Kye Smith looked out the window of the eight-passenger van somewhere between Reno, Nevada, and Boise, Idaho, and through a spotty Skype connection, he reflected back on the journey of how he got here.
How did an Australian kid who loved American punk and ska music ever get to this place? How was it possible that he was making the six-hour trip from the high desert of northern Nevada to the snow-capped mountain view of Idaho, touring the West Coast of the U.S. with a ska band called the Porkers, opening for ska-core legends Voodoo Glow Skulls, and playing to throngs of delirious dancers every night?
On this day, with nothing much to look at outside the van’s windows, it still felt surreal.
His journey began a half-decade ago in his parents’ basement—thousands of miles from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains—sitting at his drum kit in front of a video camera surrounded by posters of punk bands like Green Day, Lagwagon, NOFX, and Pennywise. Now, the 27-year-old Smith is playing concerts in America for the first time. On Thursday, he’ll play the halftime show of the New York Knicks game, all by himself in front of 20,000 NBA fans at Madison Square Garden.
He’s getting the exposure he never thought he’d receive. When he started his YouTube drumming career, Smith had no inkling where it would lead. But he’s here—on the road, sleeping in cheap motels, and checking out the Boise scenery after a long van ride through the middle of nowhere.
“I’m honored to be in America playing music,” Smith told the Daily Dot. “I never thought I’d get a chance to do it.”
Smith didn’t think much about anything when he started making YouTube drumming videos. At first, he played single covers of punk songs—Green Day’s “Burnout” and Rise Against’s “Black Masks and Gasoline,” for instance—but soon after, Smith wanted to try something different. He asked his followers if they had any ideas, and one random commenter suggested he put together a drumming compilation of all the artists on the Fat Wreck Chords record label.
So, this is what he did.
Each single covers video received anywhere between 30,000-60,000 pageviews, but his new idea multiplied those numbers. The Fat Wreck Chords video has more than 227,000 views, and it soon spawned another idea.
“It kind of opened my mind,” Smith said. “This was the niche I wanted to get into. I wanted to pick a band and go from start to finish [in its chronology] and see if it was doable.”
He tried with Green Day (nearly a million page views).
Then, the Foo Fighters (more than 600,000 views).
Then, Nirvana (more than 675,000 views).
If anybody is ideal to produce and play on these videos, it’s probably Smith.
His day job in Newcastle, Australia, is to shoot and edit footage for eluminate, a video production service which makes corporate and tourism videos. When the Porkers were traveling up and down the West Coast in their van, Smith oftentimes was found in the backseat, editing a video for his bosses back home in Australia.
Combine that with his musical skill and his love of punk rock, and it’s easy to see how Smith could have gained a 77,000-strong YouTube following with his drumming chronology videos.
The first step he takes when putting together a new video is to research and listen to the band’s catalog. Then, it’s like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle. He picks slabs of each song and tries to determine how they can connect in a way that makes sense to the ears. He uses Logic Pro to digitally piece them all together into a 5-minute composition on his computer. Once he has the order of the songs, he’ll record himself performing it—he’ll do a couple of different takes, but Smith said he performs the piece all the way through without stopping. Afterward, he edits the footage, does the graphics, and fills in the album art.
Depending on how much time he has, a single video, from the idea’s inception to the final version being uploaded on YouTube, could take anywhere from two weeks to six months. At first, mashing up the songs into one piece was, he said, “a bit of a headfuck,” but now it makes more sense to him.
It had better, because, on Thursday, he’ll be performing by himself live, covering his own cover of the most visually stunning Smith video (and the most watched at nearly 1.9 million views). It’s 71 Beatles songs in five minutes, and it’s Smith’s masterpiece.
His next step: Perform it live, where he’ll drum over a backing track in front of thousands of Knicks fans.
This performance has been one benefit of his YouTube fame. Another was his recent gig with the Porkers, a ska band that was formed in 1987 and has featured a number of rotating members since. It’s a band that Smith listened to while growing up, and since the Porkers needed a drummer for this tour and since they knew him from his time in Smith’s main band, Local Resident Failure, asking Smith to fill in made sense.
“[The YouTube videos] blow our mind,” Porkers lead vocalist Peter Cooper told the Daily Dot in an email. “How does anybody remember all that? And then you meet Kye, and he’s so quiet and unassuming, he doesn’t seem like a killer drummer.”
The videos show otherwise.
Now that the tour—which also included an opener slot at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones homecoming show in Boston—is finished, Smith soon will return to Australia to his full-time job at eluminate. But he’ll continue to pound out drumming mashups.
Smith makes a couple hundred dollars a month for his YouTube videos, and though he says “I’m pretty far from a businessman,” he’s recently begun attending YouTube events and learning about branding and marketing. He didn’t begin his journey in a moneymaking frame of mind, and though he said he won’t turn to YouTube full-time, he’s open to learning more.
As he rode out of northern Nevada, en route to another show in front of sweaty skanking ska fans, Smith thought back to the beginning of his YouTube journey five years ago. He doesn’t know where he’s going. All he knows is that this particular van ride will end in snowy Boise. As for the future? That’s undetermined.
“I have no idea where it will take me,” Smith said. “I’m in America at the moment. I’m stoked, and I’m going with the flow. I’m just doing as many videos as I can, doing as much music I can. I’m just enjoying the ride.”