‘Go hard or go home’ has long been the maxim of many an Ibiza visitor, and for a period in the late 90s and early 2000s, Manumission was the place to do just that.
Arguably the biggest clubnight in the de-facto world’s biggest club, Privilege, a typical night at Manumission was like stepping into a fantasy realm for a few hours – Dwarves! Gratuitous nudity! Illicit substances! – and was inevitably followed by a stagger down to Space for the Manumission Carry On after-party, a subsequent hazy afternoon at Bora Bora, and perhaps (stamina withstanding) a post-post club rave up in one of the many villas that pockmark the White Isle’s landscape.
The summer of 1998, though, that was different. That was the year the Manumission Motel opened.
Set in a bright pink abandoned brothel on the Jesus road – quite fitting given the spiritual experience many enjoyed there – the Motel was the brainchild of Mike McKay and Claire Davies, aka Mike & Claire Manumission, Ibiza’s ‘power couple’ and business partners in the Manumission promotions vehicle (alongside Mike’s brother Andy and his partner Dawn).
If the club night was a wild ride, the Motel is where things got really X-rated – a den of iniquity that evoked the wilder years of the Weimar Republic, Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus or one of Caligula’s social gatherings… with lashings of late 20th century narcotics.
Sleep? Nah, mate, I have no idea what you’re talking about.
At the same time though, in this identity-obsessed, social media-drenched world, in which every facet of our lives is photographed and documented, the Motel seems like just the tonic. There was no ‘VIP section’, all guests had to be personally invited by Mike and Claire, who made the Motel their personal fiefdom.
Photography was banned (except for house photographer Phil, who was as caned as everybody else) and members of the press were barred, meaning that guests could engage in any number of nefarious activities without fear of seeing their names plastered across the Daily Mirror. Except, perhaps, former BBC Radio One DJ Lisa I’Anson, whose failure to show up for her morning radio show after a night at the Motel saw her dragged over Auntie’s coals.
“The Motel was a cavern of chaos where the fun just never stopped,” author Irvine Welsh said of the infamous venue. “You literally did not know what sort of a day you were going to wake up into. Or if you were going to wake up. Or even go to bed at all, ever again. All you could be assured of is that you’d be talking about it for years to come.”
A dolls house on acid, the Manumission Motel was the right place, at the right time, which few got to savour, but none would forget.
Now, close to 25 years on from the Motel’s opening, its walls are finally talking, with the publication of The Motel: High Times in 90s Ibiza, a memoir filled with stories and recollections from those who called it home during the summer of 1998, and lived to tell the tale.
909originals caught up with Mike and Claire to chat about the book project and their memories from those halcyon days. We started by asking them why they felt the time was right, nearly a quarter-century on, for the tale of the Motel to finally get told.
“Well, for one thing, the kids are nearly grown up!” says Mike. “But seriously, the contrast between the world of today and the life and the freedom we knew back then, is huge.”
“And you had that big element of chance in your life, too,” Claire adds. “There was much more freedom – you left the house, you met up with different friends, and head to the beach, and then there was a party going on here, or there. That was how things rolled, it was very word of mouth.”
In addition, as the years have progressed, the story of what happened back then has been misrepresented, or been adopted by individuals that were either absent or played a minor role in the shenanigans that transpired.
“We’ve not told our story for years,” says Claire. “We’ve been really private, we’ve not done any interviews and kind of left the past where it was. The trouble with that is then other people step forward and take some kind of credit and responsibility for what you’ve done, and it sends out the wrong message.”
“Another reason we’re writing the book is to hopefully inspire another generation to go out there and do it,” adds Mike. “Take risks and do things.”
In terms of how the Motel came into being in the summer of 98, Claire recalls how while the couple used to spend their summers in Ibiza, winters were spent in New York, with the couple absorbing themselves in all things Americana, pulp novels and kitsch cool.
“We were very inspired by that,” she says. “The idea behind the Motel was that it was this fantasy set up – it was a billboard for Manumission, but it was a living billboard.
“I don’t think we planned to live there for the whole summer, but we entered on the morning of the opening and didn’t go home for six months, even though we lived only 20 minutes down the road. The place was so addictive that we found it impossible to leave, until the police turned off the electricity. Then we went home with our tails between our legs.
“The place was like a chocolate box of illicit activity. It was amazing it was allowed to open at all. We spilled over from the summer into the winter months, and then the police were like, ‘enough is enough’. People used to think Mike was a cop, because otherwise how would we keep the place open?”
While Manumission – and its myriad of afterparties – was an exercise in stamina, the Motel offered the chance for the chaos to continue… last man or woman standing.
“We designed Manumission to really wipe people out, in a good way,” says Claire. “It was the perfect party, that went on as long as it could really, which was generally until early Wednesday morning. At that stage, you had been up since Monday, and that was enough. But when we got the Motel, that turned into every single night.”
While both Mike and Claire were in their twenties at the time – a decade in which every partygoer feels some degree of invincibility – even they found their limits, eventually.
“Eventually we found out that we are human,” says Claire. “It was an exploration of ‘how much is too much’, but when you get to those levels, and you crash, you realise you’re not invincible after all.”
“The summer season in Ibiza is around three months long,” says Mike. “We were still going until Christmas, practically. In the end, the Motel was stronger than we were.”
The Manumission Motel opened again in 1999 and 2000, but as Mike explains it was a more toned-down affair – if that is possible in Ibiza – with the hedonistic excess turned down a notch.
“We ran it for three years,” he says. “Yeah, we had some great parties there, and the rooftop terrace was fantastic, but it was never as extreme as the very first year: 1998, when the book is set.”
“It really was just a moment in in time,” adds Claire,” and we were the backbone. It was our house, and without us, the house didn’t really work, if you know what I mean. We were leading the charge, basically.”
The fact that Manumission was riding the crest of a wave at the time – Sky’s Ibiza Uncovered having lured countless more thrillseekers to the island – helped from a financial perspective, too.
“We didn’t have to follow any economic rules,” says Mike. “Manumission was having a record-breaking year, so everything was working well. The Motel was mine and Claire’s kind of hobby. We were treating it like our personal art project.
“I remember one time, the owner, Eric, showed up with the Guardia Civil, and they turned to him and asked “is everybody doing drugs in here?” And he said, “of course they are… but this is art!” They just looked at him, looked at the scene in front of them, and left! The funny thing, looking back in time, is that I realise he was right.”
“You know, a lot of people in the arts are very extreme,” adds Claire.
When it came to piecing the book together, the pair set off on a trip down memory lane, poring through old photos and videos in a bid to construct a narrative – not an easy task, given the often-excessive nature of the whole experience.
“We have lots of old videotapes, and our archive,” says Claire. “We spent hours and hours going through them, listening to the old voices, and yeah, watching ourselves slowly disintegrate.
“But there are lots of things that we can’t remember. We have complete black spots. So we’ve contacted a lot of our friends, DJs and performers that lived and stayed there, and asked them for their memories.
“Everybody remembers a different part of the story. It’s so funny, because we have these eyes looking in from lots of different angles. What started off as a potential problem has turned into something really beautiful. And when they were telling us their stories, a lot of them were a lot more extreme than we imagined.”
“I think it’s important to have these wonderful extremes in life, as long as you can have an accurate record, you know?” says Mike.
Rekindling the past – not to mention the prolonged lockdown – has also inspired the couple to develop a new stage show, which Mike describes as “Manumission 2.0”, working alongside teams in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London. You can expect to hear more about this in the near future.
“With the whole entertainment industry shut down because of COVID, it’s given us the time to create this new concept,” says Mike. “Plus, working on the book, we’ve been mentally living back in the Motel, when it was at its most wild.”
“Part of the magic of the Motel was that we never talked about anything, because everybody was having their own wild adventure in there, and it was part of our ethos never to talk about it, because otherwise you wouldn’t have the freedom,” says Claire.
“But it’s come to a time where there’s been such a restriction on freedom that we feel it’s a story that needs to be told. It needs to be celebrated.”
The Motel: High Times in 90s Ibiza by Claire Manumission is published by Unbound, and can be purchased here.