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Wunderhorse: the storytelling songwriter on his debut album ‘Cub’

After raging in his teens as the frontman of Dear Pretties, Jacob Slater has swapped his sound for something calmer and more mature with his solo act Wunderhorse

By Ella Kemp

Wunderhorse (Picture: Alex Waespi)

Jacob Slater is trying to be more hopeful about things. He’s attempting to find more useful ways to redirect the anger that used to fuel his life, making peace with issues he might not have acknowledged when he was younger and finding beauty in the darkness of it all. He’s also putting extra effort into enjoying London. 

“When I’m busy, it’s great!” Slater, 24 today, laughs from a pub in Bethnal Green on the hottest day of the year so far. You can tell he’s trying awfully hard to mean it. “I left home when I was 17 and lived here for five years, and at that time when I wasn’t busy, I think the industrial non-stop-ness ate me up a bit.”

That period in Slater’s life saw his boisterous arrival onto the music scene as the frontman of post-punk trio Dead Pretties, who imploded almost as quickly as they exploded to life in 2017. But Slater is taking pains to not speak too poorly of the band that got him started. This young man is hardened but wiser, as his debut album under new moniker Wunderhorse, the complex and poignant Cub, attests.

Wrestling with early relationships and precocious mistakes, the record shares DNA with Sam Fender’s triumphant Seventeen Going Under, featuring bold songwriting that is unafraid to address the elephant in the room: the monsters of youth. 

“It’s about analysing things you missed at the time because you were so caught up in them,” Slater says of Cub. In most of his songs, his lyrics focus on other people rather than himself — an older woman on stormy opener ‘Butterflies’; a recent ex-girlfriend on soaring album standout ‘Purple’: “She had a pretty tough home life growing up, but I thought there was something worth celebrating. When you’re with someone like that you want to hold a mirror up and make them happy.”

Wunderhorse (Picture: Alex Waespi)

Commenting on his storytelling methods, he says, “When you’re writing about somebody else’s life, it’s important to find some good in the things people have suffered.” Of his hope to find some light in the confusion and struggle he so often sings of, he states, “Nothing is ever fully good or bad.” Did he learn this lesson in those rocky early days, and their themes of chaos and anger? “This album hopefully isn’t angry for the sake of angry, which is what the music I made in my late teens was,” the musician admits. “Hopefully, the anger is channelled in a more authentic and positive way and used a bit more sparingly.”

The album embodies that same hope — but it’s not just naive optimism that everything will work out in Slater’s favour. To get these new songs ready for a life on the road (Slater supported Sam Fender and Fontaines D.C., who both discovered his music authentically, for a string of shows this year), the rehearsal process is much more “intricate” than Dead Pretties ever had the time or energy for, even though storming lead single ‘Leader of the Pack’ and the more brooding ‘17’ were written during that first chapter of Slater’s career. “It all requires more of a level head now,” he says. “The old songs, most of them have three or four chords and you could bang them out and go crazy. I definitely can’t get up to my old antics any more; the songs just won’t work.” 

“It’s maybe more nerve-racking at first to be stone-cold sober, but if you let it take you over, it can help you because it’s totally real”   

— Wunderhorse

Those “antics” involved a lot of drinking and drugs as Slater moved from his teens into his early 20s. It’s a lifestyle he’s now happily swapped for a more peaceful existence by the sea in Newquay, whenever he can get back there. “It got to the point in my late teens where what was sparking the creative cogs in my head ended up just slowing me down,” he confesses. But that existence must still, somehow, find a way to make thundering guitar music hold water. Where does the buzz come from now? “It’s maybe more nerve-racking at first to be stone-cold sober, but if you let it take you over, it can actually help you because it’s totally real,” Slater says. “There are no synthesised emotions. I’m full of adrenaline and I’ve got to go out there and deliver. I think once you get used to it, it’s a massive help.” 

Slater isn’t fully ignoring his first musical identity, having always held rock icons like Neil Young and Elliott Smith close to his heart and at the forefront of his mind as a writer. Smith’s influence in particular is all over Cub, and there’s a similar delicacy in Slater’s vocals on ‘The Girl Behind the Glass’. Elsewhere on the record, the mesmeric ‘Mantis’ nods to Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ in its powerful outro. These artists — the founding fathers of the kind of music Wunderhorse wants to be making — are so often compartmentalised as ‘sad boys’ in today’s vernacular, but Slater sees it differently. “There’s this misconception that listening to ‘depressing’ music when you’re feeling that way is revelling in sadness, but actually I think it works in the same way as great poetry,” he says. “It reaches out and lets you know you’re not alone, like a light in the darkness rather than dragging you down to the depths. Some people get that wrong.”

Wunderhorse (Picture: Alex Waespi)

The everlasting ambition of Wunderhorse is to find that light in the darkness. To lift up your head beyond the industrial non-stop-ness and be able to see the horizon from your front door. “I’m looking forward to moving into the latter half of my 20s,” Slater says of what will come after this first major achievement, and how he’ll tentatively keep moving forward. 

“I feel like I did a lot of quite painful learning in my late teens and through my early 20s. I think I see the world slightly differently now, and have more tools at my disposal to deal with things that in the past few years would have thrown me. They don’t really bother me any more. Maybe that’s just getting older.”

Wunderhorse’s debut album Cub is out October 7.

Taken from the October/November 2022 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online now.