By Ed Staskus
“Keep truckin’, like the do-dah man, together, more or less in line, just keep truckin’ on.” Grateful Dead
Before there was the Sacred Mounds, before there was Christoph Eize, before there was a server at Moby Dick’s on Route 6 in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, who knows all the lyrics to all the Sacred Mounds songs, there was Christopher Manulla.
“I don’t even know all the lyrics myself,” said Christopher Manulla, aka Christoph Eize, the singer songwriter lead man on the guitar of the band.
The Sacred Mounds are an eclectic go-your-own-way group as well known on Cape Cod as they are little known elsewhere, even though they have toured the East Coast, Rocky Mountain High, and Ireland.
“They are out of sight,” said Tony Pasquale on his ‘Helltown City Limits’ show on Provincetown’s radio station WOMR. When they are in sight, they are an original undertaking, an agile funky soul-spirited sometime psychedelic sound, sonic on the move, cosmic funny, hardly a cover to be heard, at heart all their own songs from start to finish.
They aren’t live copycats of the Billboard Top 100 Golden Oldies, not when Christoph Eize has more than three hundred songs of his own in his scrapbook.
“You are one hell of a prolific songwriter,” said Tony Pasquale, interviewing Christopher, and Luke Massouh, the drummer, anchor of the band. “You have a ton of stuff.”
“I have to tell myself, no more new songs,” said Christopher. “I’ve got thirty or forty in my head I’m still trying to get a grasp on.”
If time moves in one direction, and memory in another, a question begs an answer. Where is the Moby Dick man on Route 6 going with his storehouse of verse and chorus? Maybe there’s nothing to be all-over about. Like Aeschylus said so far back nobody remembers, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”
“When we first saw the Sacred Mounds we were astonished to see such a good band at a small club,” wrote Brian Tarcy in Cape Cod Wave Magazine. “It is as if Neil Young joined the Grateful Dead and incorporated a little bit of jazz. It is quite an original.”
”Am I a man that you recognize – when you see me, I’m a dreamer, and I’ll be what I want to be.”
“The original music being made on Cape Cod, if you take the time to look, will astonish you,” added Brian Tarcy.
Many musicians and bands on Cape Cod, from Crooked Coast to The Ticks to the Incredible Casuals, are originals because, like Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Even when they play covers, it’s often songs few have ever heard of. The Ticks say they only know their own songs. There’s no original sin on the sleeveless arm-shaped peninsula. Since they are writing and singing from the inside out, they can’t help being for real first hand prototypal.
Just like every natural pearl from every wild oyster is an original.
Before and after he morphs into Christoph Eize of Sacred Mounds, his alter ego on stage, Christopher Manulla was and still is Wellfleet’s Deputy Shellfish Constable. The Shellfish Department manages the town’s oysters, quahogs, clams, and bay scallops within a three-mile limit, issues permits, promotes crustacea and mollusk propagation, and monitors water quality.
The old whaling town on the seashore on the Outer Cape is a federal no-discharge area, clean as a whistle.
“It’s a complex job, mixing some law enforcement with public education, keeping tabs on our three-acre farm, talking to fishermen every day,” said Christopher. “There’s a little bit of psychology and therapy involved with that. It’s a 90% wake up happy going to work kind of job.”
Except for when he first came to the fair land on the seaboard.
After getting a degree in Park Management and Recreation, he was working at a nature center. On his way to a wedding, at his girlfriend’s friend’s grandmother’s daughter’s house, he was introduced to someone who at the end of the day offered him a job in Cape Cod with the Wellfleet Shellfish Department. However, the work was only part-time.
“I told him, I’m not going to move to Cape Cod for 19 hours a week. That’s crazy. He told me he’d get me full-time sooner than later. I got the job, but then found out the guy didn’t even work for the town. It was like Great Expectations.”
It took him four years to get steady real time full time.
“I just had to hold out. The Grateful Dead taught me how to survive on absolutely nothing, on peanut butter and jelly and pasta.”
In an earlier life Christopher Manulla grew up in Thomaston, Connecticut.
“That’s where I spent my growing pain years, until my parents bought my grandfather’s old place in New Hartford.” The new family home was a half hour north of his birthplace.
“It was a beautiful area.”
“Like a dream I drive on past, the spots where my childhood roamed, like a field seed blowing.”
His father, Randy, worked for the Hartford Courant, the local newspaper, and his mother, Virginia, taught grade school.
“She taught for forty years,” said Christopher.
In his spare time his father sang with Liederkranz, a German choral group, and his mother was in the Thomaston Ladies Choral Group. “Their singing was an influence on me, even though their semi-annual concerts weren’t exactly what a young kid wants to go see. Even still, I could always pick out their voices.”
Singing in a choir or choral group is a kind of therapy bought for a song. There’s a lot of harmony. It’s a sound raising high the roof beams that can heal the heart. It’s healthier than bending an elbow all evening or slouching in front of the boob tube that’s now the dazzling flat screen.
“In the end, for me, singing has become a way of releasing energy, a method of healing.”
By the time he got to 6thgrade he was playing the trombone and being fast-forwarded into the high school band. He quit in the 8thgrade. “At that point I could read and understand music, but the music I was being introduced to was boring. No jazz, or anything. That would have been great.”
“If you quit now, you’re going to lose everything,” his teacher told him.
“If I’m meant to play music, I’ll find it again,” he told his teacher.
He lay low in high school, at least until his senior year. “They were cloudy times,” he said. “I was very shy, until my senior year, when I started to get a little nuts and spread my wings.”
He bought a guitar. He graduated from high school. He attended Northwestern Connecticut Community College, on and off, finally earning his sheepskin eight years later. “I laugh at that, but it was fun. I spent most of my time at school playing chess and having conversations with psychology professors about how the brain works.”
In the meantime, he became a Deadhead, joining the fans of the Grateful Dead, followers who from the mid-70s traveled to see as many of the band’s shows and venues as they could. It was following a siren call. It was 1994 and he was twenty years old.
Jerry Garcia had a year-and-a-half left to live.
‘Dead Freaks Unite! Who are you? Where are you? How are you?’ was the catchphrase of the blues folk country rock jazz psychadelia hippie subculture counterculture movement.
“I’m feelin’ so confused, well, it’s hard, so hard to let it go.”
“I didn’t like my life at that moment. It was a leap of faith. I went with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and fifty bucks in my hand,” said Christopher. “I didn’t even know much about the Grateful Dead, but I felt like it was a calling. It was an adventure and I survived most happily for a whole tour.”
He and the friend who had made bold with him worked side jobs. He joined the Falafel Mafia, feeding the faithful from a food truck, the crew sometimes passing a deep-fried doughnut of ground chickpeas along when somebody asked to ‘kick down a kind falafel’, which meant a free falafel.
“It was inspirational for the music, for sure,” he said. ”The music was healing, dancing, and clearing the cobwebs of your mind away.”
Fronting the Sacred Mounds he mainly plays guitar.
“I don’t know theory anymore, I don’t know scales, like my school teacher said would happen. I call it playing blind. I’ve been doing mostly acoustic since 2006.”
His guitars are Martin’s from C. F. Martin & Company, established in 1833, known for their steel-string acoustic models, and led to this day by the great-great-great-grandson of the founding father. If melody imposes continuity, Martin’s are a kind of continuity you can always come back to. They don’t need any history lessons.
“I once got two guitar lessons,” said Christopher.
“You’ll learn faster by yourself,” the instructor said after the second lesson. “I will just keep you behind.”
“He kicked me out.”
When Christopher left Connecticut behind and moved to Wellfleet nearly twenty years ago, at the tail end of the summer season, he moved into a small spare room. He later moved on up, to an apartment of his own.
“It was the size of three pick-up trucks put together,” he said. “It was horrible. It was rough.”
“Remember what I say, why erase the truth, when it already happened?”
He still lives in Wellfleet, his adopted hometown, in a house with a studio attachment, living quarters more than sufferable.
“It is great.”
The Sacred Mounds – the duo of Christoph Eize and Luke Massouh – were almost a sacred mound themselves before they got off the ground. Christopher was in Hobo Village, a local band, playing at a restaurant where Luke was the bar manager. The band’s mandolin player and Luke got into it.
“I only heard his side of the story, so I thought Luke was an asshole,” said Christopher. “After that, every time we played that restaurant, we had it so that he wouldn’t be working that night. We were being assholes, too, I guess.”
One weekend, invited to shuck oysters and croon for a party in New Hampshire, he was surprised to see Luke there. Unbeknown, he had been invited, likewise. It’s a small world when it’s a turn of the cards. They got to talking over cold ones and crustaceans.
“Broken hearts are for assholes,” said Luke about the brouhaha.
“He used a Frank Zappa reference,” said Christopher. It put him in good stead. Christopher not only cites the Grateful Dead, but Chopin, Neil Young, and Frank Zappa as influences on his music making. ”I found out he didn’t mean any harm, was funny and intelligent, a good guy.”
He also found out Luke Massouh played drums.
“I threw songs at him and he played them as perfect as you can, hearing them for the first time.”
They have been the Sacred Mounds ever since.
Finding a bandmate on the 70-mile headland is no mean feat. Even though there is an abundance of talent on Cape Cod, there is a scarcity of people, especially in the off-season. “It’s like Jamaica four months of the year and like Russia the rest of the year,” said John Beninghof of Falmouth’s Old Silver Band.
It’s the sound of silence on the streets in the winter, muffled, chilled to the bone, nearly empty shore towns. Seawater freezes in the goose-bumpy sand dunes.
“This place turns into a ghost town,” said Christopher. “When I first came to Cape Cod I was pretty much a recluse. I didn’t mind being alone. Mostly everything is closed, but we find ways to socialize. Nobody can hide anything, anyway, because people here find out quick what you do. It’s when they don’t that rumors fly.”
Staying the course is no mean feat, either. The duo has been making music together – abetted by Matt Brundett, Jonathan Huge, Floyd Kellogg, and Kevin O’Rourke – for eight years running. “We’re basically two people, playing together, traveling, doing all sorts of fun adventures in the music world.“
They spend their summers on Cape Cod. “We’re the crew that doesn’t leave port,” said Christopher. “Everyone comes here, so instead of touring, we just drive five minutes and get paid, probably five times what we would on tour.” The lawnmower stays broken most of the summer. ”We used to beg to play, but now more often than not we get asked.”
If Christopher Manulla is the long arm of shellfish laws and regulations, on stage Christoph Eize learned his lessons by trial and error. “In the beginning it was scary.” Some performers suffer stage fright, sweating up a storm, blubbering midway through performances, stopping dead, their minds gone blank.
“You’ve got to learn through the falters,” he said.
He learned to get up on stage just the damp side of stone cold sober.
“You learn about what not to do, one of them being don’t be too crazy loud and don’t drink too much. I once early on watched eighty people leave the room. As my ego and heart were being destroyed, I realized it was a huge lesson about not being sloppy.”
“I was singin’ all day, thinkin’ about it all night, when things went wrong, when things went right.”
Sloppy is like a cafeteria tray of fast and loose food nobody cares about. Who wants to listen to an amateur missing the target? Better the professional who is ready to ready-aim-fire.
“I’m confident in our music and I’m confident with the band,” said Christopher. “Being on stage wasn’t always my safety place, but now it’s the most comfortable place for me to be. The minute it starts, I’m erupted with as much energy as possible. It’s a high, even sober.”
Some of his favorite stages are at the Lighthouse, the Harvest Gallery Wine Bar, and the small intimate stage under an old disco ball at the Beachcomber bar club restaurant on top of a dune as fat as a duck on Cahoon Hollow Beach. “It’s for people who figured out it was really cool to make it up into God’s country in Wellfleet,’ said Todd LeBart, one of the owners.
Last summer, as summer was breaking out of its shell on the Memorial Day weekend, and the Incredible Casuals, in some respects the house band, were finishing their first gig at the Beachcomber, Chandler Travis of the band was having a good time.
“That’s my job,” said Chandler. “God, what a great job.”
“Always our favorite summer night party,” said Christopher.
“I think it is fair to say that your life will not be complete until you have witnessed the sheer brilliance demonstrated by the Sacred Mounds,” said Chris Blood, the man who engineers the music at the nearby Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro.
Although nothing beats seeing them live, the alternative is the new recording ‘Mirror’ by the Sacred Mounds, featuring Christoph Eize and Luke Massouh and Floyd Kellogg on bass guitar, the latter recording and mixing the work, as well.
“In the beginning I wrote poetry and put music to it,” said Christopher. “Then I wrote music and added the words. Now I hit record, play what comes out, I kind of black out, and the next thing you know, there’s a song, pure from the source.”
It’s a short step from the sacred to the profane. One day at Wellfleet’s town dump, the Transfer Station and Recycling Center, dropping off trash, Christopher was beckoned to the nearby Swap Shop.
“Check this out,” said the man who had waved him over. “A CD changer.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked. “Horrible sound. Everyone’s doing MP3’s, anyway. Besides, I’m thinking of going back to vinyl.”
He checked himself.
“Do I sound like a grandpa now?”
‘Mirror’ is available as a CD, or download, and streams on Bandcamp. It is not available on vinyl. It is available straight from the horse’s mouth all summer long on Cape Cod.
Whether Christopher Manulla is old-fashioned or new-fashioned, plugged in or a grandpa, quiet or gabby, is an open question. “When I first meet people I’m kind of shy stand-offish. When I get to know you, you can’t shut me up.” Whether he is able to shift seamlessly from shellfish constable to musical mastermind is not open for question.
“If neo-pagan, psychedelic, shamanistic fuzz is your thing, look no further than the new Sacred Mounds album,” said Tony Pasquale, aka Tony Scungilli, on WOMR-FM. “Chock full of rock ‘em sock ‘em hooks and sonic soma. It will realign your karma.”
It’s like balancing your tires for the long strange trip ahead.
The getting it done side of the coin of karma is dharma. If karma is the good or bad payoff resulting from good or bad actions, dharma is the choices we make. Making wrong choices, or adharma, leads to bad karma. Making right choices, right action known as dharma, leads to good karma.
What downbeat side or highlight of karma does realignment lead you to if you cue up the rock ‘em sock ‘em of the Sacred Mounds? It’s hard to say. The only way to find out is to get to the starting time of the do-dah man’s show and truck on down to the finish line.
Photograph by Tony Pasquale
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.