I’ve never felt so naked in my whole life,” says Jacob Slater, the man behind the reins of rock band Wunderhorse. The Hertfordshire-born frontman is centre stage at his sold-out show at London’s Lafayette, 600 pairs of eyes transfixed by him. As he roars through a rollicking set of gritty rock, his face crinkles, his body bucks. Pouring out of him are vignettes of teenage trauma, delivered with a preacher’s zeal. He bares his soul; his heart is open.
“It’s kind of a relief going on stage every night,” he tells me the following day, when we meet in a bar in King’s Cross. “It’s like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” This is fortunate, given Wunderhorse are currently on the road with Irish rock band Fontaines DC, having previously supported North Shields artist Sam Fender. Both have been enamoured by the band’s merging of muddy rock and Nineties-infused grunge.
Wunderhorse’s debut album, Cub, released in October, is a coming-of-age future classic, or, as Slater describes it, “connecting the dots from a 17-year-old me, to now”. It’s a story of growth, healing and forgiveness, with wistful lyrics coming up against buoyant melodies. Listen to the contemplative “Mantis” and the gloomy guitars will remind you of Radiohead. On the woozy, psychedelic “Poppy”, there are Stone Roses-style instrumentals that bloom, while the bass lines that glimmer through “Morphine” are pure Lou Reed. Slater’s delivery vacillates between a sandpapered rasp and the bruised vulnerability of Elliott Smith. I ask if the process of writing and recording helped him to move on from past experiences: “I f***ing hope so!” he says with a laugh.
On debut single “Teal”, he tells a story of a close friend who went through some “nasty s***” aged 21. “Up to that point I hadn’t really had to have much responsibility for anything in my life and when that happened, I thought – this is real, life is not some game, its f***ing fragile,” he says. “I can only write songs when things really hit me.” He’s inspired by songwriters such as Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten and Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief. “They look at something mundane and make it poetic... you can sort of see this thing through their eyes,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ve got that in me but I’d like to explore it.” Slater tells me he stays to watch Chatten and the band every night on tour. “I get so much out of their music, it brings things out of me. You see them live and it feels even bigger than them – a band that f***ing means it. There’s absolutely no doubt in your mind as to the authenticity of what they’re doing.”
Despite those affirmational gigs with Fontaines DC, it wasn’t long ago that Slater chose to step away from the stage. He previously fronted punk-rock band Dead Pretties, formed in 2015, but something didn’t feel right. “If you’re playing that kind of music, you have to believe in it,” he says, sitting across from me in a baggy T-shirt and vintage jacket, holding a pint of Guinness. He’s ardent and confident, but there’s a wariness to him too. “You should always believe in what you’re saying. You’ve got the whole of your life to lie,” he jokes. “Don’t lie in music!” His bright blue eyes are wide now. “It’s a sacred space, it matters. You’ve got to mean it.” Quitting the Dead Pretties was a matter of artistic integrity, he explains. “It feels like such a sin to be playing something that’s supposed to be raw and real and for that to be an act. I didn’t want to kid anyone.”
He might have abandoned punk, but rebellion against what’s expected has permeated Slater’s life. He quickly became obsessed with politically minded singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Sinead O’Connor, the latter cited as his favourite of all time. “The f***ing power in that voice!” he says of the Irish artist. “Words don’t do it justice.” His mother recently recalled how as a toddler, he’d once had the strength of “mini Hercules”, holding open the piano lid to stop her from shutting it, just so he could play. Later, he wanted to be Keith Moon after hearing the “explosive” drumming in “The Real Me” by The Who, “much to my mum’s disappointment”, he laughs. He may not be Keith Moon, but he did get to play Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook in Danny Boyle’s Disney Plus drama Pistol. “It’s fulfilling in a different way,” he says of acting.
For Slater, variety is the key to staving off overstimulation. After the Dead Pretties split, he escaped to a new life on the shores of Newquay, Cornwall, where he’d holidayed as a child. This gave him the space to clear his head and eventually return to music with a renewed sense of purpose. “Some creatives need to be in the thick of it, [but] I think it just suffocates me,” he says. Instead, he prefers to keep the music world “distant enough to remain exciting”. Since the move, surfing has become fundamental to his creative process. “It’s an area of my life where there’s the freedom to fail and develop skills just for the love of it,” he says. “There’s no end goal and that’s been really beautiful.”
In March, Wunderhorse will embark on their first headline tour of the UK and Ireland. Slater is hoping that the audience will keep their phones in their pockets. “It takes the mystery out of [the shows],” he says of our obsession with documenting every waking moment. He cites early Velvet Underground gigs: “There’s no footage, there’s just stories, they’re part of the mythology.” Slater believes our addiction to tech comes at the cost of the moment. “I look at people now, and they’re always sucking something out of their phone or having something sucked out of them,” he says, taking a final sip from his pint. “Be present, you are here experiencing it. That is enough, I promise you, that is enough.”
‘Cub’ is out now