hop songs of all time in my opinion. Beat that. I'll put it down with any of your hip-hop producers or songwriters. If you can beat Bitter Sweet Symphony as a looped piece of music with a groove on it, I wanna hear it."
This is vintage Ashcroft: pugnacious, combative, self-belief coursing through him. It's what makes him a brilliant, commanding frontman, as anyone who saw him leading the reformed Verve on to the Main Stage at T In the Park in 2008 will testify. But it's also what makes him too-strong medicine for many.
He admits that even his New York compadres probably thought "f***, he's a crazy bastard. He's boxing with gloves on at four o'clock in the morning, shouting out riffs. He's leaving the studio at seven in the morning and he's back early!" Ashcroft shakes his head at the memory of his own off-the-deep-end enthusiasm. "But that needed to happen at that point. I'm just tapping into a certain part of my spirit. Without it I would have been gone a long time ago. I'd have disappeared just like every other f***er. I'd have been one of them without that intrinsic belief. You gotta have that.You gotta believe that what you're giving and what you've got is worth doing."
Does he mind if people see that as arrogance? "I don't give a f*** about what people think about arrogance and all that shit," he spits. He directs anyone with that opinion to listen to the lyrics of Urban Hymns' Lucky Man.
"If it was pure arrogance I could never go anywhere near some of the emotions that I touch on in some of the songs."
You can see how things might have been volatile in the ranks of The Verve, a band who split up three times. What does he make now of 2008's Forth, their last comeback album and recipient of some scathing reviews? "I haven't listened to it since I made it, so it's difficult for me to truly judge." The "point", he eventually says, "was we didn't want to put out ten Richard Ashcroft songs, all crafted and nicely arranged. We wanted to put out a flavour of the more psychedelic side of the band."
The reunion, particularly Ashcroft's "reconciliation" with mercurial guitarist Nick McCabe, was rumoured to be dogged by unresolved tensions. What, in hindsight, did it achieve for the frontman? "Phew," he exhales forcefully. "I've really no idea. We did some great concerts. We did way more gigs than I thought we were ever gonna do… What we did was, we still managed to be a great, great live band. You know, it wasn't an amazing record. But it was an album with some good tracks on it. Which the majority of other reforming groups don't seem to (manage].
"Of course," he adds, "there was negativity and things kicked up. But that's The Verve. It's not a business arrangement. You look at the Blur comeback, it was so smooth - so smooth - compared to The Verve," he says, laughing drily. How is his relationship with the other ex-members of The Verve now? "Good," he says briskly. "Just exactly as it was. It couldn't make it worse! It just stayed the same."
That night in Paris, Ashcroft prowls the small stage of the Le Trabendo club, bobbing and weaving, eyes almost permanently closed. He feels his own music with almost visceral vigour, and it's hard not to be similarly transported. The new songs are explosive, sinuous rock'n'soul belters already.
Ashcroft had said earlier that, prior to the United Nations Of Sound album, he had planned to make a record in Nashville with T Bone Burnett, legendary producer of Elvis Costello, and of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Raising Sand. "Something stripped back, along the lines of what Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash."
He still hopes to make that country-influenced record. But for now, "I've still got a lot of heaviness, a lot of psychedelia, a lot of soul… So when I get onstage I still like having a bit of a mooch around. I don't necessarily like being nailed to the spot."
Or a stool. "Yeah," he nods vigorously, "I don't wanna be a heritage rock act." With his drive, and his ego, there's a ways to go before that happens.
RPA and the United Nations of Sound is released on 19 July by Parlophone.
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, July 11, 2010 b c