Brian Tellis: ‘If You Do Something You Love, You End Up Loving What You Do’
The music multi-hyphenate opens up about his early years in aviation, dipping his toes into the world of performing arts, creative entrepreneurship and more
If you grew up in Mumbai, Bandra to be precise, chances are that the name Brian Tellis will ring a bell and perhaps even bring a smile to your face. You’ve either seen him on the stage as a singer, theater artist or host, or probably heard his unmistakable baritone voice on the radio. Many may know him as an inspiring entrepreneur in the live entertainment industry. Although it’s hard to count all his talents in one go, when we catch up over the phone, Tellis is quick to share with a new trivia about his glorious innings. He says, “I started my career actually working in a pharmaceutical, believe it or not!”
In his early twenties, Tellis was eager to travel the world and the only way for him to do that at the time was to work with an airline or be a general sales agent (GSA). “I spent some time looking around and then there was an opening in a company called Pan Tours, which was the sales agent for Pan American so I started off there.” Tellis went on to have stints in Air Canada and Air France in their sales and accounting departments and spent the better part of a decade in the airline industry which laid the foundation for what was to come from him.
The performing arts bug
Before we go forward in the life of Tellis, we first need to go back and get a sense of how and why he’s been so versatile over the years. The Bandra boy immediately points out that it all stems from the fact that he’s always had the performing arts needle stuck in his vein. “I can’t get it out,” he says. From taking part in the Zonals (talent competition) to being cast in musicals and theater productions, the arts played a large role in shaping Tellis’ life, right from his early teens.
He recounts that one of his earliest plays was written by the late Imtiaz Khan and late Sholay star Amjad Khan. “They used to live down the road and I had a part with no lines (laughs),” he says. Tellis would go on to feature in musicals such as The Witness, Grease and Evita, among others. He says, “All of that kept the performing arts fire burning. I think I did myself a huge favor by doing that because then that led to various other opportunities.”
Tellis would also go on to form an acoustic band called Voices, performing songs by American folk duo Simon & Garfunkel and supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. One of the most memorable Voices concerts took place in 1985 at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium for Aid Bhopal to raise funds for the Bhopal gas tragedy. “It was a huge concert and probably one of the bigger concerts the city has seen ever,” says Tellis.
In the midst of his performances on the theater stage as well as with his band, Tellis even got happily caught up anchoring fashion shows, compèring at product launches and hosting award shows. Even though he still had his steady airline job, ask him how he managed to make time for all these other activities and he says, “It was pretty crazy. Sometimes when I look back even I wonder how I managed to marry all of these things, but it happened you know, fortunately for me.” Tellis adds, “I continue to say if you can do something you love in the first place, you end up loving what you do, and then everything else falls into place.”
Transmitting sonic waves with radio
On Independence Day of 1993, Tellis went on air for the first time as a radio jockey, which brought “two passions” – his love for music and as well as proficient speech – under one umbrella. With a career in radio spanning over 25 years, Tellis would later ask one of his employers why they chose him to get behind the mic in the studio. The response he got: “You seemed kind of an obvious choice because you knew your music and you are a music lover and you spoke well.” Currently, Tellis hosts his own blues radio show on Radio One’s 94.3 FM.
Fountainhead, promoting the blues, theater and culture
By 1995 Tellis felt that he had gained plenty of experience in both the commercial industry and arts world and decided alongside his Bandra mates Neale Murray and Otis D’Souza to start an event management agency called Fountainhead. “We used to keep chatting about our passions,” he says. On deciding to follow through on the idea, Tellis says, “Around that time it was a bit of a brave decision in hindsight to try and give up our jobs and start an entertainment or event management company. But cleverly or otherwise we took the decision and with the support from the ladies in our lives as well which cannot be discounted at this point.”
In the early days of the company, Tellis admits that there was no fancy management or masterplan and rather it was a line of business that was often questioned. He says, “We stuck to our belief and felt that we had stories to tell.” Those stories have been told quite well over the company’s 25-year existence in the shape of the One Tree Music Festival and Celebrate Bandra. Tellis says, “Bandra has a great mix of people. It’s like a potpourri of cultures and we thought we must celebrate it.”
Fountainhead has also worked alongside two of the country’s most well-known businesses in the Mahindra Group and the Aditya Birla Group to conceptualize and execute the successful Mahindra Blues Festival (since 2011) and a theater production called Aadyam, respectively. At the Mahindra Blues Festival, Tellis is always seen hosting the event and last year he was even part of the cast for an Aadyam production called Sing India Sing.
On how he’s managed to keep all his passions intact while still running a company, Tellis says, “I got to give credit to my partners and to the team at Fountainhead. That’s very important. So it wasn’t just me, it was me and my partners and the fulfillment continues to be the team as well.”
The chat show host
Tellis is one who loves to toy with ideas and one of his most cherished concepts has been his online chat show called Tellis Like It Is. The first installment of the series came in 2013 with four episodes one which included an interview with singer Shaan at St. Stanislaus High School’s Donnelly Gym in Mumbai. Although Tellis put the show on the back burner for a while, this year, he’s revamped it and brought it back and has had guests such as journalist Faye D’Souza and Universal Music India’s MD and CEO Devraj Sanyal.
“The idea was to understand the person behind the personality,” Tellis says.
An episode that stands out for Tellis is with tiger conservationist Hans Dalal, who suffers from cerebral palsy and treats it as normality in his life. “These are moments that jump out at you and there are nuances that come out which one can learn from if you’re listening slightly beyond the spoken word.”
For Tellis chasing happiness and positivity has always been his driving factor no matter where he’s sunk his teeth in. Ask him if he has any advice for young entrepreneurs and he says, “Be a student for and of life and I think it’s critical to stay hungry.”
As we come to the end of our nearly hour-long conversation Tellis tells us that ever since the lockdown has been imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, he’s begun appreciating and enjoying food more than ever. The sports buff in him has also relished watching the Netflix documentary The Last Dance about American basketball legend Michael Jordan. “I watch some fun music things on there [Netflix and Prime Video] too,” he says. Next, Tellis wants to get involved in the education aspect of performing arts and also has another manifestation for his chat show that he’s still nursing. For now, this Bandra boy is happy to look back on his life and say, “We did some good shit.”