Inner Ear Studio doesn’t have a neon sign on its door, a flashy building with modern designs or gold records on the wall.
What the Shirlington-area studio has is decades of experience recording D.C. artists, nurturing the local punk and independent music scenes, and, now, the cachet of being one of the eight studios in the country the Foo Fighters recorded in for their new album and TV show on HBO, Sonic Highways.
This Friday night at 11:00 p.m., on HBO, you can watch the Foo Fighters and Springfield, Va., native Dave Grohl record a song for the album at Inner Ear Studio (2710 S. Oakland Street), along with interviews and stories of Grohl’s time growing up around the D.C. punk rock scene. You can watch the preview for the episode on HBO’s website.
Inner Ear started in founder Don Zientara’s basement in the 1970s, when Zientara was in a band and needed somewhere he and his friends could record.
“I was in a band, and we needed to record a demo tape,” Zientara said while sitting at Inner Ear’s mixing board last week. “I had always had tape recorders, but I had a decent one at that time. I borrowed microphones, bought a basic mixer. People started to hear that I had equipment, which was not typical at the time.”
Zientara traveled around D.C. with the recording equipment in his backseat, bringing it to different independent musicians’ houses, or hosting them in his basement. “I happened to drop into the indie music scene at the right time, because it was really not supported by major studios here.”
In 1979, Zientara started the business, doing it as a side project until 1985, when it was successful enough to do it full-time. It was in his basement that Grohl recorded with the band Scream, before he joined Nirvana.
“I remember walking down into that basement as if it were Abbey Road,” Grohl told the Washington Post. “‘Oh my god, Rites of Spring recorded here!’ It was like hallowed ground to me. And then later on, I recorded at the new facility after I was in Nirvana — I recorded some stuff there with my sister and one of those songs ended up on the first Foo Fighters album. But it was cool to see our bass player, Nate [Mendel], walk down the hallways and look at all the albums that had been made there, realizing that the soundtrack of his youth was on the walls.”
In addition to Rites of Spring, Zientara has recorded Fugazi and Minor Threat, three of the bands that defined the halcyon 1980s era of punk rock in D.C. In 1989, Inner Ear moved out of Zientara’s basement — “my wife said ‘you gotta get out'” — and into its current location, and it has continued to record local artists, unbeknownst to many in the area, ever since.
“I had a simple, and one might say ‘crappy,’ system when I started,” Zientara said. “But the stars were there all in a line. This is very serendipitous.”
Last year, Zientara received an email from Grohl asking if he’d be willing to host the Foo Fighters and the HBO camera crews. In February, for a week, there were dozens of people in Inner Ear’s four-room space putting the show together. Zientara was impressed, he said, because recording in a whirlwind, in an unfamiliar place, can be challenging for artists.
“You really have to be a great musician and know your stuff really well,” he said. “It’s a new place, you’re only doing one song here. You have to acclimate to the system. It’s a crazy way to do it, but they took it all in stride and it worked out well.”
Zientara played a “rough cut” of the song the Foo Fighters record at Inner Ear, Feast and the Famine, for a reporter. The hard-driving guitars and Grohl’s trademark scream make it undeniably a Foo Fighters track, but, if you watch the show on Friday, listen for references to D.C., including one lyric about 14th and U Street NW.
Other local references have crept into Foo Fighters songs. “Weenie Beanie” was a track on the band’s first album — a reference to the hot dog stand located just a couple of blocks from Inner Ear Studio. The band’s 2011 album, Wasting Light, included a track titled “Arlandria.”
This afternoon, the Foo Fighters announced they would be playing a show at the Black Cat on Friday, at 1811 14th Street NW, before the show airs, and then hosting a screening of the D.C. episode.