The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Engaging the outer eye at Arlington’s famed Inner Ear Recording Studios

Recording engineer Don Zientara in his Arlington studio, Inner Ear, which is closing. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Recording engineer Don Zientara in his Arlington studio, Inner Ear, which is closing. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Don Zientara is known for his ears. I wanted to hear about his eyes.

“Right here is a painting by Jay Stuckey, who was a punk rocker in D.C.,” says Zientara, showing me around the control room at his famed Inner Ear Recording Studios in Arlington. “Now he’s a painter in Los Angeles. And quite an accomplished one, too.”

The monochromatic painting depicts a line of newspaper street boxes in tones of gray, white and black: empty sentinels in the shadows.

“This was a painting that was in Fugazi’s practice space,” Zientara says. A squat yellow bomb — Fat Man, perhaps — floats in a field of red, the name “Kopcke” painted in the lower right.

“They didn’t want it,” Zientara says. “It’s kind of a dumb picture, but I said I’ll take it. I hang something up and it just sort of stays there forever.”

Well, not forever. After more than 30 years in this former Hair Cuttery training center, Inner Ear is closing, making way for redevelopment. If only these walls could talk . . .

Of course, they do talk. The music captured here — by Fugazi, Scream, Mary Timony, Foo Fighters and hundreds of other acts — will live as long as technology exists to push sound out of a speaker. And here is Don telling me about what adorns those walls.

“That’s a Chinese checkerboard from my boyhood,” Zientara says as we move around the womblike control room, its normally dim lights turned up for a change.

He’d framed the colorful game board.

“I just really like the way it looks,” he says. “It’s probably older than I am, quite frankly. I always remember it being in the house.”

That was in Rochester, N.Y., where the 73-year-old Zientara grew up. He majored in painting as an undergrad at Syracuse University and as a graduate student at West Virginia University. Then it was into the Army, which said it would train him in electronics but put him to work doing graphics.

After that, he landed a job at the National Gallery of Art, matting and framing. His hands touched works by Picasso and Rembrandt. Zientara might be doing that still if he hadn’t wandered past the museum office where they were getting ready to create Acoustiguides, those recorded gallery tours. He showed them how to turn the recorder on. It was the beginning of his move from vision to sound.

“That’s by me,” Zientara says. “It’s one of my favorite pictures.”

A Munch-like figure sits erect in a chair, surrounded by jagged black lines. Relaxing or awaiting interrogation?

“One of my favorite movies is ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’ ” Zientara says. “This evokes a lot of images from that film, sort of that German expressionism.”

Below it is a small self-portrait of an immediately recognizable Don Zientara.

Outside the control room is the hallway leading to the studio. Its walls are covered with posters, photos and album covers of the bands he has worked with: Bad Brains, Minor Threat, the Neighbors, Dismemberment Plan . . .

There are Zientara originals, too: a painting of a cow’s face, fierce as an Aztec temple carving; a print of skeletons layered over one another, a Magritte-esque apple incongruously perched among the bones.

“Surrealism attracts me for its mystifying quality, I guess,” he says.

And more Zientariana: a framed newspaper ad from the 1970s, when he sang and played guitar at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill.

“I used to play from 9 till 2 in the morning for a whopping 20 bucks,” he says. “Cover song after cover song: Van Morrison, Little Feat, Jackson Browne. . . . All that stuff. Anything that could be translated into one guitar and a voice.”

Zientara says he has always had a pop sensibility. The punk was a fluke, arising when he recorded a new wave band called the Look at the American University Tavern. Also on the bill were the Slickee Boys, whose manager, Skip Groff, liked the job he did.

Soon, Inner Ear — which was first in Zientara’s basement, then in this light-industrial complex — became the Abbey Road of the D.C. punk scene. (Disclosure: More recently, my band recorded there.)

We enter the studio itself and Zientara nods toward walls near the high ceiling. Large pieces of cardboard are covered in brightly colored sea images: fish, coral, octopi, a submarine.

“They were the first things that went up here,” he says. “The walls were absolutely bare at the time. I said, ‘I’ve got to get something up here.’ ”

He took them from an elementary school play one of his daughters was in. They were being thrown out.

“I just wanted them all,” he says. “They’re big and they took up space.”

Late this year or early next year most of the artwork from Inner Ear will be on display at Lost Origins Gallery in Mount Pleasant.

I ask Zientara what he wanted the vibe of Inner Ear to be. At first he describes it as a factory — “in the best sense of the word: an art music factory, a place to fashion products that please people.”

Then he reconsiders. “More like a clubhouse,” he says. “An artists’ collaborative: Come on in and bring your skills. Van Gogh tried to do that in Arles. Of course, he only got Gauguin to come.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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