After nine years of dominating the music industry, Alex Botwin is better than ever under the alias of his new electronic music project Paper Diamond. The 28-year-old producer snagged a prominent Ultra Music Festival set-time and used that hour to amaze the crowd with his high-energy dance tracks and intricately-layered, bass-filled beats.
The uber-success of his latest album release “Levitate” has put Paper Diamond on the map when it comes to electronic talent. As one of the most prominent DJs on the Pretty Lights Music label, Alex is making waves with his uniquely catchy tunes you just can’t help but sing along with.
But music making is only one of Alex’s many passions - the Colorado-based producer also runs the record label/retail brand Elm and Oak which he uses as a creative outlet for art and design, along with scouting out rising musical prospects. Joonbug chatted with Alex after his Ultra set about his rise to fame, his musical inspirations, and his supportive network of fellow Colorado musicians.
Jaime Sloane: I wanted to start off by thanking you for taking time out of your day to talk to Joonbug We’re really excited about everything you’ve been coming out with lately.
Alex B: My pleasure.
Jaime Sloane: How does it feel to being playing such a prominent Ultra slot? Is this your biggest show to date?
Alex B: It is not my biggest show to date. It felt really good and I’m glad to be in California, I mean Florida, where it’s so warm right now.
Jaime Sloane: [laughter]
Alex B: Good start, good start.
Jaime Sloane: What’s your mindset when going into such a big show? Do you have a setlist ready or do you use more of an improvisational approach to the songs you play?
Alex B: Everything is improvisational with my music. I have pretty much everything I’ve made throughout my course of being a musician, I can call upon any of those songs or sections of those songs so it’s all improvised. I kind of, like right before the show I figure out where I’m going to start, and I’m playing a lot of my new music. I have two finished new EPs, there are some big announcements coming out with that, I think this week actually. So I’m playing a lot of my new stuff, I’m playing some stuff from levitate, playing a mixture of everything else, and it’s all improvised.
Jaime Sloane: Tell me a little about the name Paper Diamond, where did it come from?
Alex B: It basically came from the concept of taking something simple and turning it into artwork, whether it be, you know, if you have a piece of paper and you make it into the shape of a diamond, whether it’s simple or complex it’s your art and your form of self-expression. So with music, Paper Diamond is like taking nothing and turning it into something that’s artistic, whether it be simple or complex, a few layers or a lot of layers, it’s my art and my form of self expression so basically Paper Diamond is like taking nothing and turning it into something artistic.
Jaime Sloane: Paper Diamond’s sound is pretty different from what you used to produce as Pnuma Trio and Alex B. How do you manage to change up your style and what style do you have the most fun with while making?
Alex B: Even with Paper Diamond and everything else, I’m producing all kinds of music right now. Like I’m making Paper Diamond music which has a very, you know it’s all genres but it has a kind of tonality or some kind of cohesiveness to the project. So basically I’m making a lot of tracks, like since I put out Levitate I’ve probably made 150 songs, and some of them are hip-hop songs, some of them are rap beats, some of them are pop songs, some of them are electronic music, some of them are something I’d want to play with a band down the road.
What I did is since my last release is I picked out my favorite of everything and I went back and I made sure every sound in every song is exactly the way I want it. I listened to every channel on its own and made sure it’s listenable and enjoyable and pleasing. It’s basically like I have all of this different stuff, and it’s all going to be coming out at some point, like I want to write pop music, I want to write rap songs, I want to write hip-hop, I want to make electronic music. Right now I’m just picking out the stuff that feels cohesive and turning that into an album.
Jaime Sloane: How did you get your start in DJing?
Alex B: I was always a computer dude as far as music goes, like I was working on computer music all through college and then when I was in Pnuma I was always trying to incorporate computer stuff and that’s why Pnuma was really cool at the time because no one was really incorporating, besides bands like STS9 and that, there weren’t too many bands incorporating computers into their live shows at that time.
We were trying to pioneer that, especially in the southeast, so I’ve always pretty much been working with music on the computer so it was a natural progression from when I was in a full band. Now when I want to represent myself musically in a certain way, I’m able to do that in my own way and not have to answer to anyone so it’s very liberating.
Jaime Sloane: I know you got your start in Boulder, a city that’s quickly becoming a hub for electronic music. Can you tell me what it’s like coming from and working in such a musically-stimulated place?
Alex B: Sure. I’m originally from Kansas City, I went to college in Nashville, Tennessee, to MTSU it’s a music school, and I lived in Tennessee total for seven years. But I moved to Colorado at the time when electronic music was starting to bubble a little but I always expected this big thing, so I moved there. And you know, weed is legal in Colorado, there’s music all the time, and smoking is definitely part of my day-to-day process.
Alex B: Or just all the time pretty much. So it’s a good place for me to feel free and make the music that I want. But there’s all these dope artists like my boy Dom and Big Gigantic, we worked together a lot right at the beginning of his stuff. I showed him some stuff and he’s working really hard and I mix-mastered his records and he just took it and took off with it so it’s really great. He’s killing it, and same with Derek from Pretty Lights, and there’s all these phenomenal musicians, and the cool part about Colorado musicians is there’s no competition.
It’s like everybody’s friends and we’re all promoting each other, and we’re all being supportive of each other in certain ways. So to have a musical community like that is why it’s so thriving, it’s because these people are all doing such dope shit and being like “okay, we can all do dope shit together”.
Jaime Sloane: That’s an awesome network to be a part of.
Alex B: Yeah definitely.
Jaime Sloane: 'Can We Go Up' was one of my favorite releases of 2011. Can you tell me a little about what inspired the song and how you felt after it became such a massive hit?
Alex B: What’s interesting is that we’re actually going to be re-releasing the track with a new mix on it so I’m excited about that. But yeah when I wrote that song, I have all of these songs in my head and when I was in Pnuma, when I was doing Alex B stuff, it was all instrumental music. So now, what I’m doing is I’m taking these songs that I’ve been thinking about for a long time and I’m singing them personally to singers. So I’m like “here’s my idea over my song” and then they recreate it.
Personally I’m not trying to sing on my own stuff, but I can give those ideas to singers and be like “okay, this is what I want you to sing," and so it’s been really cool, it’s opened up a whole new world of creativity for me because I’ve been able to not only express myself musically but lyrically and everything else.
The music I’m making right now, honestly, all of my stuff is about having fun and that’s what music is to me. It’s about having fun and that’s what it’s really all about, so I’ve been writing songs about things that are fun, like smoking weed in the back of cars or whatever. My new album is a direct relation to stuff that I think is enjoyable, so that’s just kind of what it is. Like I’m enjoying making it, I’m enjoying playing it, and then content-wise it’s something that isn’t too complicated, and that people can relate to, and that I feel good about.
Jaime Sloane: What made you want to remix Kanye West’s song Power? Were you intimidated to remake such a famous artist’s song?
Alex B: Not intimidated at all. I love doing remixes and for that song, when I saw Pitchfork give that record a ten, I was like “when the fuck does Pitchfork give a record a ten?” And then I listened to it and I was like “okay, this one’s a banger, this one’s a banger, I know everyone’s going to be remixing these right away.”
I picked a song that people weren’t initially going to be like “this is the remix track you have to do.” It just struck me as the one for me. And so when I made that remix, it kind of just made itself, like it was only a couple hour process. I heard it, and I heard it in my head, and I made it, and it was the beginning of my career as Paper Diamond.
I was never seriously doing a solo thing because my band Pnuma was my dance project. I was doing Alex B stuff, and I put out a mix on Flying Lotus’ label Brain Feeder, and I was doing beat stuff, that was my down-tempo and then Pnuma was my dance project. I still write the same way I was writing in Pnuma, but now it’s with Paper Diamond. At some point I think I’ll have a live band playing this material.
Jaime Sloane: Can you tell me about working with Pretty Lights?
Alex B: Yeah sure, all those dudes are awesome. They’re like family to me. Derek [from Pretty Lights] has really done a cool thing for the music industry, he made it cool to give away music for free, which, when he started doing that, there weren’t many people doing it. He changed the industry a little bit.
As far as the people on his label like Michal Menert and Paul Basic and all them, I consider them good friends so it feels good to be like “go check out their stuff” because not only do I like their music but I like them personally.
Jaime Sloane: Tell me a little bit about your record label Elm and Oak. Why did you decide to start a label and what’s your goal for its future?
Alex B: Elm and Oak means exclusive limited merchandise and one of a kinds. It came from my friend who had a clothing line company, and we started doing a lot of design work together. Not only am I a musician but I’m also a designer, like I have a eye for typography and certain design elements.
So we started to do design work together just for fun, and then we started to get some serious inquiries, so we decided to start a new company but I had already been repping his company for a long time. So we moved it to Boulder, we opened a gallery which has a beautiful office in the back.
And we started a label, so we have distribution and people that do our publicity. And we have all these great artists like the band Two Fresh, and they just did 40 shows with Skrillex. And this band Cherub is touring internationally and really making waves in a different scene as well.
My label is very eclectic, but it’s all people I’m very close with and musically I believe in very strongly. So since I’ve been able to make music for about nine years straight and not do anything besides art and music, with these other people that are 21 and 22, no one was there for me to say “I made all of these mistakes, you should learn this shit and not do that." So for me, I’m passing this knowledge on to other people because I’ve been around the music industry for a long time and learned a lot. I’m trying to help these kids make lives for themselves in art and music.
Basically Elm and Oak is a big musical, art, design family where everyone is putting stuff out and helping each other put out new releases and promote each other. And we have a clothing line and we’re making really dope shit, it’s like art and music and everything blended into one.
Jaime Sloane: Are you looking at anyone to sign to Elm and Oak?
Alex B: We definitely are, we have a bunch of people we’re talking to, I can’t really talk about it too much but Two Fresh has a new record coming out. They just did a song for Mac Miller which comes out on Mac Miller’s new mixtape. Our artists have a bunch of shit going on, and we have new artists in the works, I just can’t really say.
Jaime Sloane: I know you’ve changed a lot in your career so where do you see yourself in a year from now?
Alex B: I will probably be on a tour bus or an airplane and making music and trying to inspire people.
Jaime Sloane: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t making music and design and art?
Alex B: Ah shit, what would I be doing? I would probably be dead.
[Both start cracking up]
Jaime Sloane: Do you have any advice for...
[Alex still cracking up]
Jaime Sloane: Sorry I’m trying to stay serious but it’s hysterical.
Alex B: No it’s good it’s good keep going.
Jaime Sloane: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for upcoming artist, like you said earlier about the people you said you’re trying to help out?
Alex B: Yeah, I’m a firm believer that you can make whatever you want to have happen, happen if you personally apply yourself and work your ass off. So I would say that whatever your goal is in life, if you actually put in the work to do it, then you can do whatever the fuck you want.
Jaime Sloane: Sweet! Alex, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy Ultra weekend to speak with us. We’re expecting great things from you and we cant wait for your upcoming announcements.
Alex B: Perfect!