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In the late 1970s, Don Zientara—-a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War—-founded Inner Ear Studio in the basement of his home in Arlington, VA, using the electronics training he received from the army. Inner Ear remained in Don’s basement until its 1990 relocation to a larger space on South Oakland Street. Along the way, Inner Ear became best known for recording iconic DC punk musicians including Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Bikini Kill, Rites of Spring, Mary Timony, and Fugazi.
Composed by photographer Antonia Tricarico, The Inner Ear of Don Zientara is an oral history of not just Inner Ear’s recordings, but the role that Don played in creating one of the most welcoming and nurturing recording studios the world over. Alongside 250 photographs, this volume includes testimonials from members of Fugazi, Scream, Fire Party, Shudder to Think, Jawbox, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dismemberment Plan, as well as musicians like Kathleen Hanna and Henry Rollins, among other notables.
In addition to DC punk bands, Don also recorded many other styles and genres, including Celtic folk tunes, harp music, Russian balalaika groups, political advertisers, and choral singers. The studio was also featured on Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways television mini-series. The Inner Ear of Don Zientara pays tribute to this iconic studio, celebrating the man at the heart of this remarkable space.
I remember vividly the night I first heard Minor Threat.
I was a mid-'90s teenager and barely familiar with hardcore. By that time I’d heard some later Bad Brains, some Black Flag, and a few newer bands my older friends were into.
On a lark, I decided to try the Minor Threat Complete Discography CD. Standing in the store, I was instantly impacted by the joyless image of Alec Mackaye on the cover. The song titles on the back seemed so powerful. Without ever hearing it, I was hooked on this band.
I got it home to my bedroom, tearing open the cellophane and feeling the creak of opening the brand new jewel case as it revealed the “Bottled Violence” art on the shiny red disc. I remember how my cheap boombox felt when you would press the button, feel the feedback resistance and hear the hiss of the CD starting to turn.
Then it happened. I heard the gnarliest guitar sound my young ears had ever experienced. It didn’t sound like Johnny Ramone or Mick Jones or even Greg Ginn. It sounded broken. It sounded awful. Like Sonic Youth level noise, but faster and sloppier and a guy with an annoying voice started screaming. I hated it. I forced myself to listen to it all that night, because I’d spent all the money I had on it.
After a few days, I started to like it. I listened to it over and over on a dubbed cassette in my car. Eventually, they became my favorite band only a few years later. The guitar had been so off-putting on the first listen now seems so brilliant and perfect and risky.
The man who recorded every second of Complete Discography, as well as most of the early DC hardcore, was Don Zientara. His fingerprints are all over the recorded history of American punk. His home studio, Inner Ear, hosted classic '80s DC bands before moving to a “proper” studio.
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Subtitled, "A Half Century of Recording in One of America’s Most Innovative Studios, Through the Voices of Musicians," Antonia Tricarico's photo-filled (250!) book on Don Zientara [Tape Op #8] gives us a wonderful glimpse into who Don is, and what has made his Inner Ear Recording Studios one of the most culturally-important places to make records in the U.S. We hear about sessions with Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bikini Kill, Foo Fighters, The Dismemberment Plan, and so many others.
A wonderful interview with Don by John Davis starts the journey, and soon we're in Don's basement studio for "The Basement Years (1972-1989)" and the beginnings of Inner Ear. With "Inner Ear (1990-2021)," we see construction and wiring photos once the studio has moved into a commercial space, and the bulk of Don's recording history plays out here. Many people we have interviewed in Tape Op over the years pop up in the oral history, including John Frusciante, Ian MacKaye, Geoff Turner, Chad Clark, Brendan Canty, and Guy Picciotto. The book wraps up with thoughts from his wife and daughters, some recent photos of the studio (now back at the original home digs), and ends perfectly with pix of Don surfing, something Tape Op's John Baccigaluppi has been known to join him in (see John's blog post HERE).
Just like Don's determination to have a studio open for helping anyone and everyone make records, this book gives us a documentation of so many of the people who have captured music at Inner Ear, and in doing so sets a standard for artistic openness and nurturing creativity in all forms that so many of us should hold ourselves up to. Thank you Don Zientara, and thanks to Antonia Tricarico for providing a wonderful glimpse into the life of this selfless lover of the arts.
Do you ever wonder what people would say about you at your funeral? Recording engineer Don Zientara will never have to wonder. The Inner Ear of Don Zientara commemorates the man and his legendary recording space, Inner Ear. Some may already know of this Washington, DC, studio. For those who haven’t, it’s where many legendary DC bands recorded, such as Bad Brains, Fugazi, Minor Threat, and most bands on Dischord Records.
Zientara is still an engineer, but 2021 marked the end of Inner Ear’s recording studio space. What originally started in Zientara’s basement has now moved back there. With the passing of the actual studio space, it felt like an appropriate bookend for a work like this to be produced. Photographer Antonia Tricarico composed a number of historic and more recent photographs of Zientara, bands recording at Inner Ear, and the studio space to make this impressive hardcover coffee table book filled with large color photos.
The book is roughly arranged chronologically by albums recorded at Inner Ear. It’s divided into two parts: the studio at Zientara’s home (1972-1989) and the studio in its own building (1990-2021). What makes this book so genuine and appealing are the accounts of the artists who recorded at Inner Ear. Some are well-known, others not so much, but they all attest to the importance the studio and Zientara had on their music and lives. Additionally, the reader can get otherwise unknown insights into aspects of album recordings.
What comes through consistently is how sincere, friendly, and kind Zientara is and his support for the music scene. (Also noted often by writers is he’s tall—6’6”—wears flip flops everywhere, and likes bread and olive oil.) The role he played in supporting musicians and getting them to challenge themselves is highlighted. Zientara also provided a welcoming, inclusive space for anyone who wished to record in his studio. Additionally, there are words from Zientara’s wife, daughters, and engineers who recorded at Inner Ear, and an interview with the man himself, conducted by John Davis (who played in Q And Not U).
Growing up and seeing Zientara’s name on so many of my favorite albums has always made me curious about him. Was he one of the original punk rockers in DC? Was he some experienced super producer? It turns out he’s neither. Zientara is a gentle, generous individual who became a sound engineer almost by accident and happened to be at the right place at the right time to record DC punk bands (as well as acts from many other genres). In doing so, he secures his place as an integral part of punk rock history which The Inner Ear of Don Zientara attests to. –Kurt Morris (Akashic)
Midwest Book Review
Synopsis: In the late 1970s, Don Zientara (a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War) founded Inner Ear Studio in the basement of his home in Arlington, VA, using the electronics training he received from the army. Inner Ear remained in Don's basement until its 1990 relocation to a larger space on South Oakland Street. Along the way, Inner Ear became best known for recording iconic DC punk musicians including Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Bikini Kill, Rites of Spring, Mary Timony, and Fugazi.
Compiled and edited by Antonia Tricarico, "The Inner Ear of Don Zientara: A Half Century of Recording in One of America's Most Innovative Studios, through the Voices of Musicians" is an oral history of not just Inner Ear's recordings, but the role that Don played in creating one of the most welcoming and nurturing recording studios the world over.
Alongside 250 photographs, the impressive volume includes testimonials from members of Fugazi, Scream, Fire Party, Shudder to Think, Jawbox, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dismemberment Plan, as well as musicians like Kathleen Hanna, Henry Rollins, among other notables.
In addition to DC punk bands, Don also recorded many other styles and genres, including Celtic folk tunes, harp music, Russian balalaika groups, political advertisers, and choral singers. The studio was also featured on Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways television mini-series. The Inner Ear of Don Zientara pays tribute to this iconic studio, celebrating the man at the heart of this remarkable space.
Critique: A unique and very special compendium of photos and commentaries, "The Inner Ear of Don Zientara: A Half Century of Recording in One of America's Most Innovative Studios, through the Voices of Musicians" is a coffee-table style (11.2 x 0.8 x 10.1 inches, 2.75 pounds) volume that will be a highly valued and enduringly appreciated contribution to personal, professional, community, and academic library American Music History and American Photography collections. It should be noted for the personal reading lists of anyone with an interest in music recording in general, and Punk Music History in particular, that "The Inner Ear of Don Zientara" is also available in a digital book format (Kindle, $26.49).
Editorial Note: Antonia Tricarico (http://www.antoniatricarico.com) has been taking photos since 1997. She worked as a photo archivist for Lucian Perkins (a Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer) and has collaborated with Tolotta Records, Dischord Records, Kill Rock Stars, and Youth Action Research Group. Her work can be found in private collections, in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, and in the permanent punk and go-go music exhibit and archive of the Special Collections Division of the District of Columbia, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Her photos have appeared in Photo Review, Guitar World, Kerrang!, Razorcake, and Fretboard Journal. She is the creator of two books, both published by Akashic Books: Frame of Mind: Punk Photos and Essay from Washington, DC, and Beyond, 1997-2017.
Library Bookwatch: May 2023
James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
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