the interview JAMES BROWN TALKS TO DOMINIC CAVENDISH photograph by adrian dennis
the first thing I see is a full-frontal copy of the Guardian. James Brown is sitting behind his desk, feet up, legs splayed, transfixed by current affairs. He doesn't hear me come in, does not register my hovering politely, or stir when I traverse his surprisingly clean shoe-box office.

I offer a tentative "hello". The newspaper lowers itself like a bullet- proof car window, revealing a straggly cascade of dark brown curls and two dangerous eyes squinting up through square green-tinted shades. "Oh, yeah, hi," he croaks, as though he has just remembered something. He doesn't move. "Hi," I say, and then, as though I have just remembered something: "Can you show me where the gents are?"

It's as well to have an opening tactic, however rudimentary, when you meet the creator of loaded. Understandably, the man has a reputation to live up to: lad culture's absent father; a hard drinking, coke-snorting, hotel-room trashing, tantrum-throwing rogue (in print, at any rate). But this morning, it turns out, the performance has been cancelled.

Unshaven and wearing his just-got-into-my-Paul-Smith-suit look, he merely scowls at the photographer when asked to step into the light. ("Exactly how near to the window would I have to go?" he whines, as though one ray might make all the difference between life and death.) He kicks an office football half-heartedly at a bin as he goes out to pose on the loaded roof. Once back inside, he decides on a cup of camomile ("Here," he says, flinging a couple of tea-bags at an assistant).

The delicately featured Brown, 31, confesses to feeling "a little tired at the moment", his Leeds drawl sounding as though it has been product- tested in one club too many. "I don't know how much longer I can go on," he says, rummaging around in vain trying to find a poster that will prove how few scantily-clad women there have been on the front cover. "Each edition involves such excess - whether that be of an alcoholic, narcotic or energetic nature." He has been listening to Oasis's "Rock 'n' Roll Star" on the way into work and has been contemplating the longevity of the pop star.

He puts loads of himself into loaded, does James Brown. ("Of course, it helps to have a name to which people go 'woo, sex machine'.") He is present in the hungover editorial pages and the regular first-person testimonies (flatmates from hell, bids for rock 'n' roll stardom, etc). He supervises the ubiquitous toilet humour, the punning captions, the head-butt headlines. He is IPC's Fagin, possessing a millionaire's budget, but sending his boys off like paupers to blag their way round the world. It's a team effort, he insists - they go to the pub as one.

Listening to him is a bit like reading the magazine, before it's been edited: there is the same self-conscious grandiloquence ("I earn more than I've ever done before, but less than I'm going to") but the flights of fancy often have to make emergency landings ("Our shock waves are still rippling round the, er, various, er, forums that we've appeared in"). These days, he can probably say anything and it'll get him in print. In two and a half years, he has taken loaded to the top of the malodorous pile that is the men's magazine market and been showered with awards.

"Calm" is the word Brown uses to describe things at present. It's his favourite word after "loads". "It was either calm down, or leave," he tells me. He remembers the watershed moment when he realised a man can burn out. "It was about a year ago, after a week in Ibiza. We'd supposedly gone there to direct a TV ad, but I was so f---ed up I never saw the camera. I think I slept once in five and a half days. I fell off a balcony at one point and really hurt my back. One of the guys had started off on a bit of a wobble, like some sort of nervous, emotional sort of ... not really a breakdown ... but some sort of eruption that related to when he had been out in Somalia and saw lots of dying babies. It all got too much. I was in a relationship that I didn't want to be in and by the end of it, I just wanted to kill myself."

Not that he's renounced self-destruction altogether. He leans forward to show me a recent scar on his forehead caused by falling over while drunk on tequila. I can't see anything but try to look impressed.

Brown doesn't extrapolate theories from personal experience. He gets heated when I suggest that loaded fails to help men lead their lives in any constructive way, but simply provides them with excuses to behave badly. "Fair comment, but absolute rubbish," he says, ramming his pen emphatically into the desk. "It's totally empowering. It makes you think, 'f---, yeah, I'm not going to go to Greece for the 15th time in my life, I'm going to go to Thailand. I'm not going to sit in a pub on Friday wasting my wages on booze, I'm going to go off and do something'."

Which is pretty much the story of his life. Brown dropped out of his Leeds high school before his A-levels, preferring to "follow bands around". His parents had divorced when he was 15, his father had a difficult time trying to make it as a writer, and as a teenager Brown grew up with a "f---ing big chip on my shoulder". "A short while afterwards, there was the miners' strike - a lot of violent, social conflict. It pretty much fuelled my mindset that the world was unfair."

Jobless, Brown spent his days running the gamut of political organisations and creating his own music fanzine (Attack on Bzag!) which he ran off on a community-centre duplicator. It was picked up by the music press, he started writing freelance for Sounds and, by the age of 20, had landed himself a staff job on the NME ("my university", he says). Despite rapid promotion, he left after five years in 1991 and went on the road with Fabulous, an "anarcho-punk band".

"My mother died, I split up with my girlfriend and I left NME all in the space of eight weeks. I was shell-shocked. I would be lying on top of a van coming down some motorway in Scotland in these leather trousers that I'd been wearing for days and I just didn't care." The emphasis on doing something, however cliche-ridden, might make Brown sound like a mindless hedonist. But when he says that his magazine has succeeded because he understands what ordinary people are interested in, it's clear he knows that the odds are stacked against having fun: "loaded is the product of the Thatcher years, but only because we were the people who were suffering. I know loads of people who are making their first million now who, 10 years ago, were selling T-shirts."

Being asked to start loaded saved him from going downhill, he avers, which perhaps explains why he takes such a morbid interest in could-have- beens like Withnail, who knows he'll never play Hamlet and Billy Liar: "Even as a kid, I wanted to know - does he go to London to search for his dreams or does he stay at home?"

Not that he has to face such stark choices any more. He can move on up ("I want to edit a f---ing national newspaper"), drop out again ("I'd quite like to get in a band") or end it all ("I sat on the edge of a cliff recently and felt quite elated at the prospect of the game being over").

What he hates is labelling people: "John Major made some speech about England becoming a nation of yobs and slobs, and I thought, 'You're an absolute prick, man: you think that we'll all turn into two types of people.' " This is strange for the editor of a magazine that cheers and boos heroes and villains along the lines of "Good work, fella" and "Bunch of arse", but then, contradicting himself is part of Brown's charm.

As we leave his Waterloo office in a taxi for an "important" lunch date, the man whose lasting contribution to men's magazines may prove to be nipples reflects on his relationships with women. He's strangely coy about his private life- refuses to say where he lives, for example - and is even more coy about his sex life, simply stating that he's had a steady girlfriend for the last year. "When you've spent 20 months drinking heavily, taking a lot of drugs, passing through a variety of beds, it's quite nice to calm down a bit." He pauses. "Mind you, this absolutely gorgeous woman walked through the office the other day." He stands on the waterfront, east of London Bridge, flipping between melancholia and childish enthusiasm. Suddenly he straightens his bright blue tie, shakes my hand and heads off. It's only then that I realise, with a sense of relief bordering on wonder, that we've spent two hours together and he hasn't talked about football once.