Alex Botwin, best known as Paper Diamond, doesn’t just exude energy; He emanates a palpable, charismatic force. And that same force has carried him to the forefront of Colorado’s artistic community. On any given day, he could be crafting new music, finalizing a graphic design, planning an event or even teaching a college seminar though his multi-faceted brand, Elm & Oak. However, co-managing Elm & Oak’s “creative hub" is only a fraction of Botwin's daily grind.
Having established himself through multiple production aliases, such as his “Alex Beats” project, Botwin changed direction in 2011 with the release of his Paper Diamond debut, the “Levitate EP,” on Pretty Lights Music. Since then, he’s explored a range of musical styles, producing over 150 tracks in the last year, and his unstoppable momentum has placed him in high demand on the festival circuit and beyond.
For Paper Diamond's ambition, the sky is too low a limit. Innovation is his passion and he thirsts for constant progress in both his music and his brand. Inspired by the mindset that propells him, Into the AM caught up with Paper Diamond at a recent Executioner Tour date to discuss his goals for Elm & Oak, his forthcoming album and the convergence of art and sound.
Into the AM: When I play your "Levitate EP" out to my friends, they always have the same question: What genre is this? How would you describe your signature sound and how has it evolved in the last two years?
Paper Diamond: I would say that the Paper Diamond sound is something very unique and that's why people have such a hard time classifying it. It isn't one thing. It’s all kinds of things. It's constantly changing, and I'm constantly influenced, and I'm always searching for that new sound that is going to blow my mind. I guess that's why I do what I do. I'm always looking for that brand new shit and I want to show people that brand new shit.
As far as where my music is going now, I have a new EP on the way. It's a multi-genre EP, but you can tell it's mine due to the melodic content and chord structures. Whether a track has lyrics in it or not, the melody lines that I'm writing have meaning behind them because my music is made to evoke a sense of emotion: to party, or to feel a certain way, or to think about certain things. And when I'm naming my music, especially my instrumental tracks, I'll think about what feeling a song evokes for me and that's how I generally put a name to it.
ITAM: From Alex B to Paper Diamond and Elm & Oak, Hip-hop has always been essential to your creative expression. So capturing the trap sound in “The 40 Thieves” was a natural move, but should we anticipate a heightened focus on the sounds of the south in your future releases?
PD: There's definitely some of that [trap] stuff, but there is some of all kinds of stuff. I've written probably 150 songs over the last year and now I've whittled that number down to around 15. Next, I'm going to pick about 12 and that's going to be my next record.
I'm calling my new record “Paragon,” which means the perfect embodiment of a concept or a perfect diamond. Although I don't think its perfect, it's a great representation of what I've been doing for the past two years. It's almost like my audio diary.
Levitate was an artistic piece from beginning to end that was meant to showcase different styles, without losing its cohesive feeling that flowed. While Wavesight, which I did with Mad Decent, was focused on dancier tracks because it was my introduction to the Mad Decent fan base. What I hope to do with Paragon is something that is very indicative of what's happening in the time period of music. To me, music is a also a time stamp. People can try to generalize it and put it into groups, but it's really about what's going on at the time.
ITAM: What influence has the emergence of trap music had on the Colorado EDM scene as a whole?
PD: I think Colorado’s still into some funky type stuff. They still love sample-based music, like I do. It's more about taking what we're learning from these new sounds or ideas and incorporating them into something we love. I'm still sampling music, but I'm turning it into heavy tracks that I can play even on a tour like this.
I mean, I'm on tour with Excision, who is one of the heaviest as far as dubstep goes, but I'm not playing heavy dubstep. I'm still just doing what I do. It's been cool to take samples and music that is soulful and inspirational and turn it into something I can play even before a huge dubstep act.
ITAM: So trap is just another new influence?
PD: Yeah, it's another new influence. People are making really interesting sounds and doing something unique with it. But I can see how easily it could get over-saturated. A lot of trap music can be simple and that's kind of the point of it - to be “go dumb” music. But I'm taking that and adding my own melodic content to it, maintaining the same flow as the rest of my music.
ITAM: Speaking of the Colorado, Elm & Oak has grown exponentially in the last few years, but so have your obligations as a touring artist. How do you balance your involvement with the brand and the responsibilities of your music career?
PD: Honestly, that's a great question. I have definitely been learning what is too much and what isn't. I was managing a few bands over the last year and along with the Elm & Oak store, teaching on college campuses, the art gallery, doing events and our monthly party – I've since scaled back on a lot of it. I'm no longer managing other artists; I'm solely focused on doing music.
It's interesting though because when I get sick of making music, I just design shit. We wake up in a new city every morning, and I get my exercise in, but other than that we just work on music and play a show for an hour. So when I get sick of making music, I design for Elm & Oak and when I get sick of designing, I go back to making music. I've got nothing to do but be creative every day, which I'm grateful for.
ITAM: You're still actively working to build Elm & Oak?
PD: Yeah, it's a great undertaking. I basically had four or five full time jobs last year, but right now I'm focusing on Paper Diamond and letting my business partner Berk handle Elm & Oak while I'm gone. He's got 10 or 12 interns, and we have people who do various portions of the work. So I'm learning to relinquish a bit of the command and focus on what's most important: my music.
ITAM: Through the Elm & Oak Academy, record label, design firm and gallery, you are provide essential resources to Colorado’s aspiring musicians and artists. Why is giving back to the Boulder community so important to you?
PD: It's not just the Boulder community. I hope to expand Elm & Oak and the Elm & Oak Academy in the future.
With how readily accessible music making and art making is now on the computer, whether you're purchasing software, you're cracking software, or you're going to school for it, anyone is capable of making insane stuff right now. I want to see other people change things and I want to encourage them.
Teaching others encourages me to grow as a producer as well. I don't underestimate anyone. People send me music, sometimes even really young kids, and the music is amazing. So I'm always pushed me to be better at what I'm doing by being exposed to new ideas.
For example, the reason that Dominic from Big Gigantic and I get along so well is because we both work our asses off every single day. You need to surround yourself with people that are going to push you and take things to the next level, people who are thinking a few steps ahead.
ITAM: You want to share that mindset with as many people as you can?
PD: Exactly. The whole point of the Elm & Oak Academy is teaching people, whatever you decide is your thing, that anything is possible if you work your ass off for it. Any one of us is capable of taking over the world. You just need to focus on what your portion is and what you want to do. Then don't stop working until you get it.
ITAM: Let's talk Paragon. Last year, you announced your 8-track follow up to Levitate, which seemed set to release in the first half of 2012. But instead, the 3-track Wavesight EP came out in May. What happened to the additional material you had planned?
Basically, I had another finished EP like Levitate. I liked it all the way through and it covered a lot of different genres. So I sent it to a bunch of people. At the time, I wasn't sure if I was going to release with Pretty Lights Music anymore. We were kind of moving in different directions and tracks like “Can We Go Up” weren't in the same vein as what they were used to. But I wanted to shake things up.
I sent the EP to Diplo. And he hit me back the next day while he was in Jamaica with Snoop Dogg [laughs]. We spoke and he told me that he really loved the record, especially three of the songs, so we split those songs off as Wavesight. They were the biggest songs from Paragon at the time and the rest of the album was an exhibition of different genres, which formed a solid piece of art. So I didn't want to just release the other four tracks from Paragon right away.
I put out “Timeflies,” which was one of them, and there's a new compilation coming out that features another. The last two I still like, but I don't know where they fit in. Basically, I rebuild Paragon from scratch and I'm in the final phases of that.
ITAM: So what can fans expect from the rebuild Paragon?
PD: When I finish making the new Paragon, it'll be a great indication of the last year of history for Paper Diamond.
ITAM: Are you working on any collaborations that you are particularly excited about?
PD: Yeah, I have a new single with these two producers named Christian Rich and a singer named Angela. It's sort of mellow, but it has great lyrical content and it's still influenced by newer sounds. It's on some songwriting shit, which I'm excited about. We have a music video for that and I think we are talking about putting it out in the next couple weeks.
ITAM: This next question may sound played out, but given your ratio of productions to actual releases it seems appropriate. How do you know when a track is done?
PD: I never know. I just freak out. But it’s interesting, I’ll make a lot of rap beats too, and I’ve got songs out to different rappers right now. Sometimes a track isn’t a show rager or something I need to put out, but it’s a great rap beat and it might be useful for some project down the line. Even the beats I was making 3 or 4 years ago, people want them now.
I’m building this legacy of beats from different time periods. I write indie songs, I write rap songs, I write electronic songs, I write dance tunes, dubstep tunes, trap songs – I do it all. At some point, maybe that stuff will fall into its place, and maybe it won’t. But it’s cool because when I’m in the studio with a rapper, I start to feel what they like and if they like a certain beat, I have a lot of other stuff to show them.
ITAM: Fresh from months of headlining gigs on the Night Vision tour and a marathon of New Years dates, how did you hook up with Excision to open for his Executioner Tour?
PD: I met Excision in Portland a while back and I don’t know exactly how the whole Executioner Tour came to be, but Excision’s manager, who I’ve known for a long time, asked me if I wanted to go on tour. I thought it was a great idea, not knowing we were going to be on a bus for three months. But honestly, it’s been amazing.
The shows have been sold out or close to sold out every night. Excision is cool, his crew is cool, but there are like 20 people on the road, so it gets kind of crazy. I’ve been calling our bus the “Green Submarine” because when you get on it, you feel like you’re submerged under water and there is nothing else around. I love it though because I remember last year that I said I wanted to live on a bus for a while and simply verbalizing it began to create change for me.
ITAM: The first time I saw you, just after the release of Levitate, you proudly announced that your entire set list was made up of handcrafted originals and remixes. What role do your productions play in your current performances?
I would say my original material makes up about 80% of my sets right now. What I’ve been doing is taking my new productions and some of my older stuff and reworking it to be even more dope. A lot of producers are sending me heat directly as well, and the other 20% of my set is their music that I want to expose people to.
ITAM: Come April, once you've said goodbye to Excision and Vaski, what's next for Paper Diamond?
You are going to see me at most of the big festivals this summer, festivals like Governers Ball. I’m also writing music every day right now, so there is no way to tell when my releases will come out, but I know I want to release music more often. I like being at the forefront of music and technology and sound.
I'm also starting this thing called Paper Diamond TV. In the next couple weeks, we're going to start doing “day in the life” style videos that will show what we do everyday: conducting interviews, and waking up on the bus, and working on music, and going to the studio, and making art. The channel will be a good place for me to release my songs that didn't make it onto records.
Another interesting thing I’m working on is my new “Diamond Cutter" LED Rig. I figured out how to send MIDI signal from Albelton Live to a second computer, so I can improvisationally control the visuals along with my music.
ITAM: So you’re not limited to pre-structured light cues like Deadmau5 when he tours with his live setup?
PD: Yep, my sets are completely improvised every night. When I trigger a new track, it has a corresponding visual clip with it, but I don’t have to play clips in any specific order. I can speed things up, I can slow thing down, and I’m controlling everything from an Ipad that is wirelessly connected to my two computers, so I’m able to be mobile. We’ve been putting together tons of video content and getting to fire properly, but everything is dialed in now.
ITAM: Great to hear! Thanks for a truly inspirational conversation.