Ulises Braun, Uli, is one of the best-known faces in Ibiza. These days most people will recognise him as the host at Lio, the island’s classiest nightclub. His job is one that many would give their right arm for, but I bet nobody has ever had it recommended by their school careers adviser. A club host is a combination of fixer, friend, greeter, charmer, interpreter, marriage-broker, pourer of oil on troubled waters, salesman, human address book and, above all, the public face of the venue. It’s a position Uli seems to have spent a lifetime studying for. His remarkable career has passed through EMI, Amnesia, New York’s legendary Studio 54 and so many locations when he was, in his words, “in the right place at the right time,” before ending up at Lio. (How this glamorous and beautiful nightspot came to be named after the Spanish word for “mess” we’ll discover later.)
Part of Uli’s work is talking to the media, which includes me. This blazing-hot afternoon, we’re sitting in
Lio with the iconic view of Ibiza Town and the Marina with Dalt Vila rising majestically behind it. The stunning view with not a cloud in the sky probably answers some of my questions about what brought Uli to Ibiza almost exactly 35 years ago. “I first came as a tourist on June 16. I remember the date very well because June 18 is my birthday. Since 1979 I’ve always spent my birthday over here.” He was 20 then, which, if you’re willing to do the maths, gives a surprising result. Uli is 55. His diet, which apparently consists of coffee and cigarettes, seems to work. When we meet he is literally wearing a clue to his cosmopolitan origins on his sleeve. Subtly picked out in pale blue on his white shirt I can see the word “Argentina”. He explains that he’s Swiss, but born in a Swiss colony in Argentina.
It’s a long way from South America to Ibiza and, he says, the first thing that attracted him to Ibiza was that it seemed so exotic, even though it was in the centre of Europe. What he hadn’t expected was to discover that the island reminded him of Argentina. “It has the same trees and the same shining red earth. Sometimes I feel as if I’m back in my country.” And it wasn’t just the landscape. When Uli first arrived as a tourist at the end of the 1970s Spain was shaking off the effects of almost 40 years of dictatorship under General Franco. The spirit of liberty was strong. That atmosphere attracted many Argentinians fleeing the repressive military regime in their home country. “I could feel and breathe the free spirit of everything,” says Uli. He shared that feeling with many of his earliest friends in Ibiza who, he says, came from the Argentinian community. They were also some of the first contacts for his business career, although, at that time it might not have been too cool to admit it.
The hippy influence in Ibiza then was strong. They probably viewed him then as a “bread head” or a “hip capitalist”. Now he’d be called an “entrepreneur”, even if his hair is still of hippy length, although rather better cared for. At that time, at the end of the 1970s, when he was not in Ibiza, he was working in marketing and promotion for EMI Switzerland. He was also hanging out at the legendary Studio 54 in Manhattan. Today, that might not seem such a cultural leap, but over 30 years ago there was a huge gulf between the exclusive New York City nightspot and Ibiza’s relaxed rural open-air venues. You couldn’t really call them “nightclubs” in any current sense of the word. But, the seeds that have led to the quality of Ibiza’s nightclubs now surpassing those of New York City were partly sown by Uli and his friends. It was something they certainly didn’t realise it at the time.
Hearing about his first business venture shows how much things have changed on the island since the beginning of the 1980s. Then he was able to rent a bar at Amnesia, which you wouldn’t dream of doing today. “We were also in charge of merchandising, something they didn’t have before then,” he says. “We had a small corner between my bar and the toilets. I kept a percentage of sales.” At the same time Uli was working with Alfredo, another Argentinian and probably the DJ most responsible for the birth of the Balearic Beat. “There weren’t promoters then,” explains Uli. “One night there was the Black and White Party, then the Jungle Party or the Mr and Mrs Competiton. DJs weren’t so important, but they started to build something up. You can see the results today. It’s a business that’s worth billions. It’s crazy. But we didn’t see it then. We were just having fun and we wanted to do beautiful things.”
The tourist season in Ibiza was longer as well, but it would still come to an end, much to the disappointment of many visitors. That was where Uli saw his next opportunity. If people couldn’t come to Ibiza, he’s help bring Ibiza to the people. This took the form of parties across Europe featuring DJs such as Pippi, Cesar de Melero and, of course, Alfredo. “It was incredible. We did the promotion so well that people treated us like stars,” he says. “There was even more craziness than there was in Ibiza in the summer.” So the idea of Ibiza Reunion was born. Uli ran parties under the name for many years in Zurich’s Roxy. Back in summertime Ibiza, amongst his other interests, Uli was a familiar face in the port at the Rock Bar and his own Reunion Bar next door. And, all the time he was collecting contacts, 4,000 of the highest quality, he says. That’s what he took to the Pacha Group as host of the then brand-new Lio in 2011.
He clearly loves being host. “The club is like my home,” explains Uli. “If you come into my home I want to make you comfortable. I want my guests to come back. My job is to fill the place with good interesting people and to take care of the celebrities.” He makes it sound almost easy. But when you think of how cosmopolitan Ibiza is, simply recognising some of those celebrities is hard. It’s not difficult when they’re like recent guests Sir Paul McCartney or Will Smith, but what if they’re TV stars from Italy, Spain or Germany? Actually, there’s a good chance Uli knows them, even if not, it’s a certainty he can speak to them fluently in their native languages. Multilingual mingling is an incredibly valuable skill. That doesn’t mean Lio’s success is just down to Uli. The club, he says, has been fully booked through every summer since opening in May three years ago. That’s quite a feat for a place which launched a high-class cabaret concept that had never been tried or tested in Ibiza before. “It’s not Las Vegas it’s not so bling-bling, it’s a little bit more European, more stylish, more classy,” says Uli. Sometimes, however, Las Vegas comes to Lio, as it did in the venue’s second season in the form of music legend Paul Anka. It was, says Uli, one of the high points of his life, getting to look after Anka from the time he touched down in his private jet. Dinner reservations, which were far from cheap, disappeared in days.
Which brings us back to the question: How did the classiest club in Ibiza get to be named after the Spanish word for a “mess”? Uli tells the story: The co-founder and owner of the Pacha Group, Ricardo Urgell, had bought the old club El Divino with the aim of converting it. But the building project was not going well. Every day seemed to bring a new problem. Once he was spotted with his head in his hands saying something along the lines of: “Que lío,” or “What a mess.” The name stuck, especially as the word has another meaning in Spanish not so far removed from some uses of “messing about” in English, as used in relation to, er, meeting members of the opposite sex.