Interview: Wunderhorse – Shifting to a band, Van Morrison and the Rush of Playing Live.

Interview: Wunderhorse. The conversation below is taken from Issue Forty of So Young.

For Jacob Slater, frontman of Wunderhorse, there is nothing without the music. With a no-bullshit filter, his songs are gritty and tense at times, thoughtful and mellow at others. Contemplation sits at the centre of his work, whether reworking a phrase until it really says what he means, putting himself in someone else’s shoes, or questioning why certain music captivates him.  

What draws Jacob to some of his favourite artists? An essence more than anything – a mix of musical rule-breaking and authenticity that establishes a bond of trust between the artist and listener. Take Sinéad O’Connor’s public dealings with the Catholic Church and IRA, Van Morrison’s ability to replicate nature through music or Fontaines D.C.’s lyrical drama. If an artist can give the listener a window into their world, that’s the first step – something not as easy as it may seem.

For Wunderhorse, music gives clarity to feelings that may be difficult to articulate. Jacob grants the listener access, but with the reminder that a handful of the songs performed live today were written a few years back, immortalising that familiar fire of youthful angst and self-exploration. Paired with newer music, the debut album ‘Cub’ is a story of growth, tension and release – a dynamic that separates Wunderhorse from Jacob’s previous band Dead Pretties. But is this world always told through his eyes? Uncertain. Try asking again in ten years. In the meantime, perhaps the answers will be found with the help of his bandmates, or away from music completely in the depths of the sea.

Summer 2022 was one for the books. What did you get up to and what’s one song that summed it up?   

‘Brick’ by Alex G. I saw him for the first time at Green Man and that song is totally different from everything else he does. I’ve also been surfing in Cornwall, getting my head straight, trying to spend as much time in the sea as possible.  

Does surfing give you necessary respite from London? 

London really works for some people – it feeds them. I don’t mind being here for a bit, but after that I shut down. I’m just not built for it. In London, when you’re hanging out with other creatives, music is everyone’s focus in some way. But down there, people do different things. 

Is that something you enjoy? 

My creativity needs a bit of space to breathe. If I’m looking straight at it all the time, it suffers. 

Taking a breather from music, you played Paul Cook in Danny Boyle’s Pistol series. Has acting meant you now watch films differently?  

A bit…it hasn’t ruined films for me, but it’s harder to get lost in them. It does however mean you know when you’re watching something great, because you forget your surroundings.

Has anything recently resonated to this effect? 

‘Cinema Paradiso’. It’s one of my favourite films and it’s so beautifully shot. 

Cook played drums in the Sex Pistols. Did getting more acquainted with the instrument influence the way you now hear drums or inspire you musically? 

I don’t know if there’s been enough time to process. If it’s going to influence me, it’s going to take more time before it works its way into the music. But it’s definitely changed how I think about drums. When people listen to punk music, a lot say ‘none of them can play,’ but that’s not the case. Paul was such a solid drummer and so well suited to the band. 

A lot of people see the Pistols as the epitome of punk. Having immersed yourself in that world to play the part, how would you define that word?

I’m not sure…I went through a phase where that was all I listened to. I hated school and left at seventeen. It was the energetic quality and freedom that appealed to me at that age. I don’t know how to describe it. I find it difficult to be specific about these things…

Image of So Young Issue Forty

So Young Issue Forty. Cover photos by Hedi Slimane.

Thinking about how that music made you feel, do you think that essence of ‘punk’ has been lost today? 

It’s tricky, because there are certain songwriters or characters in music, who you wouldn’t necessarily think to be punk, but for me are the epitome of the genre. For example, look at what Sinéad O’ Connor was doing in late ‘88 to the 90s. Who she was and what she represented – that voice, that beautiful balance of grace and defiance – that’s more punk than anyone! 

And look at Dylan when he went electric in ’65. That music is now considered classic. When he released ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ people hated him! They were baying for his blood, he was receiving death threats. But he still went on stage and gave it 100%.

People were saying he was betraying the folk community. He was no longer what people expected and needed him to be.  

People were calling him Judas! It’s pretty intense when you’re called a prophet and the voice of your generation at 21.

Thinking about music from the 60s-80s more generally, musicians’ lifestyles were totally sensationalised. That pressure to indulge in things apart from the music is one that’s carried forward to today. Can you see a world where that no longer exists?

For me, I like that idea. It’s so easy to get lost in the other stuff. There have been times in my life when I’ve got caught up in it – when you’re a teenager, you can’t help it. As I’ve gotten older, I constantly remind myself that I’m in it for the music. If other people want to do it, that’s fine, but for me it’s just about the songs. Because without that you don’t have anything.

Music is a form of self-expression, and for you surfing is too…

It’s an area of life where I have the freedom to fail and not beat myself up about it. It’s always good to have an outlet like that, where you can fall on your ass and it’s ok. With music, there can be a pressure – “it’s gotta sound like this, mean this” – and when that doesn’t happen for whatever reason, you can fall into self-doubt. It becomes confusing. So I think it’s always good for me to go surfing, get away from life, eat shit and come out with a busted shoulder. But either way, it doesn’t matter. It reminds me to have fun.

Would you say the adrenaline you get surfing is the same as on stage?

It’s a different kind of adrenaline. Live music can give you a real rush. It’s tense and intense. It’s all on you and the guys in the band – you have to get up and perform. Whereas when I get in the ocean, especially on a day when it’s big and scary, it doesn’t even know you’re there. The adrenaline rush is coming from something that has nothing to do with you and doesn’t care about you. Whereas with music, all eyes are on you. There’s a lot more pressure – a different pressure. 

Everyone’s turned up to see you…

You feel like you have to deliver and owe the audience something. But with surfing, if you don’t deliver, you’ll drown. The stakes are different.

You mentioned the guys in the band. What does each member bring to the table?

Pete (bass and backing vocals) is pure precision. He’s a real rock. I’ve known Harry (guitar) since we were 14. We both share the feeling that live music is an arena where you can let things out that may not be socially acceptable. If we’re going mad, we know that Pete will always be there. He’s so consistent. The backing vocals and intense bass part are quite challenging as well and he’s so on it. Harry’s pure fuckin’ energy man. I’ve got a real special bond with him, we just bounce off each other. Jamie (drums) is just pure groove. Mr. Cool. Suave looking motherfucker who keeps it down. It’s really important that people understand how vital the drummer is. There’s the old saying – ‘you’re only as good as your drummer’. I’ll have an idea of what I want the drums to sound like, and he’ll already know what I’m thinking.

When Wunderhorse started off, it was more of a solo project. We’re going to try and shift the focus back to a whole band, because I’m getting really bored of myself. It’s much better that way.  

A lot of the songs off the new album were written years ago. Do you feel like you owe it to your younger self to perform them as they always were? 

I wouldn’t write those lyrics now. I’d like to think I’d write them better. Before we recorded the album, I tried to revisit the songs, rewrite the words, but it never worked. It always felt clunky. It felt wrong to change the songs, so I had to make peace with the fact that they’ll always sound like that. Hopefully people will understand that those songs relate to me back then. ‘Leader of the Pack’ was written towards the end of Dead Pretties but it never found a home.  

You said that song is about “betrayal and getting even”. Did you? 

Going out and getting even isn’t the best way of doing things…you can get into trouble haha. It’s good to use music as a means to feel like a score’s been settled, or at least articulate something. It makes it feel like a weight off your shoulders. That’s more what I meant. 

Have you ever tried to find resolution through lyrics but ended up more confused? 

I remember reading a Dylan quote where he was talking about how loads of people would ask who his classic songs in the 60s were about. And he’d say ‘ah fuck I was writing about myself!’ So who knows. Maybe in 10 years I’ll look back and be like, oh shit. Maybe, maybe not. It’s an interesting thing to consider either way. 

My writing used to be all about me, me, meas you do as a teenager. But then I realised other people are more interesting to write about. I like putting myself in other people’s shoes. I don’t know why, but it seems more appealing.

Do you find yourself using “I” and “me” a lot? 

That’s interesting, I’ve never actually thought about which perspective I’m writing the songs from… 

Stepping into other people’s shoes allows you to view the world differently. Has anyone’s music given you a new perspective on life?  

I remember the first time I heard ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison. It sounds like a cliché but it changed the way I saw the whole world. It’s a hard one to put into words because the nature of the album is transcendental. It takes you to a place where words no longer have meaning. It’s hard to articulate but I remember having this weird epiphany when I listened to it. I’d heard it before but never listened to it. It was towards the end of Dead Pretties, and it gave me this realisation that music can be all these other things. It sounds kind of cringey but I started thinking more about the beauty of the natural world, especially in relation to surfing. I was appreciating things in a more childlike way. As a child you’re so present – little things make you so happy. What I’m trying to say, is that ‘Astral Weeks’ helped me rediscover my imagination which I think I’d been missing trying to be a punk. And I wasn’t! 

Appreciating the natural world is important when touring is such a big part of the job. And you’re joining Fontaines D.C. next month! In the past, you’ve praised Fontaines for their integrity as a rock group. What does it for you? 

Personally, I don’t believe a lot of the bands I see. There’s loads of great bands around, but I find that with many guitar bands, it’s a lot of noise. There’s a real intention behind what Fontaines are doing. Especially with their latest record – Grian’s totally found his subject matter…

The interview above is a reduced version of our cover feature with Wunderhorse. To read the interview in full, order your copy of Issue Forty here.

Illustration by Julie Alex

The new issue of So Young is out now. You can purchase in print here or read the digital edition below.