"Bill and Ben go into this pub and Bill goes up to the bar and says, 'Floberlobberlobberweed'. So Ben says, 'I'll get these Bill, You're pissed mate'."

Fields Of The Nephilim drummer Nod arrives bang on cue. Just at the bit which I'd been rehearsing for two whole days: "OK then, if you have got a sense of humour, tell me a joke..."

Now that the band, who recently spent a night in the clink on possession of a packet of flour, have assured me they're innocent, it's safe to go to the bar.

As I turn round on my way I catch a glimpse of Nod playfully stealing Bleddyn Butcher's camera. Bleddyn's dozing after a fretful day, and Nod's taking pictures of him with Peter making faces in the background.

Seconds later guitarist Peter pops up next to me like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben: "You see, that's our sense of humour. We're always taking the piss out of ourselves. And on tour there's loads of people to take the piss out of, like in the van earlier on when we were waiting for you.."

Maligned by critics with a cancerous resentment of the band's self-raising policy. The Neph are wary of another hack assigned to them.

They are back on tour for the second time this year, starting with 19 British dates, before heading off to Europe. Their second LP, 'The Nephilim', is set to reach the Top 30, launched chartwards by their cadaverous supporters, and there's a live video 'Forever Remain' to follow.

The Nephilim have grown in stature in spite of the critics: they weren't born to royalty like The Mission or The Cult (both assured of instance appeal by virtue of their backgrounds), but they've become it. In the eyes of the fans, a hardcore of whom will see every date on the current national trek, these five men from various Hertfordshire barnacle towns are crowned jewels.

As the band tumble into their swish tour van outside Leicester Poly - the opening date of the tour - they're surrounded by penless autograph hunters wimpering such ludicrous lines as "I'm sorry to trouble you after such a good gig.." For heaven's sake!

Carl McCoy, vocalist and thinker, curls himself up in his seat like a shy tortoise, nervously regaining his composure. He is an unwitting goth star. While Astbury, Eldritch and Hussey are conversant with cavorting in spotlights, McCoy is a shadowy newcomer. At first I suspect he's too wrapped up in himself but later, back in the hotel, I think he might just be quiet and uncomfortable.

"I've never separate myself from the band," says the man with lantern eyes. "From the word go we've always been a unit. I don't really like the attention, but I accept it. It doesn't bother me. I can be at home for weeks on end and not get any hassle in my local area, but if I go to London I get loads. I don't think where we come from people understand how well we're doing."

Are you still in touch with people you used to go to school with?

"No I tended to cut myself off from them years ago."

"I see some of my old friends," chips in bassist Tony. "Other people I've bumped into say things like 'see you on Top Of The Pops then mate' - that used to wind me up".

The Neph are there though. Their last single, the fiendish 'Moonchild', gave them their first hit and there are signs of low-key affluence all around: a sleeper coach for the roadcrew and at least seven styles of T-shirt on sale at tonight's gig.

No one can deny that in four years these five nobodies (those mentioned plus talented guitarist Paul) have earned themselves some luxuries.

"I'd like a house." Carl murmurs. "I've got loads of stuff, so I need a house to put it all in."

Are you a hoarder?

"Yeah, I collect loads of stuff. I've got loads of old horror comics and I was clearing out my granny's attic the other day and found all my old school work and an old briefcase. I hadn't seen any of it since I left school and reading it was great. All the set projects we were asked to do, mine were so bizarre.

"And like people used to ask you what you wanted to do when you left school. Everyone had realistic ideas but mine were really silly."

What, tell me.

"Er," he waves a dismissive hand, "no.."

This is the most infuriating part of the evening. McCoy keeps his most important secrets under lock and key. He guards them day and night. He'd sleep alone if he thought he talked in his kip.

Although at first giving the impression of being King Kurt, by the time I waddle off to bed carrying Bleddyn over my shoulder. I let him off with being reserved. Underneath all the black clobber, the fading Western image, he looks quite dashing, he acts quite charmingly. And he's not going to be bullied into submission. The dark truths behind the Neph's smouldering lyrics go wholly unexplained.

"I think one day," he muses, "I'll explain. Once I'm settled. When I've done everything I want to with music, then I'll take time out to actually write a book. But at the moment I don't see the need. A lot of my interests don't need to be publicised because people would take them too literally and I'm likely to be ridiculed."

That's the fear then.

"I'm not scared of that, but I don't want to be seen as a spokesman for the band, these are my feelings. And I don't think the band needs that sort of attention."

Instead there is the LP to consider. A contrast of gruff goth-like hiatus and brooding sparseness, little bits of it make me shiver, large chunks of it are devilishly haunting. It's certainly got more ideas of its own than any of their previous releases.

"I think it's the honest side of ourselves," Carl asserts. "We found in the past that to compete with The Mission, live we had to lay really powerful fast songs - quite instant to capture a crowd's attention. But now we're more established, we've got a bit of room to do what we want."

Side One draws on their gushing gothic, but Side Two has a far more delicate direction. There's a seedy beauty to the music. Carl's vocals ("I had to give up smoking because my voice was getting deeper") cutting through mercilessly.

"Side Two is the lasting side," he confirms. "It's the sort of music that would capture me, we've always liked mesmerising music."

"There's some space in the songs," says Peter. "I read somewhere that Brian May said he'd been playing for years and could play anything he wanted, as fast as he wanted. But then he had to teach himself how not to play - how to leave things out."

"Mind you, " adds Tony, "I think it would have been a good idea if he'd stopped playing altogether.

"The space in the songs is good though," continues the bassist. "That's what I used to like about the old dub reggae music ... a lot of the heavy stuff... Big Youth."

Carl now says something astounding: "That's how I met him years ago, in a reggae band."

Say again?

"We both came from reggae bands," says Tony. "Carl came up to rehearsal with a vibraslap - he hit it and it exploded. I'll always remember him for that."

But look, this new 'spacey' Fields approach. Weren't you worried that your followers would throw their hands up in horror?

"No, it's mellower sounding, but I think it's still strong and they'll understand it. We've got to please ourselves first anyhow. The next LP should be completely different again. We could make an LP of ambient music or a Motorhead album."

'Celebrate', one of the trio of songs on the LP's fuse-like second side, is an odd song for The Nephilim. They usually wind up talking about 'ends', but 'Celebrate' sounds like a beginning. It has this tight little bass line (brilliant) and an almost optimistic air.

"It's like the end of one thing and the start of another... I know what you're saying," says Carl. "It's like summing up of the present song. I like to look on my songs as a diary. It sums up different emotions and feelings. I just find life an experiment. I treat it as an experiment."

What happens if this goes wrong, do you ask for another?

"Another life? I don't want to. This one's got to work."

What do you think happens to you when you die?

"When you die ... that's a bit heavy isn't it? I think different things happen to different people to be honest. I don't believe in heaven and hell."

Do you believe in an afterlife?

"Yeah I do, but I don't believe you come back as something else, that seems too unlikely. I've got quite strong beliefs but they're hard to sum up here."

But when you die, what happens to your soul, does it just wander off?

"It'll end up somewhere, but I don't think it matters, because I don't think anyone else will be around either."

That sounds ominous.

"I don't like religion," he continues, "because it relies on other people - you shouldn't need to rely on others for knowledge. I think the only thing you need to believe is in yourself. I think people are weak if they need something to worship."

My mind's elsewhere now, back at the gig. On a Sunday afternoon at 5pm the crowd is already gathering for the gig, almost religiously drawn there, all come to worship.

"It's probably like a religious experience for them," admits McCoy. "Maybe they're still young enough to need something to believe in. It's the whole thing about music in general - there's always been worship of rock'n'roll bands. A lot of our audience will do it just because we're a band. But there's a small percentage of them that do understand us. But the religious side of things, putting their hands in the air at the same time - I don't think that's anything I've made them do."

"They follow us whenever they can," adds Tony. "It's a true following. Not many bands get that."

"I think the more they get involved," affirms Carl, "the more they let themselves go, the more they have to come back. They can't stop then."

Carl McCoy even takes his hat with him when he goes to the bar. By 1:30am he's looking more at ease. The other Nephs are suitably chirpy. They are not, to my relief, the surly blokes they look onstage. It's all very earnest now.

Back from a phone call, McCoy gets down to business.

"I still feel strange in the music business, I do, totally odd - I don't feel like I should be in it at all... the falseness, people's expectations of you."

Do you trust anyone?

"Not really."

"He's got four locks on his car door," says Tony.

What sort of car?

Carl glances up... "A black one."