Deepak Mantena has released music twice under the name Junk Culture: 2009's West Coast is a collection of J Dilla-inspired beats, while this year's Summer Friends showcases Mantena's dexterity with manic dance pop.
He's passionate without shame, breaking into unexpected intensity in "Golden Girl" with a jealous "see him on your chest/ NO THANKS!" "Weird Teenage Vibes" plays like a wistful Bear in Heaven, and "Honeysuckle" answers Kelis' "Milkshake" with the same bratty, playful eroticism. Think a middle ground between Toro Y Moi and Panda Bear, with just enough Sasha Fierce character to keep things interesting.
The two Junk Culture releases clock in at a combined 34 minutes, yet neither West Coast nor Summer Friends feels incomplete. Each makes a distinct, though compact, statement. "I feel like I have an allergy to writing songs that are longer than two and a half or three minutes," Mantena says. His love of short works—music, film, whatever—comes from an appreciation of artists who know how to make their point quickly and then cut out. "More often than not, people don't have that internal ability to edit, and a product can suffer because of that."
He doesn't think this stems from a short attention span, though. Rather, he points out, many summer blockbusters are written with short attention spans in mind. It's content, not length, that he says defines this.
Mantena's self-set summer goal is to finish a full-length record, on which he'll experiment with writing longer songs. He's early in the process but excited about trying a new direction (the third in as many records). As if that isn't enough, he's also working on a Web TV miniseries with his brother, Nitin. "We both play these filmmakers that are trying to make their dream project, this time-traveling Korean War movie called Tigerclaw," he says. "They're really inept in a lot of ways. It all culminates in a film within a film."
In talking to the man behind Junk Culture, it's easy to get the impression that his mind is wired in an atypical way. Notably, he won't share the name of his high school project because elements of it embarrass him. "I played acoustic guitar on every song and sang on every track and stuff like that," he says almost apologetically. "It was kind of weird." Mantena prefers to sample himself playing an instrument. He then manipulates or mangles it, just as he would with any found sound, before inserting it in the song.
If Mantena is most comfortable on dance music's seemingly counterintuitive fringe, then it seems apropos that he releases music through the aptly named Illegal Art. The unconventional label, run by the mysterious "Philo T. Farnsworth," does not require that its artists clear their samples. Illegal Art has seen prominence in recent years for its flagship act, Girl Talk, and its pay-what-you-like model is becoming increasingly common with self-release sites like Bandcamp.com. Mantena describes this as an active response to the increasingly endemic concept of free music. "It's not like you can't make money doing this stuff in the Internet era," he explains. "It's just about adapting to this new idea."
Mantena identifies not only with Illegal Art's ideals—which allow the sample-happy artist creative freedom without legal constraint—but with the overall vibe. He knows everyone at his "independent-as-shit" label. Even if the free-music basis of Bandcamp and Illegal Art may look similar from the outside, Mantena points out that Bandcamp would never have helped him with publicity or booking. He has already played several tours with larger acts, including stints in support of Girl Talk.
"Those are the biggest shows I've ever played," Mantena says of the multi-thousand-seat rooms his labelmate regularly sells out. Then he starts to laugh. "You should play with him for sure."