But now Zientara, the studio’s 73-year-old owner, was getting ready to move out. Never mind the irony of the situation, he said, that Arlington County is set to buy and bulldoze this hub of hardcore music to make way for an “arts and industry district.”
Right outside the back door, all Zientara could do was point out the leaky roof and the uneven mix of bricks and cinder blocks, patched together and painted over in gray.
“It’s no great loss in that sense, the building itself,” he said, walking out after one of his last days at a recording session. “I’m going to miss the whole area, but eventually it’s all going to go.”
Dressed for work in flip-flops and cargo shorts, Zientara appeared to be remarkably at peace with his ouster from South Oakland Street. (As he notes, after all, “Zen is part of my name.”)
Yet for many of the musicians who came out in recent weeks to record one last time, Inner Ear’s departure from one of Arlington’s few industrial strips transcends matters of construction.
The punk scene that grew naturally out of sites like Inner Ear, they say, is being priced and digitized out of the D.C. region — by a revolution in home recording technology and increasingly lucrative real estate development — to the point that the government must artificially attempt to keep it going.
Joseph Pezza, the property’s New York-based owner, did not respond to multiple calls and text messages seeking comment on why he wanted to sell the building.
But Michelle Isabelle-Stark, director of Arlington Cultural Affairs, said that county officials decided to purchase the property to honor the vision of residents in the nearby Green Valley neighborhood, who first raised the idea of an arts district.
“I want to get away from the idea that somehow the big government is coming and it’s going to decide what’s happening there,” Isabelle-Stark said.
The property “was going to be bought by somebody,” she added. “It could have been sold to a private developer to put a self-storage in there. This gives the community the option to envision what could be at that site.”
At least one option, however, is off the table: Inner Ear staying in its home of 31 years.
For the neighbors who first pushed for an arts district, it’s a cruel consequence of their idea — particularly because they wanted to complement, not end, Zientara’s longtime presence on South Oakland Street.
“Losing a small, yet significant, arts-related business is antithetical to this vision,” Robin Stombler, acting president of the Green Valley Civic Association, wrote in a letter about Inner Ear to county lawmakers earlier this year.
And for musicians like Ian MacKaye, the frontman of Fugazi and Minor Threat, it means that whatever replaces the studio where he’s spent so many days recording will never be up to snuff.
“When you have a space like Inner Ear, which grows in this weird little building and nobody knows about it ... that’s the f---in’ arts,” MacKaye said. “The county can’t make that. They can try all they want. But it’s not a real arts district.”
‘Where I learned everything’
If Memphis rock-and-roll had Sun Studio, and the Beatles had London’s Abbey Road, D.C. punk had Inner Ear.
As early pioneers of the genre exploded onto the scene in the late 1970s, Zientara — then a 30-something dad and former graphic designer for the Army — was, at least on paper, not the most obvious participant.
A conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, he landed a gig framing paintings at the National Gallery of Art. But he had always loved guitar, and by night, he would play in “schlock rock” bands while using his military electronics training to record in the basement of his Arlington Colonial.
A chance encounter through one of his bandmates led him to make a recording at American University for the Slickee Boys, a psychedelic garage rock group. Something clicked.
“The way I recorded just seemed to sync with a lot of the bands, which was very quickly and very organically,” Zientara said. “I didn’t tell them to turn it down. I didn’t tell them to modify things. I didn’t tell them that sometimes their vocals had no melodies.”
Despite widespread criticisms of punk at the time — untuned guitars, bad playing of instruments, too much screaming — Zientara maintained an optimism about where the music would go.
Brendan Canty, the drummer for Fugazi, said Zientara assumed the role of a “kind, jovial engineer” who made bands popcorn and was able to push them toward more experimentation and better sound.
“To call it foundational is not an overstatement,” he said. “For me, Don’s was where I learned everything about engineering, everything about the creative process and how important somebody’s personality is to the recording process.”
In 1990, Zientara upgraded from his basement to a former Hair Cuttery on South Oakland Street, paying $800 a month for nearly 3,000 square feet of space and filling a storage room in the back with decades of cassette tapes.
The studio grew hand-in-hand with Dischord Records, a D.C.-based punk label co-founded by MacKaye. Often pre-purchasing recording time at Inner Ear, Dischord made hundreds of records there — from Rites of Spring to the Teen Idles — that boomed in popularity across the country.
And it wasn’t just punk: Former senator Al Franken recorded a comedy album at Inner Ear. There were Russian balalaika groups, political advertisers, choral singers and, on a recent Sunday, a spoken-word Shakespeare sonnet. Even the guys at the used-tire shop across the street have taped a few tracks at Inner Ear, swapping their studio time for work on Zientara’s Camry.
When the Foo Fighters traveled in 2014 to D.C. and seven other U.S. cities to write and record locally inspired tracks, it was no surprise that they ended up at Inner Ear — which the band’s frontman, Dave Grohl, said had “produced the entire soundtrack of my youth.”
“This is the studio that I was most looking forward to visiting,” he said in a rockumentary that followed the band while recording their album, “Sonic Highways.” “It’s like my bedroom from when I was a teenager.”
‘It was going to be bought’
At the time he moved in, Zientara said South Oakland Street fell somewhere between industrial and run-down. The body shops and air-conditioning repair stores nearby, separated from his building by wide alleyways, meant bands could play inside at full volume.
In the 1990s, other arts organizations began moving in, too: Signature Theatre put on shows in a converted bumper-plating factory. Next door, Arlington County retrofitted a TV station to serve as the headquarters for its cultural division, with a shared rehearsal space and small black box studio.
Stombler, the civic association leader, had first raised the idea for an “arts and industry district” in a bid for the county to bring more vibrancy and resources to Green Valley, one of the few historically African American neighborhoods still standing in Arlington.
A group of community members put out a report in 2017 about how to achieve that vision: While they wanted to bring more artists into the area, they advocated against any real estate moves by the county.
This “organic growth” strategy, the report said, “does not mean a major redevelopment, acquisitions, or mass production.”
Meanwhile, however, county planners set ambitious goals to remake the rest of the area — which, like the rest of Arlington, was already seeing a steady urban transformation. Shirlington Village was ballooning into a commercial anchor, with high-rise apartments, dozens of restaurants and a major bus station.
A former rock musician opened a small brewery next door to Inner Ear, putting on an annual fall festival and serving up special-release beers with names like “Crossing Rt 50.” Farther down, a self-storage facility opened up to serve all those people moving into the high-rises.
By 2018, county lawmakers approved a plan incorporating the “arts and industry” concept for the strip known as “Four Mile Run Valley.” But they diverged from the residents’ suggestions in one big way: They set a target on acquiring the Inner Ear building.
In June 2019, Arlington officials made a tentative arrangement to buy the property for $3.4 million. The county’s agreement with Pezza, the building’s owner, specifically requires all tenants — including Inner Ear and a food bank — to vacate the property before it is officially sold later this year.
Isabelle-Stark, of Arlington Cultural Affairs, said the purchase reflects the realities of real estate development and local governance in Arlington: Pezza was going to sell the property no matter what. County officials, excited by the arts district idea, wanted to be sure they could see it through. And lawmakers said it was out of the question for them to buy the space but then rent it out to Zientara.
“You have to put it in context with the development analog,” she said. “There was an opportunity to maintain this for a public benefit.”
Isabelle-Stark said the building will be torn down and paved over to make way most likely for a mobile stage, though there is no set demolition schedule. Eventually, with enough funding from the county, officials might build a permanent structure with recording and rehearsal space for local arts groups.
But that’s not set in stone. “It’s an idea. It’s not a foregone conclusion,” she said, and if residents ask for it, some leftover aspect of Inner Ear might even play a role in whatever comes next.
Zientara, for his part, said he would have hoped to stay — even at age 73.
“It’s one way of going. I could get hit by a bus, that’s another way,” he said. “But you have to deal with the situation at hand.”
The changing face of Arlington punk
On a chilly Friday night, just a few hours after the last track had been recorded at 2017 S. Oakland St., Zientara and his wife, Juanita, walked a crowd through the studio.
They pointed out signed tour posters and album covers, old tapes and the many instruments that still need to be hauled out of the space.
Some things will end up in a museum exhibit in D.C., they said. Some will be passed on to friends, and some will go back into Zientara’s basement. But the bulk of the equipment is likely to be sold online, to other musicians or studios still hanging on to their physical space.
“It’s a shame,” said Jeff Nelson, Minor Threat’s drummer and the co-founder of Dischord, visiting in town from Ohio for the send-off. “Does Arlington not realize people come from all over the world to record around here?”
When he left Northern Virginia in the 1990s, he recalled, this “nondescript” suburb had been a different world: Nelson and his bandmates split a Lyon Park house five ways, each paying $525 a month with their part-time jobs at 7-Eleven or Haagen-Dazs. “
Now another piece of that era would be lost.
At the brewery next door, Zientara took the stage before dozens of people — friends, family, former collaborators — who had come to send him off, or at least say farewell to this particular address.
“Don, what are you going to play?” someone shouted from the crowd, and all he could muster was a one-word response: “Guitar!”
As he sang, he wore a plastic necklace of red stars and beads. The piece of it that spelled out “HAPPY RETIREMENT” was tucked into the back of his T-shirt, obscured from view.