SAN DIEGO — Every Saturday night the Saigon Palace, a dingy downtown GI bar, is transformed into a hip underground nightclub where it isn't unusual to find leather-clad patrons with green or magenta hair.
It is no wonder that the proprietors have called their weekly event Psychotic Motel.
It is an especially fitting name for a club that features bands like the Sea Hags, Camper Van Beethoven and Jane's Addiction. The young entrepreneurs who book the 5th Avenue saloon say there is a damand in San Diego for avant-garde rock 'n' roll and they specialize in bringing unrecognized bands to San Diego.
Jessica Schwartz, Bart Cheever and Isabel St. Martin, all 23, started the weekend venture in August, but not with the intention of making money.
"We never expected to make money, and we're still not making enough money to live off of," said Schwartz, who also works as a college representative for CBS Records. "I was just sick of hearing everyone complain that there is never anything to do in San Diego. I just felt like someone needed to fill the gap."
Schwartz, who graduated from San Diego State University last year, was a disc jockey and promotions director at campus radio station KCR and booked the station's afternoon concerts on campus. Then she worked as a deejay at a club, where she met St. Martin. Together, they approached the owner of the Saigon Palace and asked if they could use the place one night a week.
"The Zebra Club had been there years ago," Schwartz said, "so I thought it would be a good place. Plus I liked the idea of it being downtown. The owner thought it might help business, so he let us do it.
"It was too hard to watch the door and deejay at the same time, so we eventually hired Bart to deejay. He just evolved into an equal partner."
Cheever, an SDSU student, is KCR's general manager and works in the control room at KPBS. Before joining Schwartz and St. Martin, he was a disc jockey at The Roxy and at Club Cult.
"I'm not making as much money as when I was working at these other clubs," he said. "But it's nicer to be in control. I'm tired of working for people who don't know what's going on out there.
"Most clubs are run by older people who don't have contact with what's going on in music now, and don't go to other clubs. I feel we have an edge on these club owners.
"There are all sorts of emerging underground bands that don't have a place to play. It's just a matter of someone providing these people with a venue."
Schwartz said her job at KCR gave her experience working with bands and getting in touch with record companies. It was Club Lingerie in Los Angeles that gave her the idea for opening a club in San Diego.
"I really like the atmosphere there," she said. "Alternative venues have really diminished. We started out as a dance club. But people seem to want live music. They want to see new stuff. Even if they haven't heard of the band, they still come."
Schwartz said that, since Psychotic Motel began, there have been very few nights where they have had less than 100 customers. They have even managed sell-out crowds of 175 for bands such as Camper Van Beethoven, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
"A lot of the people are regulars," Schwartz said. "But some of the people who come I didn't even know existed. There's a small military clientele that come and mix fine. We don't discourage anyone from coming."
They recently held a benefit for a new sound system.
"The way it stands now, a lot of our money is spent on renting sound equipment and a soundman," Schwartz said. "If we buy our own equipment, that will be that much more money we have toward getting better bands."
Psychotic Motel continues to be an experimental venture for the three partners and none has sure plans for the future.
"There is still a lot to learn," Schwartz said. "But if you have a good business sense and can negotiate, you can do it. You have to be human about it, though, and not mess over anyone in the process."