Recording Connection mentor Don Zientara on Punk, Recording Mimes, and Other Stuff
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Get two engineer/musicians on the phone talking about music and gear and you can get quite a conversation going. With more than three decades in the business, record producer, audio engineer and musician Don Zientara is a downright legend in the punk music scene (just see his Wikipedia page).
He’s worked with basically everyone who was blazing the trail in punk back in the early 80s (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains) and he hasn’t stopped sense. So, it wasn’t surprising to see our interviewer, a touring musician and audio engineer who will remain nameless for now, had a fantastic time hearing what Don had to say about punk, recording, and his somewhat circuitous path into the business. We touched base with Don just shortly after he’d had Dave Grohl, Butch Vig and the Foo Fighters in to record at his Inner Ear Recording, located in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of D.C.
ON DAVE GROHL
Zientara: He can play many instruments. You know, there’re just a lot of sensibilities that he has for both the studio and music. Just hanging around and playing with people… By giving of yourself unto other people’s projects, you find out things. And he [Dave] did that. He just sort of absorbed it. He absorbed habits and he absorbed different little tricks of the trade. And all these things are just very, very important. And it shows, too. You know, when he’s here, I learn things. And when the group was here, I learned things. They just have – I don’t know, they’re good in that way. But you know, for that matter, most professional musicians are that way. They are very quick learners and they’re sponges for any kind of skill or new skill or thing that comes along that will help them in their craft. Like any professional. You know, if I was a plumber, I’d want to know of a new kind of plumbing supplies or whatever. So it’s that way.
THE LONG, LONG STORY OF HOW DON GOT INTO MUSIC AND RECORDING
Zientara: Basically, back in elementary school I had friends that were involved in electronics and putting stuff together, wiring circuitry, you know, getting huge electrical shocks and things like that. And they were basically just really, really smart. There were a couple of guys that stand out. They were very smart. And, you know we hung out together. This is a little community in upstate New York. And we basically knew each other and they helped me out when my mother had the idea that I had to learn an instrument because it’d be sort of good for my musical discipline or whatever. So I had a choice between either accordion or guitar at the time. This is a Polish community, so…
The accordion of course was a very versatile instrument. But at the time, Elvis Presley was up on the rise and I thought, “Yeah man, this is cool. I’m gonna do the guitar.” So I got the guitar and I started playing it and I laid it down after a couple of years and stopped taking lessons and things like that. But then I picked it up again just by happenstance and started getting into it and started getting into electric guitars. You know, in a small way. You know, Kent guitars and things like… anything you could buy for less than 30 bucks, I might’ve bought. And I did not have an amplifier. I had a tape recorder, though. I always liked, kind of, tape recorders. And I’ve always enjoyed them. But 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 came on… 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. So I sort of got into that world where you’re sort of into scavenger electronics. And all this time I really enjoyed tape recorders, just messing around with them at the time. Of course, this was in the ’50 and early ’60s so they weren’t too advanced in that state. And then just hopping a little bit I started playing in groups and bands and musical groups all through high school and through part of college, too. But in college I got into art… And I enjoyed it quite a bit. I got into the visual arts and it really was very, very satisfying. All this time, I was keeping tabs on music, playing music, playing guitar and recording. Recording myself, recording my friends in a very, you know, rudimentary, very, very basic way.
There was a lottery draft back in the late ’60s, where instead of the draft, they figured a more equitable way to do it would be to put all the 365 days of the year into a big spool of barrel and pick one out and pick them out as they go along. And the first one would be the first in line for a draft, and the second one would be the second in line. But I got number one.
RRFC: Oh, wow.
Zientara: So I was going to the army. And I figured this is a perfect opportunity to learn some electronics. So at the time they had a guaranteed program, where if you signed up you could pick your school you went into. And I picked an electronics training school. And obviously you’d work in electronic training or radios and things like that after that. So I went through all basic and stuff like that and waiting for the school and waiting some more and waiting some more. Eventually got called into the headquarters there and they said, “Look, we know you’ve got this guarantee for electronics training, but right at this moment there’re a lot of people who are entering into that school. And we’re gonna honor your guarantee, you may have to wait a little while, but if you want there just happens to be an opening for an artist in Washington, D.C.” And so I said, “Well, okay, I’m game.” You know, I knew painting and I knew how to draw and stuff like that. So I came down here and that was it. I spent all my time in my army here in Washington, D.C.
But the way it worked out, I was here and after I got out of the army, I was [working] at the National Gallery of Art…and on one of the occasions, I can’t remember exactly when…there was a tour through one of the studios, recording studio, audio recording studio they were building for the guides, for the tours and little things like that. And they came up… kind of problem with wiring, how to get a certain power supply in. And I say, “Well, here 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.
Zientara: 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. I recorded people basically for the cost of the tape that I put on my recorder. And just did a lot of it. And then, here we are. You know, what? Thirty five years later, 35-40 years later.
RRFC: Well, I like how you glossed over, like, all the amazing albums that you, you know, put together and just say, “Here we are now.” But, you know.
HOW PUNK FOUND DON
Zientara: Yeah, but you know, if you hang around long enough you do some stuff. And that’s what was done. I mean, you know at the time we just fall into things. I guess one of the things that I learned from a lot of the people I was around was grab every opportunity. And I just would… “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. And you know, I’m just gonna sort of build up this resume or whatever you call it.” And I did that with both the punk music that was here… I did it with every music that I could possibly be in contact with. And they were the ones that just happened… I happened to be in contact with through a number of serendipity-type of things. There’re some strange connections that were just connected up. But that basically got me into it.
And as far as just like connecting with the punks themselves, I had a friend from a band that was in, that knew I had a tape recorder and we’re talking about a stereo tape recorder. And he got into another band after our band broke up and he said, “Hey, we’re playing at this place, can you record us?” And so I brought my tape recorder down and there and schlepped the mics and everything and recorded them. But at the time, there was a kind of punk or alternative band that was playing at the same bill with them. And they say, “Can you record us at the same time?” And I said, “Well, sure.” So I did that. And they happened to be connected up with one of the mainstays, Skip Groth, of the punk scene in D.C. at the time, who ran a record store here. And he sent a lot of punk groups here. Some of the things that they… he introduced me to a lot of people who were in the punk scene. Remember, these were sort of musical outcasts at the time and no one would go to their shows. No one would want to book a show with the punks. 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, Skip, you know, 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 the thing.
And I guess just putting yourself in that situation brings you in contact with just a lot of different forms of music and a lot of different people. And it was enjoyable. It was totally, totally enjoyable. I learned a lot, I just enjoyed a lot. The fact that… you know, you mentioned some of the albums I recorded. I think that some of them were probably not recorded in the best way possible, but you know I did what we could with the equipment we had.
ON RECORDING OTHER STUFF
RRFC: Well, what’s like the favorite thing that you recorded that people may not expect?
Zientara: Probably choral music.
RRFC: Choral music?
Zientara: I enjoy it quite a bit, yeah. Yeah, I enjoy the harmonies and the interweaving of the voices. I don’t do much of it, but when I do I find that I could bring some of that back when I… well, just next week, we start on the project Monday. A pop band. And some of the pop harmonies are… you know, you could really use that technique, the way the voices weave each other into the song and the melody. That, I guess recording, people say, “You recorded a mime?! What do you mean? They don’t say anything!” Well, you know, they need something to back up their act. And it’s almost like background music, but at the same time, for a mime it’s even more crucial because there’s nothing else going on other than the visual.
Zientara: Just anything. Wacky things. Just every possible thing you could think of, you know. I’ve recorded narrations, slide shows, everything. Everything you could think of.
Check out Part II of our interview with Don Zientara!