Wunderhorse: punk-turned-Americana songwriter beloved by Fontaines D.C.

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. Backed by introspective power-rock, Newquay-based musician Jacob Slater's debut solo album ‘Cub’ embraces growth, heartache and discomfort. Words: Becky Rogers

Most of us wouldn’t willingly think back to what it was like being 17. But for Wunderhorse’s Jacob Slater, the Americana-tinged coming-of-age tales that populate his debut album ‘Cub’ depict his rite of passage from his anarchic beginnings in music with the short-lived punk loudmouths Dead Pretties to the songwriter he is today.

Known for their ramshackle on-stage persona (picture a fist fight ending in bloody noses and broken guitars) and screaming “fuck off!” to conformity, Dead Pretties quickly rose out of the legendary Brixton Windmill scene in south London alongside the likes of Shame and Goat Girl. But the trio’s raucous, breakneck lifestyle couldn’t go on forever: after three years together and with just three singles out in the world, Dead Pretties called it a day in 2017.

Five years on from the band’s break-up and now based in the “peace and quiet” of Newquay, Slater – who balances music with a role as a part-time surfing instructor – is embracing a slower pace of life away from London’s engulfing music scene. “I was never that well suited to London,” he tells NME in one of the capital’s bustling pubs. “I was mainly here because it’s where everyone comes to find their feet and meet people. But how I was living got in the way – I felt like a fraud. I was becoming an act with how I’d throw myself around on stage, and take everything at 100 miles per hour all the time.”

Having made the decision to stop taking drugs post-Dead Pretties and focus on his mental wellbeing, Slater’s move to Cornwall – where he shreds more waves than riffs – gave him “space to breathe”. Now surrounded by the Newquay beaches he’s loved surfing on since the age of nine and socialising with friends away from the music industry, the change of pace has offered him a chance to be creative again.

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“If I only hang around with musicians all I think about is music, and, as a result, there’s nothing to feed it,” Slater explains. “Personally, the best results in terms of creativity come from living your life as a whole and having other interests.” And the best way to achieve this? “Surfing! It’s the answer to everything. Music career bombs? Go surfing.”

Wunderhorse
Wunderhorse (Picture: Press)

It’s not just surfing that Slater’s taken up recently. During the height of the pandemic, Slater auditioned for his first acting role as Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook in Danny Boyle’s biopic Pistol. The FX miniseries seems more in tune with Slater’s raucous musical endeavours of the past, given that the Pistols infamously told NME back in 1976: “Actually, we’re not into music, we’re into chaos.” But by being able to “compartmentalise” his various projects, Slater’s foray back into the world of punk only strengthened his overall work ethic.

With a heightened mentality of “if I have something to do, I’m committed to it”, Slater went into the studio to work on ‘Cub’ once filming on ‘Pistol’ wrapped. The songs he wrote during his time in Dead Pretties that didn’t fit their punk outlook (‘Leader Of The Pack’ and ‘17’) were now fit for purpose and ready to record. Though worlds away from the guitar shredding and on-stage disorder of his teen years, Wunderhorse’s scuzzy charm provided the perfect outlet for the songs that were once discarded.

Despite being the oldest track on the record, ‘17’, named after Slater’s age at the time of writing the song, stands the test of time. Its lo-fi tenderness tussles with a strong sense of imposter syndrome (“Do I look pretty in your pictures? / Did I fool you with a laugh? / Don’t be the clown who lets his armour down / Just take the photograph”), marking itself as ‘Cub”s poignant centrepiece. It nestles neatly among the soaring guitar licks of ‘Epilogue’ – written the day before Slater went into the studio – and ‘Leader Of The Pack’’s attacking Americana blues, showcasing the album’s ability to sonically jump around with ease.

Revisiting lyrics that were written eight years ago was a tricky business, though. “When you’re 17, you don’t have the analytical part of your brain – things just fall out,” Slater says, laughing at his attempts to rework ‘17’. “It got worse if I tried to change it.” Even with lyrics that “haunt” and “cringe out” Slater today, the song has been given the Sam Fender seal of approval. “He reached out to tell me it was his favourite song on the album, so fuck it. At least someone likes it.”

‘Cub’ is a complete tale of growth, acting as “a retrospective on what brought me to this point,” Slater says.

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“I found it more interesting to write about other people than me. A lot of these songs were written in my late-teens and early-20s, and I wasn’t sure if I had a specific voice to tell those stories. I thought it’d be better to look at people around me who’d impacted my life rather than running the risk of sounding up my own arse, or looking back and not being happy with what I said.” He pauses, then laughs: “I don’t know what my feelings are half the time.”

He may not divulge much about his personal life in his lyrics, but there’s a genuine vulnerability to what Slater does share. Familial relationships in ‘Purple’ get the Springsteen treatment with a stadium-ready chorus and tight lyricism that bursts with pride: “You do it with style and you fill it with beauty,” Slater sings. “The grace and the fury, the fire in your crazy smile that they can never take away.”

The heartbreak lullaby of ‘Mantis’, offering Radiohead-style eeriness fused with surf-rock euphoria, mellows the second half of the record, while ‘Poppy’ brings dirty psych-rock into the modern day and ‘Morphine’ provides a brooding haze. Not a million miles away from The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s grunged-up, head-rushing freak-beats, Slater’s cohesive blend of Americana, indie-rock and psych richness across ‘Cub’ make this an impressive solo debut.

It’s an album that’s just itching to be played live. NME joins Wunderhorse a week before he jets off for his first American tour supporting Fontaines D.C., a run that will see him playing on a number of big stages. Slater’s become more familiar with such surroundings following a week of outdoor summer shows earlier this year supporting the likes of Foals and Fender, and he’s becoming less daunted by the prospect of performing to large crowds.

“You do feel humbled [to be playing on big stages], but also there’s a part of you that wants to step up to the plate and think, ‘OK, we fucking deserve to be here and we’ve earned this spot,’” he says with a smirk, clearly ready for the challenge. “I like feeling out of my comfort zone. I like walking out and seeing a whole sea of faces that are like, ‘Well, come on, what have you got for us?’”

Rather than taking lessons from the headliners he’s supported, it’s more about the overall touring experience for Slater and where those post-show adventures take him. “In Dublin, the Fontaines boys showed us around. They took us to this packed pub at around 2am to watch this guy play the best blues guitar I’ve ever seen,” he says, still in awe.

Wunderhorse
Wunderhorse (Picture: Waespi / Press)

A full-time return to music for anyone in Slater’s position might’ve been daunting, but he doesn’t seem too overawed by the prospect. It’s confidence over arrogance, though: any question about his past musical persona is met with a “it’s just not me any more” or “I’m a different person” answer. He does joke about “growing a Mohican and saying controversial things” when he hits his mid-40s and starts a punk resurgence, but it’s limited to just that – a joke.

This change in mindset – from making a punk statement with Dead Pretties to making music he enjoys with Wunderhorse – is what makes ‘Cub’ so authentic. Having learned the first time round how to “smell the [industry] dickheads earlier” and not fall for endless promises, there’s now more time for the music. Case in point: album two? Already done. Album three? “Mostly written, but not recorded.”

‘Cub’ hasn’t been an easy ride for Wunderhorse, but the eight-year-long journey from its inception to its release is what makes it so special. “Anything worth doing shouldn’t be a breeze,” Slater concludes. A lesson we should all live by.

Wunderhorse’s debut album ‘Cub’ is out now via Communion Records

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