“I’ve been doing this a long time, haven’t I?”
He says it like it’s a surprise to him. Recording Connection
mentor Don Zientara
seems to have trouble getting his mind around the fact that he’s been working in the music industry for upwards of four decades. In fact, talking with this unassuming producer/engineer and self-admitted gearhead, you’d never guess that he’s considered by many to be a giant in the annals of modern music history, having been a key figure in the emergence of the Washington, DC punk scene in the early 1970s.
You’d also never guess that he got there quite by accident.
As it turns out, the public was recently reminded about Don’s contributions to music when Foo Fighters
frontman Dave Grohl
featured him in an episode of the acclaimed HBO documentary series Sonic Highways
, bringing the band in to Don’s Inner Ear Studio
to track the song “The Feast and the Famine” for the album of the same name.
But as Don points out, that wasn’t the first time he and Grohl had worked together. Grohl grew up in the DC-area, and after the death of Kurt Cobain and the demise of Nirvana, Grohl returned to DC to record demos of some of his own songs with Don, for the purpose of recruiting the band that is now Foo Fighters. Don recalls working with Grohl, both recently and not-so-recently, particularly noting his openness to playing with lots of other musicians.
“He was always involved with musicians in terms of reaching out and playing with them, playing on their records, doing things like that,”
says Don. “He’s just that kind of guy…There are just a lot of sensibilities that he has for both the studio and music, just hanging around and playing with people. And also, by giving of yourself unto other people’s projects, you find out things. And he did that. He just sort of absorbed it. He absorbed habits and he absorbed different little tricks of the trade…And it shows, too. You know, when he’s here, I learn things. And when the group was here, I learned things.”
Interestingly enough, Don really had no aspirations of becoming a music industry icon—in fact, he relates that his interest in music was nominal at first, recalling that his Polish mother made him choose between learning accordion and guitar. (He chose guitar, he says, but put it down after a couple of years.) What he did love, though, was electronics, and tinkering with gear, which eventually rekindled an interest in guitar—particularly the electric guitar.
“Back in elementary school, I had friends that were involved in electronics and putting stuff together,”
he says, “wiring circuitry, you know, getting huge electrical shocks and things like that. And they were basically just really, really smart…I always liked tape recorders, I’ve always enjoyed them, so I got some of these friends to help me and show me how to wire up a tape recorder to use it so I could plug my guitar into it and play through it…And from there, of course, I got into the guts of tape recorders and things like that and then the guts of amplifiers. And we would scour trash day and try to find old Magnavoxes and, you know, if they had any usable amplifiers or, hey a cabinet, maybe we could use this for a speaker cabinet or something like that if there were usable speakers in there.”
That interest in electronics eventually came back to serve him after being drafted for the army, when he found himself working at the National Gallery of Art. “There was a tour through one of the studios, [a] recording studio they were building for the guides, for the tours and little things like that. And they [had a] kind of problem with wiring, how to get a certain power supply in. And I said, ‘Well, here’s what you do, you have to just wire it up like this.’ And they said, ‘You know how to do this stuff?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And they said, ‘Well, why don’t you become the engineer here?’ So I just sort of flipped from the artistic side. I became the audio engineer for the National Gallery. And then from that point on, I just stayed with audio and stayed with tape recording. And I just recorded everything I could possibly get my hands on.”
When Don says everything, he means everything. “One of the things that I learned from a lot of the people I was around was, grab every opportunity,”
says Don. “And I just would [say], ‘I’ll record you. You wanna record? Man, I’ll record you. I don’t care if you are death metal, I don’t care if you are folk rock, I don’t care if you are hair metal, pop rock, metal metal, anything. I will record you. And I’ll learn…I did it with every music that I could possibly be in contact with.”
It was that very determination to take opportunities that landed Don at the forefront of DC’s punk movement, recording influential bands like Fugazi
and Bad Brains,
mainly because in many cases he was the only one who would. “No one would want to book a show with the punks,”
he says. “I mean, they destroy things, they break things up, there’re fights and all kinds of other stuff. There’s blood all over the floor. And, as a matter of fact, when the Bad Brains were first here recording, [a friend] said, ‘Hey, why don’t you record these guys?’ And me, I don’t want to touch them. You know, they scare me. So I said, ‘Well hey, I’ll record them.’ You know, just anybody. I’ll record them. Like I said, I’ll record anything…These were sort of musical outcasts at the time, [but] today’s outcasts are tomorrow’s trendsetters.”
Don recalls that in the early days of the movement, he was recording bands using a mixing board he built himself, and the gear was subpar at best. But in his mind, it was all serendipitous. “At the time, everything lined up,”
he says. “The fact that I wasn’t using the best equipment, but the punks’ music really didn’t count on having utmost fidelity. As a matter of fact, what they wanted was the experience in the moment, just capturing the moment. And that was something that I could give them…It’s surprising, it’s gratifying. I’m very proud of it. I feel… you know, I definitely embrace being part of it.”
Nowadays, Don still operates Inner Ear, the studio that helped start it all, taking on a wide range of different clients. (Like he says, he’ll record anything.) As a mentor for the Recording Connection, he also gets a kick out of involving his students in the process. “I try to pass on some of my bad habits,”
he jokes. “I just enjoy showing people what I know because I don’t see any purpose in hiding any of it…You know, they want to get into the business, and you can tell that they enjoy it. They think it’s fun, and it is fun. I don’t know of any other profession that kind of gets that kind of emotional reaction from people.”
He’s also careful to mention that he’s not quick to judge which of his students are going to make it, and which are not. He says it’s basically up to them. “One of the things that I tell my students,”
he says, “and this is one of the reasons why it’s tough to tell who’s going to do well in the future, is that persistence and patience are the prime ingredients if you’re gonna do anything in the arts. And I consider engineering something in the arts, too, just as music is. And I tell the musicians this, I tell the engineers this. I mean, if you want to do something, you’ve got to keep doing it. The musicians I know that have at least had mild success are the ones that kept at it.”
As for Don? After nearly 40 years in the music industry, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. But remember, he didn’t take aim at a career in the music industry—he landed in it by taking opportunities when they came his way. So don’t pin him down to doing this for the rest of his life. “I believe, quite frankly, that’s something that’s never dawned on me,”
says Don. “At any moment, I expect to delve into painting and print making. The moment hasn’t come yet.”