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Anyone who thinks peer pressure only happens to teenagers has never been in a recording studio. On a Friday evening in early September, a couple of punks are pressuring Michael Reidy, former lead singer of D.C. rock band the Razz, to sing on a track.
“I’ve had throat cancer!” he protests.
It’s rare to hear outbursts like that in a workplace. But this place of business is Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, the birthplace of some of the most iconic releases of the past 40 years from D.C. bands including Fugazi, Bad Brains, and Scream.
Finally coaxed into providing some background vocals, Reidy is joined by the punks, who happen to be Ian MacKaye (of Teen Idles, Minor Threat, and Fugazi) and Scream’s Franz Stahl. They’re gathering around a mic and laying down multiple takes on harmonies on a new Scream song called “Lifeline,” a track from the forthcoming release D.C. Special, their first full-length album in 30 years. For anyone familiar with D.C.’s music scene, it’s obvious a lot of its history is standing in one room at the moment.
Patience is required. The immediacy of hearing a three-minute song is far different from the intricate process of recording said song. In the control room, the owner and founder of Inner Ear, Don Zientara, helms the mixing board and provides the playback for the trio.
The studio and control room walls are lined with artwork from kindergartners, the artist Jay Stuckey, and Zientara himself. It’s there to help absorb the sound emanating from the hundreds of recording artists who have played there over the years, and it’s soaked up countless musical notes of all genres over the past three decades. There’s also a stuffed moose in a hat hanging from the ceiling and a surfboard that belongs to Zientara. It’s an unexpected hobby for a 73-year-old originally from Rochester, New York.
The walls of the narrow hallway, which have seen the likes of everyone from Keane and Dag Nasty to the Walkmen wander through, are filled with posters, album artwork, and photos of the multitude of musicians who have recorded at Inner Ear over the years.
“There’s John Frusciante, of course, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Zientara notes, pointing out photos like he’s going through a family album. “Here’s Henry Rollins in a tutu. Of course, that’s Minor Threat … This was Dismemberment Plan. This was toward the end of their career. They just broke up after that.”
Musical peer pressure aside, the atmosphere is a relaxed one; it’s the kind of place where swigs of Red Stripe beer happen between takes, quiche and pie are in the break room if you’re hungry, and chops are busted on the regular. War stories about low-attended shows are told. Friends like Brendan Canty (of Fugazi and Rites of Spring) wander in to say hello and see what’s going on. Given the jovial environment, if a complete stranger were to wander in, they would have no idea that Inner Ear was about to close and that all of this would be gone in a matter of weeks.
Rumors of a potential closure began circulating in April 2021, when Arlington County prepared to vote on purchasing the lot that includes the building where Zientara has been renting Inner Ear’s space since 1990. This idea had been floated by the county for decades, but hadn’t come to be.
“Initially in the late ’90s, they thought of developing because this was the last industrial area for Arlington and they had plans,” Zientara says. “But of course plans and budgets don’t always match sometimes. So it was put on hold. And I think back around 2008, they had some more plans out but that didn’t match up due to the downturn in the economy. So now they have a plan for a cultural arts and industries area, I guess they call it, and I guess they have the money so they bought this building.”
When the building owner was looking to sell, the county saw potential for the space. “It’s the confluence of a landowner, a property owner who was willing to sell and who fortunately gave us a first look at it before putting it on the open market,” says Arlington County Board Member Christian Dorsey. But even with the purchase in place, Arlington County doesn’t have any definitive plans for the lot as of yet.
“It’s a strategic opportunity that the county leverage and purchase this property, but there’s no plans immediately for a facility or building,” explains Michelle Isabelle-Stark, director of Arlington cultural affairs. “So, in the near terms what we plan on doing is preparing the space, an outdoor space, for performance, for festivals, for markets, for community get-togethers. So it’s going to be more of a—I think it’s overused—the word ‘pop-up.’ But it’s more in line with that.”
The building itself is nothing grand, but it’s the age of the structure that is forcing the move. “It’s not that the county wants to see Don or any other tenant go,” explains Dorsey. “Once the property transfers to a different owner, that owner bears the responsibility for ensuring ADA access systems at a certain structural level. We’re not grandfathered in. Knowing that the building would require substantial investment to make compliant with those standards, it’s just not a good use of public dollars to go ahead and do that rehabilitation, so we’re going to have to get rid of the buildings, which unfortunately means that people who were tenanted there have to do something else.”
When Arlington County confirmed in June that Inner Ear’s final day would be Oct. 1, giving Zientara three months to empty out the studio so that the county could go ahead, you couldn’t help but feel that the man was finally sticking it to the punks.
News of the closing spread like wildfire, as did the outrage. Artists including Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the punk rock band Against Me!, took to social media; Grace tweeted, “Damn. What a day. First thing I read about this morning was that Vintage Vinyl in Jersey is closing. Now Inner Ear too?! We mixed Searching for a Former Clarity at Inner Ear. Recorded the song ‘Joy’ there too.”
Carl Bon Tempo, bassist of the defunct band My Life in Rain, tweeted, “My band was lucky enough to make two albums with Don at Inner Ear in the 1990s. This was unequivocally a highlight of my life. Don made us feel comfortable, confident to experiment, and gently nudged us when we got off-track. Looking back, I now understand he was mentoring us.”
The outcry wasn’t unexpected. This was the place, after all, that Foo Fighters’ frontperson (and, as one of the former drummers of Scream, Inner Ear’s most famous alum) Dave Grohl spent nearly an entire episode of his 2014 HBO Sonic Highways series profiling, ending with the Foo recording the song “The Feast and the Famine.” (Grohl also gave a shoutout to the studio during the Foo Fighters’ surprise show at the 9:30 Club on Sept. 9, explaining that he and his former bandmates from Scream were recording there.) The only person who seems to be nonplussed by the situation is Zientara.
“You know, I’m not pissed off or anything like that,” Zientara says. “It’s fine. I mean, I kind of believe in the evolution of things.”
The creation and existence of Inner Ear is a remarkable result that evolved from Zientara’s combined interests in music and electronics, both of which started at a very young age. “I had always been interested in electronics and tape recorders, and had always played [music] since about 10 years old,” says Zientara, who also had the good fortune to have grammar school teachers who encouraged his interest in electronics.
“One of them was a rocket scientist from the Navy,” recalls Zientara. “It turns out another one was a research scientist for Xerox. So, they taught me a lot of stuff. They’re the kind of people where I said I wanted to build a stereo amplifier. They came with a paper bag full of parts and said, ‘Here. Here’s the schematic.’”
In pursuit of an artistic life, Zientara graduated from Syracuse University in 1970 with a BFA in painting and printmaking, and he was headed to West Virginia University to get a master’s degree when the U.S. Army drafted him. “So I figured that my number’s up, so to speak,” he says.
But Zientara realized that he could use this to his advantage. “If you signed up for a training program in the Army, you’re guaranteed the program training,” says Zientara. “I said, ‘Well, maybe this a good chance for me to find out something about electronics.’” Given the United States’ government’s history of surveilling and investigating musicians deemed disruptive to the fabric of society, if the U.S. Army had any idea how pivotal Zientara’s electronics training would be in the recording of punk music, they probably would have let him stay in college.
A few months after his basic training was completed, the Army offered Zientara a job as a painter in Alexandria. He realized this was a far better option than fixing field radios in Vietnam, and he would be able to use his college degree drawing, painting, and retouching photographs on this assignment. From then on, the DMV would be his home base.
After his release from the Army, Zientara got a job at the National Gallery of Art in 1976 in the prints and drawing department. A tour of the gallery several years later allowed him to show off his electronics training, unknowingly putting him on the path for a full-time career as a recording engineer.
“They gave us a tour of the National Gallery,” says Zientara. “They were just putting together a recording studio and they were having trouble wiring up this one place and I said, ‘Here’s how you do it. You just do it like that.’ [They said] ‘You wanna be the engineer here?’ So I just flipped and I became their engineer for the next five years or so.”
Zientara had already started operating a small version of Inner Ear from the basement of his home in Arlington the year before. “Very humble,” says Zientara. “We’re talking like a stereo tape recorder recording a single person playing guitar.”
Thanks to that and his own involvement in local bands including Ravenstone, plus his work as a solo performer, a recording career was born.
“It was pure serendipity,” says Zientara. “I’d been playing in bands all the time. So when the bands broke up, one of the people that was in one of my bands said, ‘Hey, can you record us in my new band?’ … and playing along with them were the Slickee Boys. When I got there to record them, the Slickee Boys asked me, ‘Hey, if you’ve got an extra roll of tape, can you record us?’ I said I could.”
The Slickee Boys were managed by the late Skip Groff, owner of Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, who became pivotal in directing bands toward Inner Ear.
“When they came to mix [the Slickee Boys] tape, Skip came along with them and he liked what I was doing and liked the way I approached recording,” says Zientara. “He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got these people, the Teen Idles, coming. Record with them.’ So they came over, recorded them. He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got these people, Bad Brains, to record. Record them.’ And it just snowballed from there. Really there was very little advertising involved. It was just a matter of just being in the right place at the right time.”
Then a member of Teen Idles, Ian MacKaye had already recorded at a studio in Maryland, but wasn’t thrilled with the results.
“It was very alienating, this experience,” MacKaye says. “I hadn’t even been playing bass for a year at that point. I was so new to my instrument and the whole idea of recording. We just figured you go in and you just bash it out and somehow they capture how great you are or how crazy or whatever. We didn’t understand there’s different philosophies with recording with people who are running studios, and sometimes some of them say, ‘Well, you know what you really need to do is have less distortion on your guitars.’ Or they try to help you by altering your sound to make it more palatable. But we were involved with a form of music that was revolutionary at the time.”
In 1980, Groff directed MacKaye and his bandmates to Inner Ear, and they set off for Zientara’s house. There, they found a much different setting than their original studio experience, from the room they recorded in down to the mixing board that Zientara had built himself.
“It was like a little four-track thing,” recalls MacKaye. “His control room was on the second floor of the house and we recorded in the basement. He had two children, two little girls … and we played in the rec room where all the toys were.”
The recording experience was completely different from the band’s previous one, thanks to Zientara’s complete lack of prejudice toward punk music.
“In the music world, there is a kind of a snoot,” says MacKaye. “But Don was not like that at all. It was almost immediately clear that what Don was interested in was helping us capture what it was we wanted to capture. So he didn’t alter anything. He just tried to mic it and make it sound the way [it did]. He just tried to capture what it was we were doing, and I think that it was just such a different experience … He’s interested in capturing what’s being created.”
“It’s hard to describe how small this basement is,” says Eli Janney, recalling the first location of Inner Ear, where he started as an intern in 1986 while attending George Washington University. He later formed the D.C. post-punk band Girls Against Boys in 1988; today, Janney is the associate music director for Late Night with Seth Meyers. “It’s a very typical, small suburban house with a very tiny, little basement. It’s very funny—the stuff that we made there was pretty crazy.”
As the musical craziness was cultivated, what started off as a side gig eventually grew so popular that Zientara decided to pursue it full time, much to the surprise of some in Inner Ear’s inner circle.
“One day he said, ‘I’ve decided to quit my job,’ and I was completely freaked out,” says MacKaye, laughing. “I said, ‘You can’t quit your job to do this! This can’t possibly happen!’ But he was like, ‘I want to do this.’ That’s the way Don is. ‘Just want to do it.’ He started recording full time and then he actually grew the studio. He went from four-track to eight-track to sixteen-track.”
Zientara simply says of the decision, “Never decided on the leap. It leaped on me.”
Through Inner Ear, Zientara not only nurtured generations of bands and musicians but also budding producers and engineers, like the teachers who would bring him schematics and paper bags of parts.
“When I would have questions, I would call Don because he was very, very helpful. I didn’t understand any of the basic concepts, really, so he started giving me very basic info … I started working there and started learning all the machines there and also learning more,” says Janney.
Inner Ear’s popularity had grown to the point that Zientara was working seven days a week, and the extra help was definitely needed. Eventually, a larger location was needed as well.
“Around 1989, I figured I needed a location,” recalls Zientara. “I was doing it out of my house and there was just no room there for it at that point. Just too much equipment. Bands were coming in like mad and so I had to just get a bigger place.”
That bigger place ended up being the Arlington studio Inner Ear occupied from 1990 until last week. That location was an ideal one: a building with cinder blocks, no electrical interference, and no time limits. “As opposed to home where it’s, ‘Hey, the kids are trying to get to sleep,’” says Zientara.
J. Robbins, owner, producer, and engineer of the Magpie Cage Recording Studio in Baltimore, first experienced Inner Ear in 1990 as the lead singer of D.C. band Jawbox, who recorded their first album at the studio with Janney. Robbins developed a similar mentor/mentee relationship with Zientara. As Robbins’ interest in producing and engineering grew, he started collecting recording equipment, setting it up in the band’s group house, and recording other artists for free to get the experience. When a position opened up in Inner Ear’s Studio B, it was MacKaye who suggested Robbins to Zientara.
“That was really the beginning of me trying to have a career as a producer [and] engineer,” says Robbins. “I learned so much from working at Inner Ear just from being around Don. He was always very generous with his knowledge. He’s just a very generous-hearted individual.”
“It was a place of not just recording lessons but life lessons,” Robbins continues. “Part of it is learning … things about trusting your collaborators. Trusting your own instincts. Diplomacy. All kinds of social skills type stuff.”
Zientara’s approach to recording went beyond just trying to capture a particular sound or timbre of the instruments, something he’s passed on to those who have worked at Inner Ear.
“What I came to learn was that the most important thing that’s happening in the studio is this energetic, ephemeral thing between people,” says Robbins. “It’s not as if the sound of things isn’t important. Of course it’s important … But really what you’re doing is capturing a moment among people who have created something together.”
“Sometimes the very best thing you can do as a producer or engineer or someone who’s facilitating the session is find ways to make sure that people can trust themselves,” Robbins adds. “It’s a mysterious skill that you can’t quite quantify, but you know when certain people have it and Don is definitely one of those people.”
As the decades progressed, Inner Ear continued to capture moments that ranged from a 2001 acoustic performance from emo rock band Jimmy Eat World to Hüsker Dü’s former singer-guitarist Bob Mould recording tracks for his 2005 album, Body of Song, and Zientara continued to embolden baby bands in the DMV music scene over the decades.
David Mohl, guitarist of D.C.’s electro-pop dance band Mystery Friends, recalls his first time recording at Inner Ear in 2018.
“It was our first true studio experience,” says Mohl. “Don has this sort of Jedi master aura about him. Then, also, being in Inner Ear where you really do feel like you’re in this lineage, or you look on the wall and you see every Fugazi cover and Bad Brains and then there’s Dave Grohl. It’s such a ‘Wow! This is part of a special tradition that is so interconnected and so vibrant.’”
“There’s truly nothing like Inner Ear, anywhere,” says Mystery Friends’ lead singer Abby Sevcik. “The sense of place that you immediately feel when you walk in. Don is such a presence. I feel like I’ve met so many people because of Inner Ear in the music community.”
Since the confirmation that Inner Ear would be closing, Zientara has been busy making the final recordings and selling off equipment and gear to help clear out the space. There are tentative plans for an auction of Inner Ear items to be held on Reverb and spaces including Lost Origins Gallery in Mount Pleasant, the D.C. Punk Archive at the MLK Library, and the Las Vegas Punk Museum have approached Zientara about having Inner Ear items on display. (Note to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: If you can have CBGB’s awning on display, you can re-create Inner Ear’s studio as part of the Garage.)
There is a chance that a new version of Inner Ear might be part of the forthcoming arts district that Arlington County hopes to build, but that may be years in the making.
“I would love for there to be something that we either build in that area or find elsewhere that could house this kind of program with Don’s equipment with him,” says Dorsey. “His providing mentorship and experience, teaching other folks so that we can ensure that sound studios and the production quality and the engineering skill that goes into it doesn’t become a lost art.”
“I feel like we’re really going to feel that loss,” says Sevcik. “It’s such a big piece of D.C.’s music history. It’s definitely sad. Whatever Don’s wishes are, we’ll be happy for whatever he decides. The sense of place is not something you can replicate.”
While he has started to look at other commercial space in Arlington, Zientara’s immediate plan is to return Inner Ear to where it all started: the basement at his home in Arlington.
On the first Friday night in October, Inner Ear’s last day in its Arlington location, a crowd has gathered at New District Brewery Company, a few buildings down from the studio, to attend a musical wake for the recording studio. It’s reminiscent of a high school reunion: hugs, handshakes, and pats on the backs are abundant. From the looks of the crowd, every generation that has recorded at Inner Ear is represented. Brendan Canty wanders in, as does MacKaye. But the mood isn’t a sad one: Zientara makes sure of that by setting up nearly four hours of live music, including himself on the lineup.
Early in the show, Zientara, accompanied by drummer Gary Michael Smith (formerly of Zientara’s band Ravenstone), plays a slowed-down, stripped-down version of Michael Penn’s 1989 hit, “No Myth.” When he arrives at the lyrics to the bridge, he sings: “Some time from now you’ll bow to pressure/ Some things in life you can not measure by degrees.”
It’s striking how perfectly this sums up not only Inner Ear’s current situation but also Zientara’s life’s work. Some things—the impact of a guy who wanted to build his own amps, of a studio space where artists were allowed to be exactly who they were—can’t be measured.