HALIFAX – Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett croons about Arizona over what appears to be an aerial view of the desert landscape near the Grand Canyon — but in reality, he is sitting in a cramped corner of Asif Illyas’s Halifax home.
Plaskett was the inaugural guest on Illyas’s new online talk show “Live On The Flight Deck,” where he chats with fellow East Coast musicians as they soar through computer-generated skies in his home-built flight simulator.
Illyas, the 45-year-old former frontman of Halifax alt-rock group MIR, said the concept for the web series came to him while he was watching Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in which the legendary comic drives around with his famously funny friends to talk shop over caffeinated beverages.
“It was just like this light bulb moment,” said Illyas. “I think I could finally find a way to bring these worlds together, because these are the two things that I love — music and flying.”
Growing up in England, Illyas said he used to sit on the roof of his family’s car and watch the planes take off from Heathrow Airport while he waited for his father to get off work as a pilot.
He said his passion for aviation stayed with him through adulthood, and he became eventually interested in recreating the rush of flying through digital simulations on his laptop.
A longtime musician who now works primarily as a film score composer, Illyas said he had been saving up money to record another album, but instead spent roughly $20,000 to convert his home office into an cockpit-like shell outfitted with instrument panels, switch plates and thrust levers.
Illyas said he had long wanted to host a music show, and he had finally found the perfect setting.
“Sometimes, the best conversations happen when you’re travelling,” he said. “For me, it was just a no-brainer. This is where we’re going to get to know these people really well.”
The web series premiered last week after about a year in production, and Illyas said upcoming shows feature some of the biggest names in East Coast music.
In each episode, Illyas and his co-pilot travel the world in a digitized plane. The flight path is usually of some significance to the guest, he said, such as Plaskett’s voyage over the suburb of Mesa, Ariz., where he recorded his acclaimed 2005 album “La De Da.”
When the plane reaches cruising altitude, the captains pull out their instruments and jam out amid the virtual clouds.
Illyas said some of the most interesting tidbits from the interviews are unrelated to music, like learning that Newfoundland singer-songwriter Amelia Curran is named after aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
Often, he said, musicians who seem fearless on stage are revealed to be nervous fliers. Halifax’s Ria Mae has a strong distaste for takeoffs, he said, and Alan Doyle of Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea gets claustrophobic in close quarters.
On another episode, Halifax musician Dave Carroll relives the United Airlines flight that inspired the trio of protest songs “United Breaks Guitars” about how his guitar was damaged by reckless baggage handlers.
“It’s also such an atypical thing for people to try and fly a plane,” said Illyas. “We go on airliners all the time, but when you’re actually in the front, it’s just so weird that a lot of fun happens.”
This week, Illyas is in Barbados to film an episode on a real tarmac.
But with two kids, Illyas said his days on the road are over for the most part, which is why he is excited to have found a way to take to the skies without leaving his own home.
“I needed to be able to travel because it’s so much a part of being a musician,” he said. “I needed to have a way to get places, even if it was with pixels.”