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.”

The words of Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau describe how the hands of pianist Jean-Michel Blais come alive on his second solo album, Dans ma main. “Le commencement de toutes presences / Le premier pas de toute compagnie / Gît cassé dans ma main”, wrote the poet in Monde irrémédiable désert (The beginning of all presence / The first step of all company / Lies broken in my hand). Those words are echoed in the composer’s hands, as well as in his artistic approach: “What are we going to do with what’s in our hands? Are we going to build something?”

We reach Blais over the phone, on a bustling early  morning in Brooklyn, as he’s coming out of a DJ set. “It makes no sense, I’m not a DJ at all,” he says laughing. “I built a set list over the night, and tried to keep things homogenous. What a wonderful experience!” The same spirit inhabits his new album: finding a common thread among musical pieces that appear similar in a way that makes them tell a wordless story.

Here’s what he had to say abut each song:

“It’s the inception, the beginning of everything. It’s the prelude, that which sets up things to come. In the album booklet, an image and a quote accompany each track. Here, the quote is, “Between the click of the light and the start of the dream,” from Arcade Fire’s ‘No Cars Go.’ The image of a fortress is very important, too. It’s a safe place, which, for me, is my bed. As for the piano itself, the album was recorded on a ton of different pianos in the Piano Bolduc store. This one is played on an upright piano and at the end of the track, you can actually hear the store’s clerk closing the door and leaving, which leads to the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? When the store is closed and no one’s there, do the pianos play?”

“This one is dedicated to a friend who lost her mother. I supported her through it. The ostinato, the repeated note from the intro, symbolizes her heart ,and the tumour – which is still beating, too, even though we sometimes forget it’s there. I love the fact that a note can be both harrowing and melodic. We played with sounds a lot on this album. At one point, you think you’re hearing a violin, but it’s actually a piano sound that was stretched 300 times. The sound becomes supple, it’s no longer the same. There are many influences on this piece. Some people hear Radiohead, and towards the end, one might detect a Rachmaninov concerto or Céline Dion’s “All by Myself.” Both references are valid. No one listener’s reference point is better than another’s.”

“This opens up on an interview with painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. I discovered him a long time ago when I was Googling myself – we share a name [laughs]. The interviewer asks him if he has anger inside of him, and he says yes. When he’s asked why, he just doesn’t answer, because it’s so obvious to him. He’s the symbol of art meeting capitalism. He got rich extremely fast, and people didn’t give a shit about him, and he died of an overdose. He’s telling the guy, ‘What the fuck kind of question is that?’ Art is an answer when words are not enough. ‘Outsiders’ is also the title of an exhibit I saw in Toronto, in which artists showed alternative ways to see the world. I just couldn’t compose, that day, and then this happened.”

“Dans ma main (In My Hand)”
“In Saint-Denys-Garneau’s poem, the words go, ‘You have the pieces of the puzzle that is your life.’ My hands are my vessel. They’re tools, first, and those tools allow me to play piano.”

“David Attenborough spoke about being agnostic. He talked about being if front of a termite mound, and realizing that they, being blind, couldn’t see him, but that he could see them. He felt it was pretentious to believe that he, as a human, possessed all the senses required to perceive and understand the world. This piece is about the concept of limitation. I play the piano and make it veer towards electro. ‘Blind’ is that moment when you’re about to fall asleep, and you’re not fully conscious of how far along you already are, and then you have a startle reflex. That when you realize how far into sleep you actually were.”

“This one is about the co-existence of the three main monotheistic religions. There are samples of sacred chants from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When you compare all three religions, you quickly realize that everyone actually believes in the same thing, and it becomes an impasse. It’s a realization of this absurdity. We’re all saying the same thing in different languages. So why are we fighting?”

“This is somewhat of a study on the boundary between a cover, an influence, a quote, and references. I heard Safia Nolin’s ‘Igloo’ and I was blown away. The next day, my friend and I drank absinthe and came up with this piece, which is a sonic palindrome. The piano in the first part is the reverse of the second part. Even Safia doesn’t get the resemblance between my ‘Igloo’ and hers [laughs]. My interpretation of it is the reflection of how I felt when I heard hers. I could feel the loneliness, steps in crunchy snow, a plastic owl, the reality of insomnia, and the hope that the igloo is finite and on the other side of it is Spring.”

“Sourdine” (“Mute”)
“The name of this one is very literal. When we created of this album, we used good pianos and not-so-good pianos. Here, we placed felt in the piano, which is why it sounds muted. Music is nothing but a succession of tensions and releases, but here, what’s special is that the tension point only occurs once. That’s why this track is so mellow.”

“A Heartbeat Away”
“A friend’s father died very young, of a cardiac arrest, while on a bike ride. This piece is about shock. There’s a Leo Sayer song that goes, ‘When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you.’ It’s about continuity in spite of termination. I thought it was completely crazy. We went back to the place where it happened, and in the recording, you can hear a bike whiz by, and the radio. We used music to encapsulate emotions that float back to the surface. Strangely, this piece, which is a funereal one, begins exactly the same way as ‘Pour Johanne,’ on il, which was also a funereal piece. Unconsciously. The same relation between the notes can be heard on Chopin’s Funereal March.”

“Chanson (Song)”
“This is where we came the closest to making a song with lyrics. And yes, it’s me singing, for those who were wondering. It’s a window on what might one day come. At the end, my friend calls, and we kept it. You can hear us leave the room and lock the door. There are lyrics, but what we hear says more than what’s said.”

Alfa RococoOne thing stands out, looking back on the four albums released by Alfa Rococo over the duo’s 14-year career. The covers always show the singer-songwriter couple – Justine Laberge and David Buissières – but on L’Amour et le chaos, launched in early May 2018, for the first time we don’t see their faces. They’re sitting on a dirt road with their backs turned to the camera. Says Buissières, “The cover perfectly summarizes one of the album’s main themes: we’re sitting quietly and watching the end of the world, some kind of apocalyptic scene, like that bomb that went off in the desert.” Laberge finishes his sentence: “Yet, we’re there, grounded. It’s dramatic, but the sky is pink…”

Love and Chaos, as it were. There’s hope, even a bit of light hidden in the rhymes, yet, “there still is a fatalistic assessment through it all,” says Laberge. Buissières adds, “It’s a realization that we’re living in a troubled time, the realization of our environmental dead-end.” Hope, and the same sort of pessimism that appeared on 2010’s Chasser le malheur, both show up in songs such as “Soldat de plomb,” “Rêve américain,” and the title track, whose “super happy music” was the backdrop to a story about “not having enough time, and feeling stuck in the endless cycle of the daily grind.”

What might have just been a figure of speech eight years ago has indeed become their daily lives. In the time that separated Nos coeurs ensemble (2014), a “more luminous album celebrating union,” in the words of Buissières, and this fourth one, the lives of the musician couple was transformed by the birth of two babies. Nowadays, every minute counts, Laberge says with a cough, a symptom of the bronchitis she caught from their youngest. “Obviously, I’m always the one who catches everything,” she says. David never gets sick! My vocal cords are in bad shape.”

“I always say we haven’t written songs about having children,” says Buissières. “But we did write about the effects of having them. The two main ones being one’s relationship with time,” as can be heard on two of the most beautiful songs on the album, “Le temps qu’il faut,” parts I and II. The first is propelled by a house music rhythm, the second floating in an atmospheric electro-pop glow. According to both artists, this album is very much influenced by the beacons of French electro pop, such as Fakear and Petit Biscuit. “Our relationship with time is completely changed,” says Buissières. “Now we realize how precious it is, and how we didn’t quite exploit it properly before. There’s also the question of seizing the day.”

The other effect, as they explain in tandem, is the need to stay away from pessimism. “We try to see the light through the cracks,” says Buissières, paraphrasing Leonard Cohen, “in the hopes that when the dust settles, something more beautiful will emerge. That’s what the album is about.” As for Laberge, she says she has never felt so much angst as she does now that her family has grown larger. “All that we see that’s going awry is no longer just our problem, but the problem of the ones that will come after us,” she says. “Our youngest daughter was born six months ago. She’ll never know a world without Trump.”

Regroupement des artisans de la musique (RAM)
One surmises that Alfa Rococo’s worries about their trade led David Buissières to create the Regroupement des artisans de la musique (RAM) in early 2017. RAM, which is governed by a steering committee composed of musicians such as Gaële, Stéphane Bergeron (Karkwa) and domlebo, wants to give a voice and a political compass to musicians to provoke “a review of the revenue-sharing model of commercializing music, in order to ensure the continuity of music in Québec,” as stated on the organization’s website. It’s about musicians speaking as one to answer the arguments of producers, distributors and internet service providers. “Let’s pretend that we, all the players of the music industry, are in a painter’s workshop,” says Buissières. “In the centre of the room sits a thing that we all have to make a painting of, and we’re all surrounding it: producers, distributors, promoters, streaming platforms, and, over here, the musicians. Everyone will paint the same object – an album, a tour, a career – but no two have the same perspective on it. Plus, the musicians have not shown up that much at the workshop… Our idea is to make sure artists start showing up at the workshop, and take a good look at the thing in the middle. What’s even more exceptional are people who are willing to come over to the other side to better understand the other perspective. What we want to do is explain the musician’s perspective to the other parties. It’s quite stunning to realize how little people in this industry talk to each other.”

Generally, each of their albums’ overall theme is clear from the onset. “Often, it’s one song that kind of dictates an album direction,” according to Laberge. “But after four or five, that’s when the album shapes up.” The proximity of home and studio allows for more finely tuned demos, and being constantly in the frame of mind of the album direction. “We have the chance to be able to spend a lot of time in our studio to work on the arrangements,” Buissières agrees. “Then, something clicks, a song emerges, and we say. ‘Ah! that’s it!’”

Buissières is in charge of the recording process and of the bulk of the orchestrations, but it’s under the scrutiny of Laberge, who considers herself more of a melodist. “We play ping-pong with our ideas,” she explains. “As for the lyrics, we start by writing together, and then we each write separately.”

For example, the album’s title song was written as a duo. “But it simmered for a long time,” says Laberge. “It’s the last one we wrote, and it’s the one that gave the tone to this album. It’s the first time that the last song we wrote became the album title.” Buissières continues, “It feels like the longer a song gestates, the easier it gets to write songs. A song like ‘L’Amour et le chaos’ took three months to finish. You might be on a bike ride, and an idea pops up that works for your song.” Most of their songs take that long before they’re ripe. “It’s more often three months than two weeks, sadly!” says Laberge with a smile.

“I write in quite a classical manner, like classic and romantic poetry, that kind of wording, using inversions,” says Buissières. “But sometimes, it gets to be a little too much, and thanks to Justine, we find the right balance.”

Thus, for the couple, working on a new album is divided into two distinct phases: one active and one passive. Says Buissières, “The passive part is everyday life, accumulating ideas, small notepads in hand, that idea that came during a bike ride. Being tuned in and filling up the inspiration book, I guess. The active part is being in the studio, making sounds, finding riffs, or sitting in a café and writing lyrics, getting hands-on. But that passive part should not be frowned upon, even though it’s sometimes long, because there are a ton of little ideas, of words, of grooves, of melodies that simmer for a very long time. So when we get to it, all that has evolved in our minds, we know the time has come to take all of it to fruition.”