Alex Botwin sits at the end of the bar in a tiny bitters tasting room called Amor y Amargo on 6th street in the East Village. His face is framed by black stubble and nerd glasses; his baseball cap is tilted just so. He's finishing an Old Fashioned, a retro whiskey-sugar-bitters concoction storied to be the first "cocktail" to be called such. He could be any "cool" dude in New York, except he seems exotically at ease. An earlier Twitter post complained of a hangover and implored for weed. Maybe he's just fatigued. I squeeze through lanky ladies and their gay best friends. "Hair of the dog," I say when I reach him. "I would've brought you some weed, but this being New York and all…" "It's all good," he says, knocking back his drink.
I dont sleep in much. Im always working, Im a busy bee. When I was younger, people used to call me Busy Botwin.
We head a couple doors down to A-1 Records, one of the older, remaining record stores in the city. On Facebook, they describe themselves as "an oasis for ex-dope fiends and smut entertainers." When the front gate is rolled down, a spray-painted face, like the billboard in The Great Gatsby, gazes at the public housing across the street. At night, a string of Christmas lights dangles in between the awning and a nearby tree that has magically sprouted tangled pairs of sneakers among its yellow leaves. Boxes of not-so-gently used LPs cram the curb. Inside, there are a few turntables near the storefront windows so passersby can see you grooving blissfully to mysterious, spinning black platters—that is, if they can see through all the stickers slapped on the glass. The rest of the room is dense with vinyl; the ceiling is covered in old album covers. Alex flips through the crates, finds a couple old funk tracks and walks over to a turntable. He drops the needle on a few spots before ultimately deciding, "I like this, but I don't think I'm going to buy it."
We walk up the block to Cafe Pick Me Up, across from Tompkins Park. The sound check is done, and he has an early set at Webster Hall later, so his day may be over soon. But Alex is not used to sitting still for long. He has been on the road steadily all year. As Paper Diamond, Alex has recently made stops in Philadelphia, Chicago and Nashville. He is playing the Lights All Night party with Tiesto, Benny Benassi, Laidback Luke and Diplo on December 30th in Dallas. The following night, New Year's Eve, Paper Diamond is booked for the Snowglobe Music Festival in Lake Tahoe along with Thievery Corporation, The Glitch Mob, Bassnectar, Theophilus London and his longtime friend and business partner, Pretty Lights. "I don't sleep in much. I'm always working, I'm a busy bee. When I was younger, people used to call me 'Busy Botwin'."
Growing up in the South, everything is fried. In Boulder, you can eat healthy and be high all the time. We thought that would be a good place to move the store.
Seated on the throw pillow-padded bench that snakes along the wall, the 27 year-old hip-hop/electro/dubstep musician describes his not-so-distant youth and how it influences his choices. "I grew up in Kansas City. My grandmother played jazz piano, my mom played piano, my dad plays trumpet. They had me in lessons when I super young. When I was 4, I started playing violin, then guitar, drums when I was 12. When I was six years old, I knew music and design were what I wanted to do." Busy Botwin wasted little time. "My junior and senior year in high school, I went to a studio where they taught you web design. One of my teachers saw that I was excelling and she let me work on my own projects throughout that period and pretty much do what I want to do. She told me to go to Middle Tennessee State University outside of Nashville because it has a pretty prestigious program in music. I dropped out when I was 19 to pursue my music career. I've been touring full time since. In 2006, I did 226 shows."
When he did settle down, Alex chose Boulder, Colorado. To TV buffs of a certain age, Boulder's best remembered as the adopted home of Mork, a space alien who crash-landed there in a cosmic egg, wore rainbow suspenders, talked like a coked-up comedian and fell in love with a fox named Mindy in the late 1970s. Like many transplants, Alex is an unofficial but eager ambassador for his new home. "There's a lot of talent and people are able to get recognized because people help each other. Thousands of people are coming out to shows. We have Beta, a club run by people who own Beatport. My booking agency was there. Amazing weather, weed's legal, organic food, all the buses are run on bio-diesel. It's forward thinking. Growing up in the South, everything is fried. In Boulder, you can eat healthy and be high all the time. We thought that would be a good place to move the store."
Theres something about Skrillex that the mainstream can appreciate. For me, its good, it opens peoples ears to new shit. There are people that are going to hate on everything...I love that Pop stars are hooking up with dubstep people.
The store Alex refers to is Elm and Oak, a hybrid shop that includes a clothing boutique, an art gallery and a design space. The shop started in Norfolk, Virginia but closed down because the city accused his partner of teaching and encouraging graffiti simply for selling Crank markers. "There are some fucked up laws in VA," he laughs. Contrasting Norfolk and Boulder, he continues, "Elm & Oak is right downtown on one of the main streets, it's a big part of what's happening in that city. It's hard not to notice us." The brand's no-nonsense approach is embodied in the logo's crossed axes and wreath. "The axes represent hard work, the wreath represents creativity. It means stay sharp, be on point, honest. The words Elm and Oak stand for 'Exclusive Limited Merchandise' and 'One of a Kind.'" The brand is home to an extended family of musicians including Pretty Lights, Sorry for Partying, Minnesota and Raw Russ. They have hosted events and parties with Gaslamp Killer and Elliot Lipp. But Elm and Oak is not just a cute place to party and shop. "There's a company called Bridge to Skate that builds skate parks in developing countries and gives kids skateboards. We help them with that. It's one way of us giving back to the community." And if all that doesn't endear him to the locals, there's a furry little rep with a wet nose called Puppy Diamond to greet them at the door.
With all the various elements and projects in play, one has to wonder how Alex keeps it all together. "I'm a master of delegation. There's stuff I don't have time to do. I need to be making music and design. I use that opportunity to let people take the reigns. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it bites me in the ass, but you learn and move on. The label for me is for showcasing people that I care about deeply. I have managers and agents and all that, but I've learned from my experience so I can help cultivate these musicians. It's great to see them come into their own." One of his recent signings that he's excited about is Cherub, a band out of Nashville that trades in post-punk Prince-inflected grooves. "Their new record is almost done, they've gotten invited to major festivals. As a manager, it's exciting to see. At some point they might be bigger than me. But it's not about that for me. For me it's about versatility. I make all kinds of shit–music for movies, uptempo, downtempo music. I like dubstep, but am I a dubstep producer–no; I make it because I can. I can do electro, but am I an electro producer–not really but I can make it. You want classical music, I'll do that. I am happy to spread music and happiness; I'm grateful for every day that I get to wake up and do that."
One thing that he's been struggling to do recently is finish "Paragon," his next EP to be released as a free download through Pretty Lights Music. "I have hundreds of songs. I've picked out my six favorites so far and now there's two spots left, I want it to be eight tracks, like Levitate (click to download). It's a mix of hip-hop, dubstep, and electro and I'm going to do all those things because I can." Helping him with the visuals for the project are Nook, a designer for Wired magazine and Josh Holland an artist. " We're creating all these different characters for each single. Josh Holland is one of the most amazing character creators. Nook is creating these cityscapes and we're going to mix the cityscapes and characters and make animations to go along with story lines."
The name, to me, represents the process of making origami–whether its simple or complex, its an expression. With music, its the same thing–taking nothing and turning into something.
Alex's timing couldn't be better. Throughout 2011, electronic music has been mainstreaming fast and hard, climaxing in a list of Grammy nominees including artists rare on American pop charts, like Swedish House Mafia, Photek and of course, Skrillex. "There's something about Skrillex that the mainstream can appreciate," Alex says. "For me, it's good, it opens peoples' ears to new shit. There are people that are going to hate on everything. They have expectations. When I put out "Can We Go Up" some people were really pissed off. I was on tour with Skrillex when I made "Can We Go Up," so it may sound a little like him, but I use what's around me in my music. I don't really care. I used to care so much about what people thought. Now I'm realizing, 'just be original.' Whether you like him or not, Skrillex is original, he made sounds people hadn't heard before. He changed things whether you like it or not. I always knew electronic music was going to be huge in America. It's just a matter of time. It's huge all over the world and hasn't stopped. I love that Pop stars are hooking up with dubstep people. I reached out to MF Doom once. He said he would rap on my beat, but it was more money than I had because I was just starting out. Am I still interested in working big rappers and singers? Yes. If I could work with anyone, it would be Little Dragon. I love her. I am completely obsessed!"
Reflecting on his evolution into Paper Diamond, Alex says. "It took me years to come up with a name that I like. Alex B wasn't going to work because people attributed that to hip-hop. Pnuma Trio was my dance music project. Then I started making off-kilter beats and did a mix for Brainfeeder. I decided to rename myself Paper Diamond to maintain an association but also get some distance. Once I was ready, I started a marketing campaign, 'Who is Paper Diamond?' I like the elusiveness and mystery of it. The name, to me, represents the process of making origami–whether it's simple or complex, it's an expression. With music, it's the same thing–taking nothing and turning into something. I was always trying to make the weirder, out-there bits, but now I'm excited by simplicity and seeing where things go."