Alex Botwin's electronica is a Paper Diamond in the rough
My parents cut me off," recalls Alex Botwin, "and I was definitely broke and homeless for a period of time there."
That time must have been quite a while ago, because Botwin, better known to electronic-music fans as Alex B., the man behind Paper Diamond and the co-pilot of Elm & Oak, has come a long way since then. "I've been a touring musician for well over a decade," he notes. Botwin really began chalking up the miles in earnest in 2006, when he dropped out of college with just one year left to pursue music full-time with Pnuma Trio; at its height, the now-disbanded electronic act played 226 dates in a year.
When Pnuma Trio ended, Botwin felt a pull to continue making music on his own. "Paper Diamond came from the need to express myself artistically," he explains. "I didn't know what Paper Diamond would do. Pnuma was my expression of dance music, and so as I started doing that less, I still had that want to make dancier stuff."
And he has, to an impressive degree. As Paper Diamond, Botwin has made a name for himself, performing at many high-profile music festivals across the country this past summer and producing tracks for Mad Decent, Diplo's label, with the Neptunes' co-founder, Chad Hugo — an opportunity that presented itself thanks to Botwin's decision to offer an exclusive listen to some tracks he'd been working on. "I sent it to a bunch of people, and Diplo really dug a few of those songs," Botwin recalls. "I worked with those to eventually make WaveSight."
WaveSight, which evolved out of last year's Levitate, released on the Pretty Lights Music imprint, reflects Botwin's perpetual desire to keep progressing artistically without being bound to a particular genre. "I don't want to put out a dubstep record," he proclaims. "And I don't want to do just a moombahton or just a hip-hop album." It's not so much about the sound, but rather the song. "In production," he muses, "I think about each track as if it has its own individual voice, and how that will translate to the whole album." Dynamics, says Botwin, are equally as important. "To me and the way I was taught," he says, "music is a conversation. So you need to leave room for breath and space.
"People ask me if WaveSight is the new direction for Paper Diamond," he continues, "and I explain that it's just another part of it." Just as music itself is another form of expression for Botwin, who also dabbles in the visual arts. "I would do art when I was sick of music," he explains, "and when I was sick of that, I would go back to music."
Really, though, the two aren't mutually exclusive for Botwin. The art has always been connected to the music, particularly with his Elm & Oak endeavors. "Elm & Oak turned into a group of artists who really supported each other," he points out. "When I got out here I started designing a lot, and people were hitting me up for work."
Elm & Oak was founded in Virginia in 2005 by Berk Visual (aka Wallace Gibbs III), whom Botwin met and began working with when he was still a college student. Berk moved to Boulder in 2009, and Elm & Oak, in addition to being a boutique clothing/art shop on Pearl Street, has become the primary musical outlet for Paper Diamond and a host of other acts. As with everything Botwin is involved in, Elm & Oak has become synonymous with quality.
Not surprisingly, that quality has carried over into Paper Diamond's live show, which relies heavily on stunning visuals. "We have this custom LED stuff," Botwin explains. "There is a commonality with all of Paper Diamond's stuff because I have all these amazing designers, and I work with them to make what I visualize." Once Botwin approves his part of the production, he allows his fellow artists to put their spin on it before incorporating it all seamlessly into one tight package. "The art, the live show and the music are all integrated in this one big project."
Another important aspect of Paper Diamond's live show is Botwin's ability to connect with the crowd, something he's honed over many years as a performer. And with a deep wellspring of material, he's got plenty of music to work with. "I have so many songs in so many genres," he says, "that I could play a show at a house tempo or I could play a hip-hop show. So, I can start at a certain BPM and take the crowd up, depending on the vibe."
But for all his experience from years of being on the road, on the eve of his upcoming tour, which is the most ambitious jaunt on which Paper Diamond has yet embarked, Botwin admits that he still gets butterflies each time he's about to take the stage. "In those fifteen minutes before the show starts, I'm backstage wondering what song I'm going to start with," he says. Before long, though, his instincts kick in. "I'll think about where I am going to start, and because I'm always making new intros, I can start anywhere."
As it is for most good musicians, making music is always fresh for Botwin, because he's always creating and collaborating. "I am taking a really lax approach to all of this," he says. "I call up whoever I think might be interested, and then they check out my stuff. Then we chill and vibe and see what happens.
"While I am on tour, I'll be renting studios and working with studio engineers to bring in the local people who are really dope," he goes on, adding that those engineers are "the ones that know."
"It's always interesting," he concludes, "and it's how I can go on these tours and not get sick of what I do."
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