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Inside Soon-To-Be-Demolished Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios

Arlington’s Inner Ear Recording Studios is secure in its place in music history, no matter what happens next.

The venerated recording music studio tucked away on S. Oakland Street in the Green Valley neighborhood, near Shirlington, is where some of the region’s most iconic punk and rock acts have recorded.

Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and, one of the biggest acts in rock, the Foo Fighters, all have plied their trade here in this nondescript, gray building that sits between a brewery and a used tire shop.

There are first pressings of albums recorded there hanging on walls, memorabilia strewn about, and equipment new and old line the studios. The place looks lived in, likely a product of numerous all-nighters and decades gone by.

Some have called it the Abbey Road of Arlington, comparing it to the famed London studio that the Beatles recorded in.

But owner Don Zientara balks at these comparisons and accolades. For him, Inner Ear is home, where he’s been recording music for the last 31 years.

“Sure, I’ll take it but I don’t know” he tells ARLnow. “I just do the work and do the best we can.”

This piece of Arlington and music history, though, will soon come crumbling down.

Earlier this year, Arlington County bought the property that Inner Ear has called home for a generation. The $3.4 million sale was part of an agreement made in June 2019 between the county and the property owner. The plan is to demolish the buildings there, including the recording studio, to make way for an arts and industry district, including space for festivals, markets, movie screenings, and concerts.

Arlington Cultural Affairs director Michelle Isabelle-Stark told the Washington Post that they were essentially saving the property from being bought by a private developer that would put a “self-storage in there.”

Zientara tells ARLnow he’s “all for that” plan and doesn’t seem all that phased about the recording studio’s impeding physical demise. The building, with a leaky roof and dull gray exterior, itself isn’t in great shape, he admits.

While a music studio would certainly fit into an arts district ethos, Zientara — who has a background in electronics — doesn’t think the county would be up for managing one.

“It takes a lot,” he says. “You have to keep it running, keep it working, keep all of the components working, which means a lot of repair and maintenance.”

The county says that Inner Ear has until the end of the year to vacate the premises. Zientara said he doesn’t know when they are actually leaving. Meanwhile, he’s tying up loose ends, moving equipment, and recounting memories.

Last month, (local) rock icon Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters stopped by to record with Northern Virginia-based punk pioneer Scream.

“Yeah, [Grohl] came in. Had some hot dogs and hamburgers,” Zientara says, sounding not all that impressed. “He played some timbales… there’s a lot of people that come through. When you stick around a long time, that happens.”

When asked about his favorite memory here, Zientara says it’s like asking “what’s your favorite breakfast?,” as in every memory is a good one.

“Is it pancakes? Is it eggs? Is it huevos rancheros? A breakfast burrito? All of it is good, just really good.”

Zientara isn’t necessarily done yet, though. While Inner Ear will no longer exist in its present place or form, he’s starting the search for other locations.

“I want a house, garage, whatever. Anything,” he says. “Some place that’s set up… a storefront costs more. Plus, it attracts attention. I don’t need that. Studios don’t want attention.”

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