Paper Diamond Rising
Alex Botwin and I first met in the summer of 2005, somewhere in Western New York during Camp Bisco IV. At the time he was playing in the emerging Southeast jamband Pnuma—later renamed the Pnuma Trio—but he was actually first introduced to me as a friend of a co-worker who decided to stop by the Relix booth to help out and hang after his band played what was actually on of their first major festival sets. Over the next few years, Pnuma Trio blossomed into something of a staple on the emerging livetronica scene, sharing the stage with the Disco Biscuits and STS9 and appearing at festivals across the county.
Eventually, Botwin moved to Boulder, immersed himself in that city’s emerging electronic music scene and started working with then unknown bands like Pretty Lights and Big Gigantic. Though I’d see him from time to time, Botwin and I really didn’t catch up until last summer when I saw him perform under his electronic music alias Paper Diamond at Snowmass Village, CO’s Jazz Aspen Festival. While he was still playing electronic music at a festival the experience couldn’t have been more different: his instrument was an iPad instead of a bass, the crowd was filled with a decidedly non-hippie mix of dance music enthusiasts and the crowd stretched far enough into the vending area that all I had to do was lean out of the Relix booth to tell a few eager fans that Paper Diamond was the only rising electronic music star to sling subs for us back in the day. Botwin and I caught up again a few weeks ago to talk about Paper Diamond’s recent success, his jamband roots and how Pretty Lights changed “everything” for his Boulder community.
Alex, it has been a few years since we did a formal interview. Back then you were playing with Pnuma Trio, which toured nationally from 2005-2010. Can you start by talking about how Pnuma Trio segued into Paper Diamond?
I’ve been a professional musician since I was 19 years old. I dropped out of college to play in Pnuma Trio. During that time period I was doing upwards of 225 shows a year, just really hittin’ it hard. I became good friends with Derek Vincent Smith from Pretty Lights. It’s funny, he used to open a lot of Pnuma shows and now he’s obviously massive—huge beyond everyone. As much as people wanna not believe it, he kind of changed everything [for livetronica music]. The direction Pnuma was going was different from what I was interested in. Musically, I write in all these different bpm’s genres. I like to stay current but also still keep my melody and my own voice with the music. That’s from being brought up as a musician my whole life. So [even though I am not playing an instrument with Paper Diamond] I still bring a musician element to the music.
Basically, I had all this music that I had no outlet for. Pnuma was my dance music project and—since I wasn’t having any reason to focus on that—I decided that I needed a new outlet to be able to make whatever else I wanted besides. For a while I was making music as Alex B as well, which is a down tempo project. I did some stuff with Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label under that name and did some mixes for them. But I wanted some separation from me personally and my art, and I wanted to freely make dance music if I wanted to—or make whatever type of music I wanted. So that was what led me to start the project.
The phrase ‘paper diamond’ is the concept of taking nothing and turning it into something. Like if you take a piece of paper and turn it into a diamond. Whether it’s simple or complex, it’s your form of art and your form of self-expression. It is the same thing with music: taking nothing and turning it into something—whether it’s simple or complex it’s like my art. So that’s what Paper Diamond means. Basically, I made all this music, and I hit Derek up and was like, “You know, I heard you’re starting a label. We’re homies. I wanna run my new record by you.” I gave him my new record. We talked about all the songs, and he gave me some ideas. Then I went back, and we ended up putting it out.
It’s been a crazy year. Of all my projects, this one has taken off the quickest. I’m also able to put out music whenever I want now. I’m consistently working and doing that. I have the team of people to help me do art and really visually represent the Paper Diamond idea. I get to utilize all these dope designers, illustrators, video people and photographers. For me, it’s more than just the music. It’s a visual representation.
When you first started performing live as Paper Diamond, you were using an iPad to control your music during your show. What was your reasoning for using an iPad versus a traditional DJ setup?
I’m still controlling my show wirelessly via iPad. I like it. I use a program called TouchOSC in which I designed a complete custom layout. That came from a specific need: Last April, I was flying for 14 days in a row between gigs. I used to carry all this gear and it became too much of a burden. I basically took that big APC40—that big thing everyone was using for awhile—and I programmed that entire thing to work on an iPad. I love it. There’s not too many people doing it yet but I feel comfortable using the iPad. I have been using that setup consistently for six months now. It makes it so that I can interact with fans, and I can get hyped when people are getting hyped. You think of the typical DJ as being hunched over the DJ booth, just standing there. You’re not really being able to tell what they’re doing up there. I’m more of a hands on visual showman.
I think one of the reasons Paper Diamond has been so successful in such a short period of time is your presentation: everything from your music to your look to your album’s design is very stylized.
Thank you. It took me years to think of Paper Diamond. I always knew I wanted to have some other name that wasn’t directly related to me. People think of Alex B, they think “this is kind of like hip-hop” and they think of me directly. With Paper Diamond, people don’t know if it’s a band—people don’t know if it’s a DJ. It gives them some anonymity and elusiveness.
It’s interesting for me, too, because I came from a musical upbringing and now I feel like I’m the only one on the boat doing it. It’s different. I’m able to expand these people’s minds from jam music to electronic music. I can see the segue just from this trip alone.
Though you initially made your name as the bassist in a jamband, you have reached a new level of success playing a type of music known for its pre-programmed beats. Do you still try to add an element of improvisation to your live show?
I’ll start by saying that I’ve only been playing shows as Paper Diamond for a year. The first two shows I did were opening for Bassnectar [on December 31, 2010] and playing with the Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe a few nights before. It’s different every night. I have multi-tracks of every song, so I can go back and play the drums from one song and mix it with a part of another song. Each section of each song is broken down doing different things so, for me, it’s completely improvised. I have every song that I’ve ever made on my computer, whether it is an Alex B song or a Paper Diamond song. So when I get up there, I’ll generally be like, “Okay, I’m gonna start like this tonight.” But I have no idea where I’m going, and I have lots of options. So it leaves lots of room for improvisation.
You grew up outside Memphis, which isn’t actually known as a hotbed for electronic music. How did you discover that scene?
I’m from Kansas City originally, though I spent eight years in Tennessee. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. My dad listens to all kinds of music, and he took me to Phish shows when I was eight years old: I saw my first couple of Phish shows in ’92, so I was really young. In college I was traveling every weekend [for music], and I was only in school a couple of days a week. I was always into drum and bass, house and St. Germain, but when I first heard Sound Tribe and other bands that were actually playing live instruments that really kind of changed the course for me. At the time I was a musician and that was my main focus. Once I got a Mac laptop my freshman year in college, if you wanted to hang out with me you had to come to my house because I would be on my computer. Then I started playing with Pnuma and eventually moved to Colorado.
People weren’t doing the shit they’re doing now when I started. Ableton wasn’t developed the way it is now—all these programs weren’t the way they were. I read the future music magazines and computer music magazines every month and embraced the change in technology. Not only that, but I paid attention to the way people distributed their music. I’ve paid attention to how people said, “We’re going to put out this music differently and constantly stay ahead of the curve.” I embraced the change and technology.