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Halifax musician launches new series

Asif Illyas poses in his home-built Boeing 737-800 simulator, where he does a new online show with guest musicians
Asif Illyas poses in his home-built Boeing 737-800 simulator, where he does a new online show with guest musicians - Contributed

If you made a movie about Asif Illyas’s life, you could call it Planes, Trains and Amplifiers.

The Halifax musician, composer and producer is also a noted travel buff, with an extensive model railway system snaking its way through his South End backyard. But upstairs in what used to be his home office is his real dream project: a replica Boeing 767 cockpit that is also the set for his new music and aviation web series, Live on the Flight Deck.

Premiering this week on You-Tube and its own liveontheflightdeck. com website, the series allows Illyas to share his love of flight with fellow touring musicians, who tell stories from the road and share a few songs in the 15-minute episodes. It also allows guests like David Myles and the premiere’s Joel Plaskett to indulge in the fantasy of the days when stadium-filling acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd roamed the land in their own private jets, touching down in the next town just in time for soundcheck.

Illyas’s airplane obsession began as a child, when his father worked at Heathrow Airport and he and his brother Shehab would watch jumbo jets zoom overhead, from the roof of a Ford Cortina just outside the fenced-off main runway. As an adult, music and air travel only intersected when he was on tour with his bassist brother and their drummer Adam Dowling in the band MIR, until now.

While he was pondering whether or not to recorda followup to his 2013 album Synesthesia, a friend suggested thinking about a different kind of artistic endeavour.

“He told me that I should think about the things that I like to do outside of music, which are really weird and crazy, like the giant train set and my model planes,” recalls Illyas. “And then the fish tank disaster happened.”

While he and his family were away, a large aquarium on the ground floor cracked and flooded Illyas’s basement recording studio The Shire, where he spends much of his time creating scores for films as well as working on his own original music. Insurance allowed him to rebuild the studio from scratch, but he wound up with some spare computers and monitors, which he began using to run the X-Plane 11 flight simulation program on in his upstairs office.

He had been thinking about using the newly rebuilt Shire for a musical webseries, but had a brainstorm when he looked up at the computer-generated flight playing out in front of him.

“I had just seen Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, and I paused for a second,” he says. “I thought, ‘What if we go on airplane flights with artists?’ “I had a bunch of new songs, I’d written some stuff for Ria Mae, and Alan Doyle had been looking for some songs. I had been in this mode of writing songs with or for other people, so I thought I’d just get them on here and talk about a place that they’d toured or was dear to their hearts, and we’d fly around it.”

With the help of industrial designer friend Nicholas Imrie, the plan to turn the office into a cockpit unfolded. A bit of online research led to cockpit surround plans for flight simulators, they picked up the materials for the shell from Kent and Home Depot — getting creative with mediumdensityfibreboard and styrofoam — ordered instrument panels and switch plates online, picked up more screens at Costco, and other odds and ends at Princess Auto.

“It’s just a big elaborate computer system that grew and took over the whole room. I worked on it for about a year and a half before I invited Joel over to tape the first episode,” says Illyas, who takes the Dartmouth rocker on a flight over Flagstaff, Ariz., and nearby Mesa where he recorded his album La De Da.

In the episode, Plaskett marvels at Illyas’s setup and points out some familiar landmarks as they cruise overhead. For the performance, the pair plays La De Da’s Natural Disaster, originally inspired by some scary weather encountered on tour. From the perspective of the cameras, the illusion that they’re actually flying is quite convincing. On future episodes, Ria Mae discusses her distaste for takeoffs, and Amelia Curran reveals she was actually named after famed aviator Amelia Earheart.

As soon as Live on the Flight Deck premieres, Illyas will be boarding a plane for real to play a gig in Barbados, and his enthusiasm for actual air travel remains undimmed as ever.

“When MIR was touring in Germany, I’d be sitting with Adam, looking out the window at all the planes and the baggage carts and everything, and he’d look at me and say kind of sarcastically, ‘This still excites you, doesn’t it?’ And I’d go, ‘Yeah! In 20 minutes we’re going to be up in the sky at 35,000 feet. Incredible!’ ”

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