Asif Illyas’ eureka moment came while shooting the Alan Doyle episode of his new YouTube online talk show, Live on the Flight Deck. The former Great Big Sea frontman was sitting in Illyas’ 737 aircraft cockpit simulator, discussing their proposed “flight” from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia. Doyle asked if they could detour south to Tasmania. “He just started talking about the fact that Tasmanians got made fun of by the rest of Australia, and that was something he connected with,” says Illyas. “Newfoundland had a similar thing, the outpost island out in the ocean. I never would have learned that, and if we weren’t in the simulator, he wouldn’t have been thinking about [it].” That was when Illyas knew his web series would fly. “This is cool,” he thought. “This could work.”
The “flight deck” is in the upstairs spare bedroom of Illyas’ Halifax home. The Shire, his self-built recording studio, is in the basement, where he does most of his work. These days he mainly scores music for the CBC, National Film Board, The Movie Network, and SuperChannel feature dramas and documentaries. But he’s also produced, played with, or arranged music for a long list of East Coast musical luminaries, from Lennie Gallant and Mary Jane Lamond to Kim Stockwood, Bruce Guthro and Ashley MacIsaac. Illyas had been in the band MIR (itself named for a space station), which was signed to Warner Music in Germany in the late ‘90s, and has garnered more than 30 East Coast Music Awards nominations over the years. He moved on to do more studio work when one of his children contracted Type 1 Diabetes, and he had to curtail his travel – and the frequency he flew – for family reasons.
It was a confluence of events about five years ago that sent the talk show idea to flight. Illyas’ love for music and his passion for aviation came together around the same time that he was discussing, with a friend, “What does a musician have to do to stick out above the static?” Blogs, podcasts, livestreams and video diaries came to mind, then he saw a couple of episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Illyas had already been toying with the idea of building his own flight deck simulator to help realize his dreams of flying – a love launched when he experienced a cockpit visit as a child en route to visit family in Sri Lanka. “The pilot actually let me sit in the captain’s seat and move the yoke a little bit, and I remember the plane doing a tiny tilt back and forth,” he says. “After that, all I could talk about was flying the plane.” The idea of using air travel as a doorway into personal conversation seemed natural to someone who had spent so much “down time” going from A to B.
“I thought about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and bandmates [on the road],” says Illyas. “When people travel, their guard is down.” Most of the nine episodes that have already been shot begin with an introduction to the guest and the end point to which they’re “traveling.” The destination has some significance for the guest, and opens a door for some personal chit-chat, before the guitars come out and the singing begins. Guests whose programs have already been recorded include Doyle, Joel Plaskett, Ria Mae, and Dave Carroll (a natural choice, with his airline revenge hit, “United Breaks Guitars”).
“I thought about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and bandmates [on the road]. When people travel, their guard is down.”
The link between recording and flying is not such a great stretch for a self-proclaimed computer nerd. Illyas had aspired to aeronautical engineering since childhood, but his capacity for making music pushed that dream aside. After winning a Grade 12 talent contest by performing a self-penned song with a band of friends, his drummer’s father (a doctor and recording studio hobbyist) encouraged him to continue in music. And he remembered something he’d read. “A long time ago a Popular Science article rated the top ten jobs that required technical knowledge,” he says. “Number one was airline pilot, and number two was recording engineer. It became a thing for me to think about them together.” Illyas admits that the aviation motif even turns up repeatedly in his own music, including his most recent release, the single “Your Love,” a duet with future Live on the Flight Deck guest Rose Cousins.
Along with the Tassie-Newfie parallel, Illyas has learned a lot of colourful trivia about some of his guests. Ria Mae confesses that she’s fine with flying and landing, but take-offs freak her out. Amelia Curran confirms that, yes, her parents named her after the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. You don’t have to guess what Dave Carroll had to talk about.
Illyas recently returned from a trip to Barbados, where he visited one of the few remaining Concorde aircraft for an upcoming Live on the Flight Deck episode. Once on board he immediately observed a startling sight: “I noticed that there were the same switches as on an old Beatles [era] recording console,” he says. “The connections are there between the electronics on a cockpit and on an old mixing board. The connection always made sense to me.”