Interview: Paper Diamond
Using origami as an analogy, Botwin points to the subtle differences between artists’ interpretation and execution of an idea
Over a year and a half ago, Alex Botwin formed a project named Paper Diamond. He’d been working as a producer and performer under the name Alex B for several years, receiving critical acclaim from XLR8R and many more. In addition, he has continued to build a design collective named Elm & Oak, which focuses on “limited merchandise and one-of-a-kinds”, while functioning as a record label, clothing line, visual art studio, and much more.
The interest in the current iteration of Botwin’s creative efforts is feverish, following his free ‘Wavesight’ EP release on Mad Decent sub-label Jeffrees which we reviewed back in May. On it, his penchant for a variety of musical genres and experimentation shines, alongside an evident knack for production. His live, largely improvisational performances are in high demand at the moment, with a whirlwind two-month ‘Night Vision’ tour coming up.
Paper Diamond, which Botwin describes in great detail in my interview at Electric Zoo 2012, is a very personal outlet for expression drawing upon disparate influences. Using origami as an analogy, Botwin points to the subtle differences between artists’ interpretation and execution of an idea; this theme of interpretation is evident throughout his creative works, performance tact, and of course at Elm & Oak.
And the tour itself contains one final takeaway I’d like to point to before presenting my interview: Botwin excels at co-opting talented artists from across the spectrum of sound and design. Over the coming months, he’ll be working on tour with the likes of Eliot Lipp, releasing tracks with Chad Hugo of N.E.R.D., and teaching university-level courses with Big Gigantic, all while incubating a crop of incredible visual artists in the fields of video, painting, and more.
So, without further adieu, I present you my sit-down with Paper Diamond.
Cal: I guess where I want to start is talking about Elm & Oak a little bit. I think you’re kind of using it as a platform to fuse music and design in an interesting way, and I’m hoping you can speak to that and its importance to you as a musician, performer, and label manager.
Paper Diamond: So what Elm & Oak means is exclusive limited merchandise and one of a kinds. Even though its the two trees, you know, it’s spelt like the two trees, that’s what it means. It’s basically about being unique. Even down to the logo, that’s what we had in mind when we created it. Everybody thinks it’s about the trees, but we put the axes in there to chop down those ideas. They mean to us staying sharp and being on point. And the wreaths balance it out, so that it’s not as aggressive.
you really can make a life out of it if you dive in and really work for your goal and work at it every day, and not faulter
Elm & Oak as a whole, is a group of artists and musicians and like-minded, forward-thinking people who are trying to put cool ideas in to place, and supporting each other doing it. So we have a design firm with an art gallery on the main walking distance of Pearl St. We have all these dope designers who are illustrating artwork for me, and then we pass the illustrated layers to video guys who are making a totally animated LED-wall show.
Meanwhile we have a monthly art event with rotating art, a monthly music event, and we recently started Elm & Oak Academy in which we’re going to be teaching art and music on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. It’s the first non-student owned student group to ever get funding through the school.
So basically, we’re going to bring in inspirational people to talk about how they, people that are still in the business that are still on the rise, to talk about how they’ve been doing what they’re doing, how they’ve had longevity, how they’ve gotten to be where they are, and really try to inspire the youth in Colorado to get them doing whatever inspires them, whether it be art or music, and just show people that you really can make a life out of it if you dive in and really work for your goal and work at it every day, and not faulter.
That’s kind of Elm & Oak as a whole.
We have a label where I’m putting out music that I love, from people that I find, who are friends, where I believe in their music. It’s a group of people supporting each other, trying to put cool shit in to play.
all these people who are really pushing boundaries and showing people it doesn’t have to be one thing. There are all kinds of different beautiful music
Cal: And the stuff at Boulder, you’re going to be doing it a couple times per semester?
Paper Diamond: Yep.
Cal: And you’re doing it with Big Gigantic, right?
Paper Diamond: You know it.
Cal: So I’m wondering about your recent and past experiences touring is going to have on those lectures, and the way you kind of present this community idea that you’re building at Elm & Oak.
Paper Diamond: So I dropped out of college when I was nineteen to pursue my life, art, and music. I’d been going to school for music production, and in high school senior year, half the day I finished all my classes and I went to a recording/design school. So basically everything I’ve studied I’ve been doing for nine years now. I’m 27, so you know, the Paper Diamond project is a year and a half old project in which I’ve always had an expressive side of me that loves dance music, and I had a band that was doing that. As it started to tour less I still needed that expression, so that’s where the Paper Diamond stuff came in.
That’s even what the name means. It’s like taking nothing and turning it in to something, or taking something that could be simple or complex, based on your own personal take on the thing. So if you have a piece of paper, whatever your diamond shape is, whether simple or complex, that’s your art form. So for me musically speaking, whether it’s simple or has a lot of layers, it’s my self-expression. So basically the name means “my art”.
to me music is a conversation in which every piece, every track, every idea should be thought out… with a conversation you have space and breath, and when I listen to each track I ask how are these things going to work together
Cal: Musically, a lot of labels have a sort of nailed-down aesthetic. I noticed there are disparate influences that you probably draw on. Just a guess – hip-hop, electro-dubstep, and probably some other stuff I don’t even know – so maybe you could speak to that, and the aesthetic that you are or aren’t trying to nail down on Elm & Oak?
Paper Diamond: Sure. So for Elm & Oak specifically, I’m trying to have an eclectic label. We have bands like Cherub that’s like indie pop type stuff, great song-writing. We have other producers like Two Fresh. I used to really be in to labels like Warp and stuff like that, and I think they did a great job with bands like Chick Chick Chick, Flying Lotus, and all these people who are really pushing boundaries and showing people it doesn’t have to be one thing. There are all kinds of different beautiful music.
Moving on to what I’m currently listening to or inspired by.. it’s always changing. I was a vinyl junkie for a long time, making off-beat stuff. Under the name Alex B I did a mix for Brainfeeder, Flying Lotus’ label. I was doing stuff for Mary Anne Hobbs, BBC, etc. So I make all kidns of different stuff. I’ve been listening to everything from, like you said, electro-dubstep, but also rap, hip-hop, Little Dragon, I love indie music, love even some of the poppier type stuff like asap, wiz, Juicy J. All kinds of electronic music. Downtempo, mid-tempo house, dubstep, electro.
That’s what keeps it interesting for me is I can’t really, I don’t ever make the same thing in the studio, and that’s why my productions are so varied. Because I take all these different things, and to me music is a conversation in which every piece, every track, every idea should be thought out and you can listen to it on its own, but it also has some melodic idea in which it’ll draw out emotion.
So with a conversation you have space and breath, and when I listen to each track I ask how are these things going to work together. So even without words, my music says something and pulls on some emotion. At least that’s what I’m going for. Regardless of what style it is, if I’m trying to make it rowdy and make people rage at a live show, if I want to make some headphone music, or whatever, it’s really about creating some sort of emotion with music.
Cal: And how’s that expressed in your live set? Because you are pretty improvisational with your use of MIDI controllers and your iPad. Is there a direct correlation to your recorded music, the audience.. how is that expressed?
Paper Diamond: The expression live is very improvisational as you say. I know what I’m going to start with, I pick that out before the set. And I have almost every song I’ve made across all genres, multi-tracked, for example just drums, just bass. So I’ll see the crowd respond and move in different directions, and I can play antyhing at any BPM, match in different keys, and almost remix stuff live. It keeps it interesting for me because it leaves room for error, and because I’m not going up there doing the same thing, and wearing myself out.
I get a little pumped before the show because I dont’ know what’s going to happen. Hoping I don’t mess up. And I still want to have that little bit of uncertainty. That’s what creates the connection between me and the audience, seeing what people in the certain areas and regions are responding to, move in certain areas and directions, and that’s where the connection comes in through the live aspect.
Cal: For me it’s a way to experience something you know and love, for the first time again. Neat.
So a couple quick questions about upcoming releases. You have a tune with NOISIA, SBTRKT, released and coming out. What’s the status?
Paper Diamond: Right now I’ve been talking to Mad Decent about a new release – I just had the Jeffrees release. I’m pretty much working on that every day. I’m flying to a bunch of different studios and collab’ing. Just trying to draw in all kinds of influences, from rap especially – I recently got to spend a day in the studio with Chad Hugo from the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. Down in New Orleans I got to work with Manny Fresh. Been working with several singers. I’m trying to let things happen naturally in the studio, and bring in people I don’t even know maybe. Sometimes just to bring em in for a listening session, and see if we get inspired to make some stuff.
This process of working and stockpiling all these different melodic ideas, loops, and drums, then road testing them at big shows like this. Ultimately once I feel as though things are almost there, I’ll set the release date.
Cal: Finally, you have a tour coming up – September to November, the Night Vision thing.
Paper Diamond: Yeah, really excited! We’re taking a bunch of homies out on the road. Like the Knocks, Crizzly, Eliot Lipp, and Clicks & Whistles. It’s gonna be really dope. The whole Night Vision thing is funny – I got these glasses I’m wearing now – they’re my prescriptions. I had another pair that were completely clear and I lost them at a festival. So I have all these people asking me all the time if I can see in the dark, like “do you have night vision?”
Cal: Dooooope! Best of luck on tour and with those tracks you’re working on.