Punks everywhere know his name. He’s recorded combat-boot-and-leather-jacket classics by the likes of Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and 7 Seconds. And he’s virtually the in-house engineer/producer for D.C.’s Dischord Records, one of the most influential punk labels of the last 20-some years. So what’s Don Zientara doing making a folk record?
“I never really considered it folk or folk-rock,” Zientara says of his 2003 debut, Sixteen Ssongs. “I just considered it really nothing.”
In fact, Zientara, a tall and slender 55-year-old dressed in tennis-pro short-shorts and white polo shirt on this cold mid-December night, all but winces at the use of the F-word. Yet he’s not too folk-allergic for the giant Richard Thompson poster hanging in his office or the well-worn LPs by the Byrds and the Cyrkle leaning against his desk.
And never mind that Sixteen Ssongs, which was recorded on a monophonic Wollensak tape deck manufactured more than 40 years ago, ain’t exactly a shimmering example of the high-fidelity production the Rochester, N.Y., native is known for. “It’s not really low-fidelity,” Zientara says between sips of coffee. “I mean, [the Wollensak] was the high-fidelity of its day—the very-high-fidelity of its day—and it has a certain sound to it that just seems to make some songs…work.”
Up until recently, Zientara’s songs haven’t really worked at all—at least not the way he wanted them to. Ever since starting Inner Ear Studios in South Arlington in the mid-’70s, the former studio-art student and National Gallery of Art sound engineer has excelled at recording other people’s bands but has had little luck capturing his own music on tape. “There was just nothing to offer beforehand that seemed to be, you know, in the least way artistic,” Zientara says, “and I really don’t want to clutter up the musical shelf.”
The key, evidently, was simplicity. After buying the broken Wollensak for 10 bucks at a thrift shop on Columbia Pike, Zientara repaired it, picked up the Gibson acoustic he bought back in 1973, plugged in a mike, and started experimenting in his Inner Ear office. All of a sudden, he had solid versions of songs he’d been trying to nail for years—at least one of which was written when Zientara was only 10. Though some of Zientara’s songs didn’t work even on the new setup, he says, “some turned out reasonably well—enough to keep recording more and more.”
And record more he did. Zientara estimates that he taped between 20 and 30 takes for every one of Sixteen Ssongs’ 17 tracks. “The production was fairly extensive, but it wasn’t in the layering,” he explains. “It was mainly in picking out songs and really tuning the melodies and tweaking the orchestration.”
Chad Clark, who fronts Dischord band Beauty Pill and runs the Silver Sonia mastering studio at Inner Ear, claims Zientara spent at least a year recording and culling. “At first, I thought he was just listening to the radio really loud or listening to some old blues record,” Clark says. “I’d just sort of hear the muffled sounds of what I later learned was him making a record. But he was very private about it.”
So how did this music vet decide it was time to put out his first solo record? “That’s a good question,” Zientara says. “I’m not actually sure….I didn’t wake up one day and think, Hey, this has got to be an album!” After some thought, though, Zientara recalls that the watershed moment came when he burned a CD-R of five or six tracks and listened to them “without cringing.”
Surprised by the results, he played the disc for Fugazi guitarist/vocalist, Dischord co-owner, and old pal Ian MacKaye. The two met in 1980, when the 18-year-old MacKaye was looking for a sympathetic engineer to record songs by his high-school hardcore act, Teen Idles. The two became fast friends, and Zientara has shared his personal recordings with the punk icon ever since—even enlisting MacKaye to record his own early-’80s band, Under Heaven.
“I just told him that these are the first [songs] in a long time that I’ve been satisfied with,” Zientara says, “because he’s heard some other things that were less than stellar.”
It turned out that MacKaye liked Zientara’s spare, moody, vocals-and-acoustic-guitar recordings so much that he thought the public should hear them, too. “[Zientara] was saying, ‘What do you think I can do with this?’” MacKaye recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, shit, I’ll put it out.’ But I wasn’t going to do it on Dischord, because it would never fly.”
According to MacKaye, the long-running punk label would have been the wrong context for Sixteen Ssongs: “People already have such a concept of what Dischord is,” he says, “so anything you put out on Dischord, people immediately say, ‘Well, how does this relate to Fugazi?’ It’s ridiculous.”
Zientara claims he was stunned by MacKaye’s offer. “I probably would’ve been very happy just making a few copies for some friends of mine,” the engineer says.
But MacKaye had other plans: He started up Northern Liberties, a Dischord auxiliary label named after a 19th-century D.C. neighborhood that once existed, he says, “roughly where Shaw is now.” Occupied by “artists and musicians and freed slaves”—and ultimately torn down during Alexander “Boss” Shepherd’s systematic program of public improvements—Northern Liberties, MacKaye says, was never an officially sanctioned neighborhood.
“What I really liked about the idea was that it was just so renegade,” he says. “That’s ultimately what a community is: It’s not whether somebody else acknowledges it—it’s whether you acknowledge it. I thought that would be a perfect name for the project.”
Though MacKaye reveals that Northern Liberties’ second release is “40 minutes of the most incredible jew’s-harp you’ve ever heard” courtesy of Lungfish vocalist Dan Higgs, he also makes it clear that he’s not simply doling out favors to friends. “I’m putting [Zientara’s record] out because I love it,” he says proudly. “If you listen carefully to the tenor of his voice, and if you listen to his lyrics, you realize he’s not kidding around—it’s serious and it’s beautiful.”
Indeed, most of Sixteen Ssongs’ lyrical content is refreshingly unguarded, ranging from the straightforward nostalgia of “If I Ever Get to See You Again” to the allegorical politics of “Low Flying Bird.” It’s the album’s free-rhythm opening track, “Weatherproof,” however, that features MacKaye’s favorite lyric: “When you touch the air with words/And the air touches someone,” he sings. “Somehow/Right now/I’m
“It really is just totally from the heart,” Clark says. “That’s the thing I hope people hear in it: It’s really raw, what he did.”
To hear Zientara tell it, every aspect of Sixteen Ssongs was an effort to convey “soul.” “The thinking about the song and how the song comes across to the person—that’s the important thing,” he suggests. And, despite what Zientara describes as his recording process’s “punk ethic,” he goes to great pains to point out that the album is not merely an exercise or a sound engineer’s inside joke. “The fidelity of it,” he says, “is appropriate.”
But Zientara saves his most incisive self-criticism until the interview is essentially over. Driving to the Pentagon Metro station with the driver’s-side window rolled down, he accurately summarizes the appeal of his own album by comparing it to the field recordings of legendary folk-song hunter Alan Lomax. “I can almost hear the ‘oops’ [in Lomax’s recordings],” he says, breathing vapor trails into the frigid highway air. “But it doesn’t matter, because the guts are there.” CP