As founder/owner of the Arlington, Virginia-based Inner Ear Studios, Don Zientara nurtured and helped young, disaffected musicians find their voices and assisted in having those voices heard, worldwide, no less.
He was producer/engineer on some of the seminal recordings of punk bands emanating from the environs of the Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area, including Minor Threat; Fugazi; and Dismemberment Plan, whose 1999 album “Emergency & I” was a near-instant indie classic.
Zientara is a legend in that world, and — lucky us — over the next few weeks, he’ll strap on his guitar and make his own voice heard on the OBX — along with Outer Banks drummer (and longtime friend) Gary Smith.
So, I reached out to the man himself. First things first: For a guy who rubs elbows with rock and punk royalty, he’s as humble and unpretentious as anybody I’ve ever encountered.
I asked him: How does a seriously credentialed cat like him — he’s 70 — come to get gigs on a sandbar? Zientara explained he had a band in the early ’70s, and decades later, he was reunited Smith (former owner of the Corolla Surf Shop) at a memorial service for a fellow bandmate. The duo decided to reconnect and book some gigs: Smith traveled north to D.C. several times to perform, and now Zientara — a longtime surfing enthusiast — is reciprocating by heading south to perform on Smith’s sandbar.
Zientara is revered in the punkisphere, but what’s his personal musical style, I wondered? Turns out, it’s more “pop-based. … It’s poppy, folky, alternative music,” he says. “It’s going to be a mix of a lot of original songs, but being at the beach, you can’t do all originals. They’ll want to hear something they know, so we’re gonna throw a lot of pop stuff in, from the ’80s, ’90s; basically, anything that’s really good music. I love music with melodies. I love vocal melodies.”
(Given that his early influences were the (early) Byrds, and one of his favorite songwriters was the late-Gene Clark, I immediately got it.)
I asked if he has any favorite musical moments on stage, when everything just clicks.
“There’s usually a lot of them every night,” he says. “You know, when things are just working well, and myself and Gary are totally in sync, and it’s almost like telepathy between us.”
His studied art at Syracuse University, earning a BFA in 1970, and he attended graduate school at West Virginia University, majoring in painting and printmaking, and studying paper construction and restoration. So how exactly did he end up as a central figure in the D.C. punk rock scene?
“My degrees are in art, painting and printmaking, specifically. I figured I’d make big bucks, but I had friends that were into electronics — fixing TVs at the age of 10, and whatnot. To make a long story short, I ended up at the National Gallery of Art. I was there for about 10 years in the prints and drawings room. Halfway through my time there, they gave some of the employees tours of new rooms that were opening up, and one was a recording studio. They were having trouble hooking up certain connections. I came in and told them, ‘It’s simple, just do this,’ and that’s how I ended up where I am now. … It was a serendipitous type of move.”
If you’re on The Banks when the duo is performing, that’s serendipitous, indeed.
Zientara will strap on his rehabbed Applause acoustic guitar and join Smith on stage for the following OBX gigs. All shows are from 6 to 9 p.m.:
• Tuesday, July 23: Ike's Bites 'n’ More, 814 Ocean Trail, Corolla. 252-597-3305
• Friday, July 26: Uncle Ike's Sandbar & Grill, 1159 Austin St., Corolla. 252-597-1606
• Saturday, Aug. 3: The Blue Point, 1240 Duck Road, Duck. 252-261-8090
• Tuesday, Aug. 6: Ike’s Bites
• Tuesday, Aug. 20: Ike’s Bits
• Thursday, Aug. 22: Uncle Ike’s