Don Zientara | photo by Catherine Riccio

Interview with Don Zientara of Inner Ear Recording Studio by Alex Vidales

Jul 05, 2022

The Time I Took L.S.D. with Don Zientara

Don Zientara is best known as the owner of Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Va. Beginning with Dischord #1 (The Teen Idles Minor Disturbance EP), he has worked on most of the label’s releases over the past twenty-three years.

What a lot of people don’t realize, is that Don was also somewhat known under the singular code name “DOS” (pronounced “DOSE”) in the acid scene of the ’60s in Greenwich Village. Too cool to be noticed among the contemporaries of the era, the Beats were certainly inspired by him, as they saw Don wandering from block to block with his head “in the clouds,” to use the parlance of the times, a heart full of Everly Brothers’ songs and a penchant for fast living. Though barely recalling anything from those years, art and especially music were foundations that carried him through a party lifestyle that nearly seduced him into a life of debauchery.

Don doesn’t give many interviews; he isn’t a recluse, but he hesitates to be recorded on matters of history. Don’s physical studio, the second with the name Inner Ear, was sold by his landlord to Arlington County, and is set to be demolished to install an “arts district.” Read that again. To install an arts district. When a musician friend of Don’s attended a council meeting to understand this decision, she raised concerns for the studio. No one on the county board, including the person in charge of the soon-to-be-installed arts district, had ever heard of Inner Ear Studio; though to be fair, they likely probably didn’t know anything about the auto repair shops, storage facilities, or pet day care that were also being demolished.

A list of the albums Don worked on in some capacity, albums I call “seminal” in this interview too many times, is too long a list. Here are some bands you might have heard of that Don worked with very early in their artistic journeys and beyond in other projects: Bad Brains, Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Bikini Kill, Scream, and Rites OfSpring.

[As the fog starts to lift, I wake up. Don has lit several candles and placed them through the room. It’s been hours of tripping pretty hard. We’ve been listening, on repeat, for the last five hours, the album with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and my mind cannot take hearing “Mañana Iguana” one more fucking time. As I turn off the music, Don starts to yell at me.]

Records Don Zientara worked on

Alex: A lot of people are drawn to punk music because they’re in pain, and it resonates with them. Because, I think, they hear the pain in the music. Or they hear, at least, the crying out. You know, like, “I feel, emotion,” emo.

Don: Exactly, matter of fact, there was just that article—you probably read it, too—about the guy, the frontman for the Screaming Trees, which is a very sad article. Obviously he went through a lot and sometimes the pain is self-inflicted.

Alex: I think the hardest part for people to realize is that most of life is self-inflicted pain-ish. If you don’t choose some kind of pain, you don’t really exist. To decide that you want to love someone is to decide one day to lose someone who you love. To decide to build a business is to decide one day to lose that business. And so there is some amount of pain that you will experience in life. You have no choice. Or you can just sit and not experience, if that’s what you want to do.

Don: Right? Yeah, exactly. If you don’t connect yourself to your reality, what’s going on around you, you can avoid that pain, and some people do. As a matter of fact, I know one person who fits in the category, but it seems to me like a very unsatisfying life.

Alex: Yeah, you gotta get chips in the game.

Don: Exactly.

Alex: And you’re gonna lose some of the chips. We’re not talking about people who are living paycheck to paycheck. Barely scraping by. Those people, they already have all their chips in the game. But at some point, you’re gonna be able to eke out a little extra, and then when that moment happens, you’ve got to sometimes risk something in order to get something else.

Don: Yeah.

Alex: And that’s really hard. It’s really hard because you might lose stuff.

Don: Absolutely. Definitely.

Alex: Could you describe Inner Ear Recording Studio? If someone were to say to you, “What was your studio? What did you used to do? What was the building you used to be in?”

Don: Okay. Well, they’re two different things. The studio is basically a recording studio. We do audio recording in it.

Alex: And some would say that there were some seminal albums recorded there, as they pertain to punk culture.

Don: A big thrill [laughing], I mean, you know…

Alex: But, some would say “seminal.”

Don: Well, sure. Yeah, some. Yeah.

Alex: I looked it up on Wikipedia.

Don: But that’s what recording studios do if you’re in one place long enough—I mean, you’re gonna run into that.

Alex: So how would you describe what was lost when the building is or will be torn down? What’s actually lost at that point?

Don: Well, me moving out of the studio. The studio is lost, obviously, that place that I can record in…

Alex: But nothing culturally was lost.

Don: No.

Alex: That’s all put on tape.

Don Zientara | photo by Catherine Riccio

Don: Sure, sure. I mean what they did, the bands and the musicians. So that’s all there.

Alex: So, it’s really just your livelihood that was attacked more than anything.

Don: Yeah, exactly.

Alex: So how does that resonate with you, as an artist and as a person who has given so much to the artistic community?

Don: If there was ever going to be a way to get out of the studio—that was a very easy way because I had enough buffer time and had enough lead time and there’s nothing going in afterwards. So really, it was quite easy in that sense. Now I lost income, obviously, but I also lost having to pay rent.

Alex: Did the community lose something though?

Don: Oh, I don’t know. You could ask them.

Alex: I’m asking you. You’re part of the community.

Don: Yeah, but things change all the time. I’m not attached to the fact that something stopped. In other words, that stopped there. And what I’m doing, I mean, I’m not dead. [laughs] So there are things that happen and…

Alex: The machine keeps going.

Don: Yeah, exactly, the machine keeps going.

Alex: And it’s no one’s fault, but it’s not exactly like you were booked 24/7, 365. The studio’s busiest days were behind it at that point?

Don: Probably so? Studios are funny. It’s never a given that it’s a constant thing. It’s not eight-to-five or nine-to-five or whatever. There’s always gonna be ups and downs and ups and downs. So who knows what would’ve happened? With all the press, if all of a sudden they decide before I moved out, “Okay, we’re not gonna push you out”—the press may have helped and we may just be booked ten hours a day for the next thirty years. So nothing’s predictable. You can’t really tell.

Alex: And in terms of ways to lose something, what’s the list? Fire, somebody dies, a place blows up…. And the only thing that’s better is the place gets deemed a historical landmark and you win the lottery. That’s the only other outcome, and that probably wasn’t likely. But, given the importance that the studio had—not just in punk culture—you could probably argue that it had importance in culture in the United States, it’s relatively important . . .

Don: Sure.

Alex: So we didn’t lose anything with the loss of the building?

Don: You know, I don’t look at it that way really. You just have to sort of evolve as it goes along.

Alex: It’s a bummer that it’s gone.

Don: Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer. But you sort of grow into the changes and the changes bring nice things along with it, too. And you lose some other bad things that come with managing a place that big. You go into the utilities and all that stuff.

Alex: I saw you having to fix a pipe that had leaked underneath the sink.

Don: Right.

Alex: Yeah. You talk about having a career in recording, being a recording engineer. Did you ever imagine you’d be doing the plumbing under the pipes, too?

Don: Exactly.

Alex: It’s crazy DIY, right? DIY.

Don: Exactly. Very much.

Alex: So you’re still here. Thank god.

Don: I am still here. Yes.

Alex: I think the readers would be curious:—what’s your perspective, with the list of seminal albums that were recorded at Inner Ear Studio—ones that inarguably are at the keystone of punk culture. Do you have any perspective on what, as a participant in that, you added to that culture? Or do you have any idea of how you helped shape it? Because you did literally sonically shape it.

I’m a very bad person if you want to adore history.

Don: So I’ve been told. But believe me, I’m getting that feedback. I’m a very bad person if you want to adore history.

Alex: Yeah, I know. But that’s okay, because it’s still a relevant conversation.

Don: Sure it is. It’s very relevant. You can’t get away from history. History is there. But, as far as what was lost, what was gained, what it left in its wake, and all that stuff, leave it to other people to assess how much relevance it had. There were projects that were lesser than others and some were more major.

Alex: I’m sure you’ve heard bands come through and you can hear a little Minor Threat in there. You have a piece of that. There is a part of that that you have, right?

Don: That I recorded, yeah.

Alex: I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s not like things would have turned out exactly the same way had you not been there, right? Do you think?

Don: Sure.

Alex: You really think?

Don: I think so.

Alex: That’s fascinating.

Don: Yeah, well, you know, I’ve done stuff there. I’ve done stuff in the building and with the equipment we had and the way it was set up. The whole conglomeration was set up to do certain things and to get certain sounds.

Alex: But I’ve seen you, Don. You share time and space with these people. You resonate in a way that people notice—and instill that in their own lives—not because of you being a unique and special person, although you are. We all are, we’re all snowflakes.

Records Don Zientara worked on

Don: I’m very special.

Alex: We are all very special. We deserve awards, we all deserve ribbons. But when you’re working with people in that creative way, you’re also helping shape their worldviews for a certain amount of time, for the time and space that you’re sharing together. You’re of a collective mind for a certain amount of time.

Don: Sure. Of course, you’re getting away from the documentary aspect of it.

Alex: Yeah. Where am I now?

[Some people don’t think that this sort of thing happens anymore, that people take too much acid and get into a freak out. The last thing I remember at this point in the conversation is Don placing microphones at different parts of the room. He was wearing half of a bear suit, only the top half and no clothes at all on the bottom. He called it his bare ass bear suit. He loved this joke. I just wish he wouldn’t do it at all my birthday parties. I finally find some reality to latch onto as he’s mid-sentence.]

Don: Basically, I stand aside and you do your thing.

Alex: But that’s not all you do. I’ve seen it. That’s not all you do.

Don: No, it’s not. There’s a mix of stuff going on.

Alex: So, you don’t have a good bead on what you added to the mix?

Don: Absolutely not.

Alex: You’re very utilitarian.

In the general punk scene, I wanted to bring melody into the songs earlier.

Don: Absolutely, absolutely. The only thing I could think of is, in the general punk scene, I wanted to bring melody into the songs earlier.

Alex: And you did, right? You did help.

Don: Well, it eventually ended up that way.

[A lot of folks don’t think about these sorts of things, but in most moments I’m scanning a room for where there’s an available water source if needed. I take Don over to the closest, deepest liquid. A filled-up bucket will do. I dunk his head in what smells like mostly water.]

Alex: I’m still trying to get at—if punk is made up of this much stuff, what’s Don’s piece of the pie? You have a certain chill nature about you. I don’t know a lot of people who would call themselves punk who are necessarily chill, but there is a zen thread sometimes, when you meet an old punk.

Don: Uh huh.

Alex: Do you feel like you ever inserted any of that mood into the punk?

A punk philosophy is not exactly cherishing what you bring to things. There’s a good little side order of nihilism in there, or Dadaism, for sure.

Don: Probably so. But, you remember, a punk philosophy is not exactly cherishing what you bring to things. There’s a good little side order of nihilism in there, or Dadaism, for sure.

Alex: Tell me about Dadaism.

Don: Dadaism is basically where it’s at.

Alex: Tell me all about it.

Don: Okay. Well, it’s not here anymore. [Both laughing] That sums it up.

Alex: All right. What was your experience with Dadaism?

Don: What is my experience?

Alex: Yeah.

As soon as you value things too highly, you start collecting them, hoarding them, and putting them everywhere and all of a sudden you’re suffocating in your life.

Don: Well, I like the visual Dadaists a whole lot. And I think the whole philosophy of just not having a superior value to anything; I think that’s quite worthwhile. As soon as you value things too highly, you start collecting them, hoarding them, and putting them everywhere and all of a sudden you’re suffocating in your life. Yeah. And this goes for things and thoughts and everything.

[The room begins to fill with dolls, loads of dolls, bundles of dolls, bushels of dolls, a metric kilo-fuck-ton of dolls pours into the room. I’m not at peace with this.]

Alex: You’re surrounded by dolls.

Don: You’re surrounded by dolls. Yeah, you gotta watch out for that.

Alex: You gotta watch out for that.

Don: They come alive at night.

Alex: Oh, don’t even joke. That would be horrifying.

Don: They do. They grow big, long teeth.

[Some people say this couldn’t happen, but after an excruciating hour of staring at the largest amount of dolls that any visual cortex ever experienced in one sitting, we start to come down. The walls begin to breathe at a reasonable pace. Reality and reason begin their creep back into our worn out minds. The cruel pain this plane offers is a respite from the extraordinary, glorious pain that is offered on those cute little dots of chemical wonder. Just say no, kids…]

Alex: Sometimes I’ll name a seminal album and you usually have no memory, whatsoever, of that album. You remember the band, always remember the band. And a lot of times you even remember bands who you’ve only recorded one time thirty-five years ago. But if I mention an album: “I don’t really remember because we probably called it something else.”

Don: Put it down to Alzheimer’s.

Alex: Yeah, which is real. That’s why we’re recording this thing, you and me, both. So, is there a little bit of you glad that you’ve left some good shit? It’s nice to know?

That’s what life is about. I mean, satisfying, by accomplishing things.

Don: Absolutely. That’s what life is about. I mean, satisfying, by accomplishing things.

Alex: So let me ask you this. Tell the eighteen-year-old Don, “How do you get to where you are?” as best as you can.

Don: [laughs] There’s no way, I had no vision when I was eighteen. There was no vision.

Alex: Looking back, are you glad you had no vision? Because maybe if you had vision then you would have pursued something else.

Don: Let me put it this way. The vision was a little bit different. Picking up girls...

Alex: Well, yeah.

Don Zientara

Don: Having parties. Having a comfortable place to live. But, beyond that, there was nothing that mattered. It was, you might say, the essence of the Dadaism, where everything is ephemeral.

Alex: So then when did you start taking life seriously?

Don: Oh [both laughing], I probably will next year.

Alex: When did you start thinking that you might want to take art seriously?

Don: I think pretty much all my life. I’ve liked art, but in the general sense: music, visual, dance, poetry, whatever. I think poetry falls into “whatever.”

Alex: I love poetry.

Don: I think poetry is very nice.

Alex: My friend Dan Rittenhouse calls it, “As an art form, it’s the turd that won’t flush.”

Don: [laughing] That is a great line.It’s always gonna rise, float to the top.

Alex: We talked about how punk is, in your opinion—hot take—maybe a little softer today than it used to be when you recall it in the older days.

Don: Softer, in what way?

Alex: Yeah, so, softer in what way?

Don: I think people who started punk just grew up. And that did something where it’s softer, where they want more stability to it. Some of them want more recognition for it. Once you start getting into the recognition, then you think about, “Okay, well, what am I going to do going forward?” You want to do things that are noticed more, that are more significant in their own right, and maybe that are acceptable to people. You go down that road and you’re moving away from the razorblades and safety pins.

Alex: So punk seems like—as part of its ethos—there’s a certain way in which it needs to be played. Not exactly, but it’s within a certain boundary, would you say?

Don: Sure.

Alex: How would you describe that?

Don: Loud enough so that if you’re talking, you can’t have a conversation. And brash enough so that it’s in your face.

Alex: It’s certainly not something that can be ignored.

If you can ignore it, then it’s not punk enough. [laughs] I mean, punk is something outside the normal.

Don: Right. That’s one of the tenants. I mean, if you can ignore it, then it’s not punk enough. [laughs] I mean, punk is something outside the normal.

Alex: So how would you compare it to Dada?

Don: Well, Dada is more of a philosophy and it basically is saying that nothing matters. That’s simplistic, but that’s basically it. Punk was saying that for a while, but how many times can you say it before people say, “Oh yeah. Okay. Come on, let’s move on.”

Alex: Well, it’s kind of flipped. It’s almost like for it to be punk, it almost has to matter now.

Don: Right, and it always did matter. I mean, you can’t have anything that doesn’t matter. You’re always doing something that’s supposedly relevant. We’re doing this interview. Hopefully that’s relevant to a lot of people, unless I just delete it from my computer.

Alex: It would still be relevant. It would still be relevant to me.

Don: Well, if you took a pill that wiped your memory, then it would be totally not there, and it just doesn’t work like that at all.

Alex: So how, in your opinion—having seen the last forty/fifty years—you’ve seen the cultural landscape of art from a fairly broad perspective, you’ve been fairly in tune with it for a good amount of time now—either through your professional work, or even just the people who you meet through your professional work—how has punk shaped the artistic cultural landscape?

Anytime any sort of cultural reactionary thing grows out of a culture, I think it just helps in the sense that you tend to stand back and look at the culture better.

Don: Anytime any sort of cultural reactionary thing grows out of a culture, I think it just helps in the sense that you tend to stand back and look at the culture better. It’s like, when punk started, it was a reaction to the California sound and rock’n’roll, The Eagles and stuff like that. And by having this different kind of music you could look at the California sound—and also, it wasn’t just California, but everyone sort of says it like that—and you could say, “Ah, there’s something missing from that,” or “I kind of like B because A didn’t have that,” or you can go in the opposite direction and say, “I don’t like B because A was just fine with me.” It gives you a chance to look at those two things. It’s almost like, “Is the light from that lamp bright enough?” And you may say, “Bright enough for what?” I’ll say, “Well, let me turn on some other lights and tell me if this is too bright or not bright enough.” Until you start comparing it, it’s meaningless in a sense.

Alex: So it had to come along for there to be the alternative.

Don: Right. Exactly.

Alex: Punk’s a fairly mainstream thing now, right?

Don: Yeah, it kind of is.

Alex: So what’s the counter?

Don: I’m unsure if there’s a counter. Really, you have to move away, get away, time-wise, a few years from now. Then take a look back and see if there was a counter and there may not have been. There were breakoffs like grunge. It was kind of punk, but it wasn’t quite. It had some other elements in there. Someone may say, “I like grunge better than punk music.” There are some melodic punk bands and they may appeal to some. People may say, “Punk is just too… there’s no melody going on. People can’t sing. But I’m looking at this band and they’re doing kind of the same thing, but they’re singing and they have some nice stuff going on.”

Alex: I’ve seen you navigate people who I would describe as extraordinarily difficult, and I’ve seen you navigate around people who are really easygoing, just don’t give a fuck at all, which is its own sort of thing, right? But, you’re able to navigate those worlds seamlessly. You’re always the same Don around those people. Speak to the professional part of Don, and the personal part of Don, that makes that work for you.

Don: Oh, wow.

Alex: Do you notice that?

Don: No, I don’t.

Alex: Okay.

Don: I know it’s happening. I mean, I put a shirt and tie on for certain things.

Alex: I’ve seen you put the jacket on.

Don: Yeah. Exactly.

Alex: But you talk the same.

Don: Yeah, pretty much.

Alex: And you treat people the same?

Don: Yeah, I’m situationally aware, but I think everybody is, in a sense. No matter who you are, if you’re going into a different surrounding that has different philosophies, you dress differently. You may talk differently, walk differently, in a sense. It may just be a little tweak here and there, but it happens.

Alex: Sometimes people who are close to us stress out about that. They feel that being situationally aware and sometimes adjusting yourself isn’t being true to yourself. How do you feel about that?

Don: Well, probably so, a little bit. But are you true to yourself one hundred percent of the time?

Alex: Don, the truth is, I have no idea who I even am.

Don: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So you can manipulate that. You could say “tomayto” at times and, with other people, you could say “tomahto,” and you just don’t give a shit. And who cares?

Alex: We’re all just trying to get there.

Don: Yeah, we’re just trying to get there.

Alex: Just trying to get there.