As dubstep and other forms of electronic music emerge as a populist force in American music via artists such as Skrillex, Bassnectar, and Girl Talk, one of the up-and-coming stars on that scene has some Memphis connections.
Alex Botwin, who records and performs under the moniker Paper Diamond, is a Kansas City native who currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. But he spent seven years in Tennessee in between, studying recording at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and then launching his first band, the Pnuma Trio, in Memphis.
"The Pnuma Trio formed on the Internet, pretty much," Botwin says, talking by phone from New Orleans, where he's taken a couple days off to try to finish his new record, Paragon, in a rented studio space.
Botwin, who was the bassist and producer in the band, met drummer Lane Shaw, then in Memphis, and keyboardist Ben Hazlegrove online.
"This was before Internet sharing was as prevalent as it is now," Botwin says. "But I heard their stuff and was really fired up, and so we pretty much all dropped out of school at the same time and decided we were going to pursue what we were doing."
The band settled in Memphis in 2004 but lived on the road, playing 226 shows in the first year alone, according to Botwin.
An innovative, forward-looking ensemble that blended electronic music with its bass-drum-keyboard foundation, the Pnuma Trio stood out in a jam-band scene that then tended to be grounded more in roots music (think Yonder Mountain String Band) or classic rock (think Widespread Panic or Phish). The band hinted at a potential collision of jam and electronica that has steadily grown.
"The commonality [between] the scenes is that music is the universal language, and right now I feel like the most freedom in music comes from electronic music," says Botwin, now 28, who moved from Memphis to Colorado along with Shaw after three to four years of touring out of Memphis.
Botwin says he was drawn to Colorado because of the more relaxed marijuana laws and the growing electronic music scene.
"I used to live down the street from Young Avenue Sound, and I would trade beats for studio time," Botwin remembers of his electronic/production side interests during the early days of the Pnuma Trio. "Some of those beats would end up going to 8Ball & MJG and other people. I was always making beats and dance music while I was in Pnuma Trio. As those guys started to get less interested in electronic music, I was getting more interested in it."
Botwin first branched out performing solo under the name "Alex B." before debuting his Paper Diamond project on New Year's Eve 2010 opening for dubstep star Bassnectar. With Pnuma Trio on what Botwin suggests is an indefinite hiatus, he's spent the past year building Paper Diamond into one of the more promising new acts on the dubstep/electronic music scene.
Paper Diamond's first release, the eight-song Levitate, came out in early 2011, presenting an icy, dubby take on electronic dance music that blooms with elements of hip-hop and R&B. And Botwin's growth has continued with notable remixes — most prominently of the Kanye West single "Power" but also of tracks from dance/R&B acts Little Dragon and the Weeknd — and getting music licensed for film and TV. Meanwhile, Paper Diamond opened shows for scene stars Skrillex and label benefactor Pretty Lights before striking out on his own headlining tour.
"Going back 10 years, I had this vision of how big electronic music was going to be in the United States," Botwin says of his decade-long journey from MTSU to the upper rungs of the dance/electronic scene.
"It's exciting because it's finally coming to fruition. It's a crazy time in music when anyone is capable of making anything. Anyone can get a laptop and make music. You can go from playing in your bedroom to playing in arenas."
For Botwin, the improvisational feel of the jam-band scene Pnuma Trio broke into is mirrored into what he can create by himself onstage with a laptop.
"I always know what I'm going to start with when I go up there," Botwin says of his live shows.
"But then I can feel out the crowd from there. In terms of improvisation in a live setting, it's similar but definitely heavier and more dancey now. It's cool because I'm able to represent the sounds that are in my head live and people can come experience this thing that's like sensory overload, with the time and care that we put into our lighting design and the design of the videos and sound."
While Botwin continues to hit the road — with swings through the Midwest and West after leaving Memphis, sandwiched around an appearance at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas — he's also building something back in Boulder, where he's a founding partner in Elm & Oak, a small design firm/art gallery/boutique record label located on Pearl Street.
Botwin will be talking about his experiences as a musician and business owner as part of a "Backstage Pass" event before his Memphis show at Newby's, sponsored by the Memphis Music Foundation.
"I'll do anything I can for Cameron [Mann, director of the foundation's Music Resource Center]. He's a great person in the Memphis music scene and with what he's doing at the Music Foundation," Botwin says.
"When it comes to creating a career in the music business, that's something I'm confident in, and not just for myself but for other artists I've been helping."
The "Backstage Pass" event will take place at 7 p.m. at Newby's. Admission to the talk is $5 or free for Music Foundation members.
"I look forward to coming to Memphis," Botwin says of this homecoming of sorts.
"We're definitely bringing a top-notch show and it's going to be great to come back. Some of my favorite food in the world is in Memphis."
Friday, February 10th, 9 p.m.