Blink and you would’ve missed the success and demise of South London’s Dead Pretties some years ago. They say a flame that burns twice as bright burns for half as long, and although true for the trio, vocalist Jacob Slater has now founded new project, Wunderhorse, to explore his softer sensibilities. Although a reputation for boisterous, frenetic music precedes him, Slater was eager to detour from this wild side, with the angst of his teenage days behind him. But don’t be fooled, he hasn’t completely mellowed. Wunderhorse is a coming of age; a departure from his heavily influenced punk foundations to songwriting that’s slightly more nuanced.
The debut track Teal released on Yala! Records carries bite, albeit with a more polished kind of confidence, while stripped back B-side One for the Pigeons highlights Slater’s ear for melody. He explains below a change in his approach from writing about being ‘in the moment’ to taking on the role of the observer. This perceptive eye has no doubt been useful for the musician, stepping into the shoes of Paul Cook in Danny Boyle’s upcoming miniseries Pistol about the eponymous band. Although he’s on the other side of the antics now, there’s a glimmer that’s still apparent. You can take the punk out of the boy, but the spirit of throwing yourself into the action is as potent as ever.
Clementine Zawadzki: It’s been four years since Dead Pretties split. Is Wunderhorse something that’s been brewing since then or is it more recent?
Jacob Slater: I wanted to stop playing with Dead Pretties for a number of reasons, one of which was that I’d kind of been writing songs for. awhile that didn’t quite fit with our oeuvre. I’d always loved people like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, and I just didn’t think it was the right vehicle for the quieter songs. I kept writing and eventually got a group of guys together, and that’s how this Wunderhorse thing started to take shape. I’m really lucky to play with a bunch of top-notch players that help me raise my game. There’s no room to be lazy. I play with a drummer Jamie Staples, who is absolutely brilliant and everyone wants to work with him at the moment, so I’m very lucky he chooses to play with me. Pete Woodin who is very musical and has a really good ear, and Oscar [Browne, Dead Pretties] who plays guitar, it’s great to have him there with me. Oscar hears things that I don’t hear and has been my longtime collaborator.
CZ: Why the name Wunderhorse?
JS: It was just kind of like a joke, not a great deal of thought went into it. There’s this old TV show from the 50s or 60s called Champion the Wonder Horse, but I’ve spelled mine with a ‘u’ so everyone thinks I’m German. There won’t be any copyright issues there. I started using the name as a joke and it was one of those things that stuck. I mean The Beatles is kind of a shit name, but it didn’t stop them, did it?
“If you’re still writing about the exact same things in the exact same way as when you’re fucking sixteen or seventeen, there’s probably something a bit wrong.”
CZ: Has this project changed your attitude towards music?
JS: In terms of the antics, I’ve probably calmed down a bit. We won’t be smashing things up on stage anymore. Don’t have the budget… well, we never did, which is something you find out too late. In terms of going on stage and giving it absolutely everything, that’s still the ethos through and through. I think that should be everyone’s ethos. Obviously, the songs I’m writing now aren’t loud punk songs with screaming and stuff, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give everything when you’re playing live. Even if you’re a support act and people haven’t specifically paid to see you, they are there and you should give it all you’ve got on stage. If things stop being fun and start to feel like a chore… especially with music, then it’s probably time to change something up. I feel like the stage is a real home for me, because I’ve been playing live in pubs and stuff since I was about thirteen or fourteen – it’s helped shape me as a musician.
CZ: How about your approach to writing?
JS: I’m not sure… in Dead Pretties it was more angry stuff and I don’t know if I’m quite as angry anymore. Maybe I am, but in a different way. I don’t feel the need to have a little rage in every song. It’s very tiring doing that. There are a few songs I’ve written about other people, because I think sometimes there’s a real tendency with the singer-songwriter cliché for songs to be really introspective. Sometimes other people are more interesting than you are, and a better subject matter is to look at people who you care about and who have been through stuff. I also have more life to write about now compared to when I was seventeen or eighteen. Back then a lot of the writing was very in the moment… it’s hard to know what’s really going on when it’s actually happening. If you’re still writing about the exact same things in the exact same way as when you’re fucking sixteen or seventeen, there’s probably something a bit wrong. Unless you’re the Ramones because they did that really well.
“I feel like the stage is a real home for me, because I’ve been playing live in pubs and stuff since I was about thirteen or fourteen – it’s helped shape me as a musician.”
CZ: You’re also currently filming Pistol where you’re starring as Paul Cook. Are you a Pistols fan?
JS: I think I have even more fun playing their songs now than just listening to them. I don’t listen to that era of punk that much these days, but I remember when I was about sixteen, Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Ramones was all I listened to at the time. It’s actually been really nice to come back to and remember, “Oh, I used to listen to this record every day,” and I did. I was totally obsessed! It’s nice to be reminded of all the things that used to flip your switch when you were younger. It’s been wicked playing the songs too. I’ve actually been playing the drums more than the guitar.
CZ: Were those bands in particular your introduction to music?
JS: It was probably a bit earlier than that, but they were second wave, third wave… I always wanted to do music. I certainly remember being around fifteen when I really started delving into 70s punk. At that age, people are starting to tell you how you have to think about growing up a bit, and doing this and that, and at that age you want something to rally you and your little group of friends that don’t want to do that. It speaks volumes about the potency of that music; that it can still do that for kids 30 or 40 years on. It certainly did for me at that age. It gave me the fuel I needed to make the rash decisions I did, which actually lead to Dead Pretties and living my life. It was definitely an important musical period for me.
CZ: How about your influences these days?
JS: I’ve always listened to the old classics. I’ve been listening to loads of Elliott Smith and Radiohead, people like that… stuff that isn’t straight up balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll. Modern people… well, ‘modern people’ I really like Sun Kil Moon, I really like Adrianne Lenker and her band Big Thief, and London bands like Sorry, and Irish boys Fontaines D.C. I think Grian’s a wicked lyricist and pushes you to write and say what you really mean, pushes your lyrical ability.
CZ: Your debut single Teal is going to be released on Yala! Records. How did that come about?
JS: Felix had heard a couple of songs knocking around. I think someone sent him some of my demos on SoundCloud, and he just got in touch and said he wanted to put out a record. No one was paying much attention at the time, so thank you, Felix. There were complications, like I didn’t have a manager, and then Covid fucked everything up as it did for lots of people.
CZ: With new music out soon, has filming on Pistol also nearly wrapped?
JS: We’re nearly done. I’ve been on this job since December, so it’s been a longtime and a wonderful baptism of fire. I don’t want to fall into the category of one of those ‘creatives’ that’s like, “I can do everything. I can do this, I can do that.” I think my acting abilities are probably limited to certain things.
CZ: Do we have a triple threat on our hands?
JS: There’s no threat there, I really cannot dance to save my life. Or anyone else’s for that matter. But I’m happy to make the music.
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