On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Don Zientara unfolds a chair in the alleyway outside Inner Ear Studio and consents to another trip down memory lane. It’s the legendary punk producer’s 73rd birthday, but he’s looking much younger and far less exhausted than he should. Inner Ear is scheduled for permanent closure in a couple of weeks — with plans to flatten the building and make space for a new arts district, the property will belong to Arlington County on Oct. 1 — yet the studio has never been busier in its 40-plus year history, with a big surge of bands booking last-minute sessions and a small swarm of journalists asking Zientara to reflect on his years overseeing some of the most exquisite hardcore punk recordings ever made.
Handling the chaos with signature calm, Zientara gently reminds everyone that while this building is almost history, he is not: the producer-engineer-slash-singer-songwriter plans to continue recording music at another location in the near future, including songs of his own. “I should probably go sit in a rocking chair on the porch,” he says with a soft smile, “but I don’t want to.”
That serene resolve is typical of Zientara, who, full disclosure, I first met when my old band recorded at Inner Ear in 1999. By then, the studio had spent roughly a decade in its current South Arlington location after years in the basement of Zientara’s nearby home, where the studio founder says his modest gear and developing know-how made him an asset to D.C.’s young hardcore scene in the early ’80s. “I was struggling to know what to do and [the bands] felt comfortable with that,” Zientara says. “Instead of a master or an expert, they were in the presence of someone muddling through. I think you want that, unless someone is doing your surgery or dental work.”
But over the years, Zientara quietly became an expert, maintaining a permanently coolheaded presence while recording some of the most volatile, history-making punk bands of all time: Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Void, United Mutation, No Trend, the Hated, Rites of Spring, Swiz, Nation of Ulysses and scores more.
It was brash music that required a delicate touch. Upon stepping into Inner Ear, most young bands had never really heard their music outside their heads. “It’s a partnership,” Zienatra says of a typical Inner Ear session. “They’ve shown me the respect of coming here to make their album, so I respect what they’re making.”
The respect ran so deep, many bands found ways to sneak Zientara’s speaking voice onto their recordings. Little snippets of the producer calling the take from the control room appear on iconic albums from Bikini Kill, Fugazi and others — a trend Zientara says probably started with Minor Threat’s “Steppin’ Stone,” a sound-collaged Monkees song recorded in 1981. “For that song, we thought, ‘Let’s throw a lot of things into the pot, stir it up and pour it out on the floor,’” Zientara says. “So my voice ended up in there. Then the other bands thought, ‘Hey, maybe we could do that too.’ And it sort of snowballed.”
We finally got to hear Zientara’s singing voice when he released his first solo album, “Sixteen Ssongs,” in 2003, and since then, he’s released more than a handful more. Unlike punk, his recordings tend to be understated, voice-and-guitar centered affairs. But very much like punk, his songs feel candid and exposed. “I’m still getting comfortable with my voice,” Zientara says. “But I came to some kind of reconciliation with it after listening to a lot of people who are imperfect, but who make their imperfections into a personality. So you think, ‘Maybe I could do something with this.’ You stop hiding behind things. Some singers sound like they’re hiding behind a tree and the listener can tell.”
There were no trees at Inner Ear, though. Instead, Zientara’s great gift was making generations of punk visionaries feel free enough to express themselves fully and completely. In that sense, Inner Ear was nothing less than a truth-capture machine, and the best recordings made there will always sound honest and alive. And if there’s any deeper commonality between Zientara’s songwriting and his studio legacy, that has to be it. These are parallel attempts at capturing human truth, right? Zientara’s perfect reply: “I think that’s true.”
To commemorate the closing of Inner Ear Studio, Don Zientara will perform two shows: Oct. 1 at New District Brewing Company, 2709 South Oakland St., Arlington. Show starts at 6 p.m. newdistrictbrewing.com. Free. Oct. 2 opening for Braddock Station at Epicure Cafe, 11104 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. Show starts at 8 p.m. epicurecafe.org. Free.