Electronic music has no shortage of genres, which themselves have no shortage of subgenres: dark wave, deep house, Dutch house, trance, glitch hop, trip hop, hard bag, dream dance. Even ambient has its own entourage of dark ambient, deep ambient, drone, space and ambient dub.
But the ambient sphere is where Nick Mellis, 59, likes it best, in the interstices between music that can be completely atmospheric and yet primordially compelling. It’s where sound gets in you, rather than asking to shake any moneymakers. Ambient music, to Mellis, is cosmic. Almost holy.
It’s fitting, then, that Mellis wants to bring ambient and space music to the world one Unitarian Universalist church at a time. Mellis is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing, which is both the venue and the name-inspiration for an ambient/space music concert series called Cosmic Crossings Mellis has put together.
The series, which also utilizes the Dorothea Dix Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Bordentown, showcases live performances by electronic artists “playing ambient, experimental, and space music, accompanied by unique lighting and multimedia visual effects,” according to the series’ website, CosmicCrossings.org.
Cosmic Crossings will present its next live show on June 17 at UUCWC. The show will feature The Melting Transistor a.k.a. Juan Garces, Floyd Bledsoe and Karl Fury. Garces and Bledsoe play the synthesizers and keyboards, and Fury handles the stringed instruments and synthesizers. The band has performed on WPRB’s Music with Space radio show and the Event Horizon Series at the Rotunda in Philadelphia, among others.
Mellis, a lifelong Lawrence resident—as a matter of fact, he still lives in the same house he grew up in on Harmony Avenue, and yes, the street name does pair well with his absolute love of music—is the “visionary, promoter, organizer, lights and sound, band recruitment” guy behind Cosmic Crossings, he says. He describes his interest in doing the series as a labor of love without the burden of performing.
In other words, and probably quite surprising to some, Mellis is zero percent musician.
“I never played a lick of music in my life,” he says. “I do this purely for a love of music.”
Mellis’ reasoning is, perhaps like his favorite genre of music, simple yet profound: He doesn’t want to get sick of the music he loves so much. Making music, he says, would become work, and frankly, he doesn’t want to do work when it comes to music.
“I’m blissfully lazy,” he says. “I don’t have to get up on a stage and strum a guitar. I just love to be the audience.”
Still, he does admit that putting Cosmic Crossings together is a bit of work—it’s an ongoing, recurring series of shows that began at UUCWC last fall—but at least he’s not doing it for the money. In fact, no one is doing it for the money, even the artists, some of whom are pretty solid names in the ambient music world. Tickets for any show are $10, and all of the gate goes to the church. The concerts are a fundraiser, and Mellis says everyone knows that going in. Which also makes them happy because there are no performance contracts or sales-to-seats ratios to considered. Just the music.
Mellis’ love affair with electronic music began in the mid-’70s. At the time he was an old school prog-rocker who went to see Peter Frampton open for Yes. His friend talked him into staying for the main show, and Mellis says, “my mind was expanded.”
Around the same time, Mellis went to the movies. It was a little-remembered film called “Sorcerer,” which featured a soundtrack by the German electronic music collective Tangerine Dream. The music, Mellis says, was what he didn’t realize he’d always been looking for.
Mellis calls Tangerine Dream one of the three legs of “the holy trinity of this kind of music.”
The other two legs are Kraftwerk and, “the granddaddy of ambient music,” Brian Eno, he says. If he were to add a fourth leg to the holy trinity, Mellis says it would be Jean-Michel Jarre.
The idea to gather ambient musicians at UUCWC stemmed from a similar series (now defunct) of folk music concerts at the church that ran over 20 years, Mellis says. More directly, though, he was inspired by the Gatherings concert series in Philadelphia, which features live ambient/electronic/experimental music and light shows. He figured it would be fun to put a similar live program together at his own church, and, so far, it’s been a lot of fun, he says.
One other thing to mention about Mellis is, if his name sounds familiar in political circles, you’re not imagining it. Mellis co-founded the Green Party of New Jersey in 1995. He’s also run for local office on the Green ticket and, currently, lobbies in Trenton for more ethical government.
“We have a lot of social justice causes,” he says. “We’re looking to raise the moral standard in Trenton.”
Outside of his lobbying and series coordinator titles, Mellis is an otherwise unassuming bus driver for an adult daycare center in Mercer County. He lives in Lawrence with his wife, Chris, a social worker and generally tireless supporter of her husband’s love for all things aurally ambient. The couple met “in our 40s,” he says, at a breast cancer fundraiser dance in Philadelphia that both went to with no interest in meeting someone.
“She asked me to dance, and we never stopped talking,” he says. “It’s been almost 20 years.”
Eventually, the bus-driving, program-coordinating, politically active Mellis says he’d like to expand the offerings of Cosmic Crossings to other Unitarian Universalist churches. He says the shows are a natural and beautiful fundraiser, and the musicians love playing inside acoustically pleasing buildings like churches.
The musicians, by the way have come from as far as Europe and are happy to do stopover shows at UUCWC while touring the United States, Mellis says. And if you’re wondering how he’s managed to snare some real names in the genre, like Jez Creek and Electronic Diamond, it’s through the magic of emailing them and asking.
Ambient and electronic musicians, Mellis says, are not opposed to making money, but they are aware they’re not going to be Beyonce-big. Instead of fame, these typically quiet artists do it because they love it. And performing live, outside their home studios, he says, gives them a chance to see and hear how people react to and enjoy their work.
Mellis recently heard a phrase that captured him like a tangerine dream: “Art is the public expression of love.”
“That really sums it up,” he says.