The 17 (people who will 'save' music)

THIS is slightly embarrassing. I'm chatting away to Bill Drummond and suddenly I've become conspicuously excited about the idea of him dying.

It happens like this. We have just touched upon the thing for which he is still most famous – winding up his hugely successful band the KLF by burning a million pounds of their pop earnings and then deleting their back catalogue. At 55, he continues to approach life in much the same spirit.

"I get rid of nearly everything," he tells me. "I have one shelf of books left. A lot of the time I wish all art was destroyed after 20 years – we don't want it cluttering up museums with all the new stuff."

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What will his children do with what's left when he's gone? "It's already planned," he says. "I think they've decided they're just going to drag it all out and burn it." What a fantastic, fitting end to his life, I say – it has to be done! And he replies, deadpan: "OK, I'll make sure it's in the will. Thank you very much."

Talking to Bill Drummond tends to inspire extreme thoughts. He is, in many ways, an extreme man. Legend has it that when he was a rock manager in the early 1980s, he planned Echo and the Bunnymen's tour schedule by drawing rabbit ears on a map and sending them along the route. And that, at the peak of the KLF's success in the early 1990s, he seriously thought about cutting off his own hand live on television. In the end he settled for pretending to shoot the audience. Before the KLF burned all their money, the duo gave Rachel Whiteread a 40,000 award for being, in their view, "worst artist of the year" when she won the 20,000 Turner Prize. Since then, Drummond has devoted himself to various, less costly projects, such as an exhibition called Is God a C***? (with a phone line allowing you to vote yes or no).

For all this, Drummond is sometimes dismissed as a self-publicist and a narcissist. It's an unfair charge, certainly nowadays. Most of his schemes seem more about setting himself unique, unwieldy challenges for the sake of it than seeking attention. As he's got older, they have become more low-key, but also more peculiar and obsessive.

His most recent project was a public announcement that recorded music "has run its course". "Dispense with all previous forms of music and music-making and start again." It was a typically provocative gesture but also, when you examine the detail, an intelligent and reasonable one, in a similar spirit to his annual No Music Day. (Every 21 November, as a protest against the way music constantly invades our lives without us actually listening to it properly, Drummond lobbies people to listen to no music at all for a whole day.)

"What I feel has happened," he explains, "as the 20th century unfolded and recording technology evolved, is that all music was seduced by the idea of recorded music. I now think it's reduced much of the power music had. Every musician, whatever genre they're from, their careers are measured in the recorded music they've left behind. I think that has become a straitjacket."

Drummond's response to his own challenge is The17, a choir for which he gathers 17 people, records them all singing a single note (with no audience – The17 only ever perform for each other) and then does the same with 17 other people. When he has recordings of several notes he plays them back to all the different choirs, once, then deletes them.

It is, like much of what Drummond does, oddly inspiring and supremely pointless.

Last week saw the publication of his new book, The17, a rambling but entertaining account of the project. As the book hits the shops, he's working on a project in Derby in which he's recording 100 groups of 17 people from all sections of society – councillors, librarians, taxi drivers etc. The recordings will all be played back simultaneously to the choirs on 22 August, then deleted.

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I tell him I'm bothered by a paradox at the heart of The17 – it was inspired by a polemic about the death of recorded music, and yet recording is essential to it. This has occurred to him already. "I usually start off with a polemic whatever it is I'm doing, and polemics are not based on a thought-out rationale, they exist just to get you going, or to get me going. Bit by bit I start seeing the holes and pulling it apart, but in the process of that I'm learning."

Does he actually believe in his own statement? "I do," he insists. "I've realised since I finished the book that I've never actually put on a CD, never wanted to listen to recorded music. But I haven't got the smart one-line answer to your question, other than to say that within The17 I'm not trying to make music that is to be listened to over and over again."

I met Bill Drummond once before, in 2002. Back then he had, on a whim, cut up a photo by the artist Richard Long, which he had bought for $20,000 at the peak of the KLF's success, into 20,000 pieces. He ate one, then decided to travel around Europe selling the rest for $1 each. When he had finished, he decided, he would bury the money in the Arctic at the spot where the photo was taken. Six years on, he's still got 10,000 pieces to sell. Has he abandoned the project?

Not at all, he protests. "I decided I'd put that to one side for a certain amount of time to give space for The17 to evolve. I know there's other things I want to come back to and the Richard Long thing is one of those." So how long will The17 continue? Is he bored with that yet? "It's hard, I know that, and I only want to give it a certain life, but there are maybe three or four years to go. I know there are things I want to get done, and I also know there's other things. Life is short and all that."

Life is short. That's a curious statement coming from a man who devotes so much of his life to arguably futile activities. "Well they're obviously not futile to me," he says, but concedes the point, recalling a choir meeting a week ago in Derby with 17 Big Issue sellers. "There I am talking about the death of recorded music and I think, these guys – and this isn't supposed to be a pun – have got bigger issues.

"My partner comes from a background where you do a job because it pays," he continues. "You hopefully have a sociable relationship with your work colleagues but, fundamentally, you do the job and then go home to your family. I have a different approach."

His partner must be very patient with him, I say. "Not patient enough," he replies. "I say 'partner' because she's the mother of my three youngest children, but we're no longer together." So his odd compulsions have a price?

"Compulsions do, yeah. But to go back to your question, what you're saying (that what he does is futile] could be levelled at anybody driven to make art. I would argue mankind needs people to go and do things that don't make sense initially. And to have any great artists you need the 999 who are not very good at all." Is he one of those 999? "I probably am," he says good-naturedly. "It's not for me to decide."

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There's another paradox to Drummond's work. He rails against the dominance of recorded music, but he's an obsessive recorder of his own life, in his rambling books and statements to the media. He seems incapable even of making soup without it suddenly becoming an art project. "I know what you're saying," he replies.

He recently met his 21-year-old son James and his girlfriend, he says, just as his book was coming back from the printers. "She picks up the book and says 'that's just like you, James,' quoting something I'm saying. And he says, 'Yeah, at least I don't have to put it in a book.'" How did that make you feel? "It made me feel stupid. I know I'm guilty of that. So much in contemporary art is about documentation. And I think, what's the point? Let the thing stand up on its own. If it's any good it will keep standing."

Later, around the time of the funeral discussion, he tells me that if he doesn't sell all those Richard Long fragments, or complete his work with The17, he will not be expecting his family to carry on his work.

"I can stand back from myself and see that this is work being created within a decadent culture," he says. "A day doesn't go by without me thinking that all this energy I seem to have might be better used, then I'll come up with some sort of feeble argument. The world needs to have artists." If I'm still around when Bill Drummond dies I will not be excited. I will be terribly sad. But also secretly hoping for that fire.

• The17 is out now, published by Beautiful Books Ltd