Alex Botwin doesn’t just exude energy; He emanates a palpable force. 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. But he’s also made time to ascend the ranks of EDM stardom as Paper Diamond.
Having established himself through multiple production aliases, such as his “Alex Beats” project, Botwin changed direction in 2011 with the release of his Paper Diamon 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 traveled far beyond his Colorado home.
Inspired by the mindset that propels him, Into the AM caught up with Paper Diamond to discuss his goals for Elm & Oak, his forthcoming album and his multi-faceted artistry.
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: 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.
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.
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 trap in your future releases?
PD: There’s definitely some of trap, 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. 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.
A lot of trap music can be simple and that’s kind of the point of it—to be “go dumb” music.
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.
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.
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: 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, the art gallery, doing events, and teaching on college campuses–I’ve since scaled back on a lot of it.
It’s interesting though because when I get sick of making music, I just design stuff. 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.
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: With how readily accessible it is to make music and art these days, 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 to be better at what I’m doing by being exposed to new ideas.
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.
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.
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?
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 moving in different directions and tracks like “Can We Go Up” weren’t in the same vein as what they were used to.
I sent the EP to Diplo, and he hit me back the next day while he was in Jamaica with Snoop Dogg [laughs]. 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. Basically, I rebuild Paragon from scratch and I’m in the final phases of that.
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.
I write indie songs, I write rap songs, I write electronic songs, I write dance tunes, dubstep tunes, trap songs – I do it all.
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. 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.
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.
Another interesting thing is that 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 most “Live” shows?
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.
ITAM: Great to hear! Thanks for a truly inspirational conversation.