Interview with Peter Degenfeld-Schonburg from Beyond The Bridge

A few weeks ago we did a review of the debut album by the new German progressive metal band  “Beyond The Bridge” and the response has been overwhelming to say the least!  It’s pretty rare when a band comes out of nowhere and gets as much attention and acclaim as this band has.  A lot of people have asked to know more about the group and their unique take on conceptual progressive rock/metal so we contacted their guitarist and founder Peter Degenfeld-Schonburg with a request for an interview and he graciously accepted.

So please read on to find out how the band was formed, how they developed their sound and just what the heck their heady concept album is all about.  After the interview we’ll have links to the band’s website and a reposting of their album “The Old Man and The Spirit” via Spotify.

Beyond The Bridge Band Photo e1335901334137 Interview with Peter Degenfeld Schonburg from Beyond The Bridge

Hi Peter, it’s a pleasure to meet you and discuss your band’s amazing debut album.
Hi, it’s a pleasure for me as well.  For newcomers in the business it’s always a huge honor to give an interview.  What could be more rewarding than people spending their time and energy just because they like your work? It feels overwhelming.  Thanks to you and all of your readers.

You’re welcome.  I know from your bio that the band originally started back in 1999 when you were in a progressive rock band called Fallout, but then revived it as Beyond The Bridge in 2005.  It must seem pretty amazing after all this time to have your album come out to much acclaim worldwide?
Well, it’s definitely amazing!  The reactions we’ve found on Facebook, YouTube and in the large number of review articles about the album are mostly very positive and we’re very proud of that I have to say.  On the other hand we feel that we’ve been granted an excellent starting point for many more things to come.  We’ll stay modest and focus on all the other goals that a real touring and studio band should have.  Yes it’s true that we have a great debut album and people seem to like it.  But, we’re still newcomers.  We’ve had only one live show so far and will have to prove that we’re a good live band and are able to perform well also outside of a studio.  Therefore, and I admit this without any shame, I have to sit down, practice and finally figure out the functions of all the buttons on my new gear!

I’ve gotta say your album has just floored me.  Beautiful and epic.  One of those rare albums where I’ve been sitting my friends down and telling them “you’ve got to listen to this now!” And no one’s complained yet!
Oh, that’s great.  In my case they complain all the time.  They say that the music contains too many notes!

Before we discuss the album I’d love to get some background on you.  How long have you been playing guitar?  Who are some of your influences, progressive music or otherwise? Any guitar heroes?
I started to play the guitar at the age of 9.  My parents offered to buy me an instrument and take lessons.  As my father loved guitar and rock music in general he convinced me to pick the guitar.  But of course I couldn’t just begin with the electric guitar so I started with classical guitar lessons.  Until the age of 14 I wasn’t really motivated and didn’t practice outside of the one hour a week lesson. I almost quit but my parents forced me to go on. Looking back I’m very proud of them for doing that.  They really did the best for me!  The next 5 to 6 six years I practiced a lot, both on the classical and the electric guitar. I only had lessons on classical guitar where I played tunes from Bach, Villa-Lobos, Albeniz and some more.  Unfortunately, nowadays I don’t find much time to play the classical pieces but the most important thing I learned from my guitar teacher is to value accurate playing.  The urge to play passionately with your heart has been in me ever since but I had to learn that virtuosity arises more from accurate playing than from fast tootling.  That’s why my all-time favorite guitar player is Paul Gilbert.  His playing is so accurate and perfectly accented and dynamic.  Just an amazing guitarist!  Moreover, there are bands like Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation, Ark, Yes, Jethro Tull, Spock’s Beard, Masterplan, Porcupine Tree, Vanden Plas, Avantasia, Savatage, Steve Vai, Rush, Nevermore and many more who I admire and take my inspiration from.

I know you’re also a PHD student in physics which I know is a serious commitment of time and energy. How have you managed to keep your music alive while working on your PHD at the same time?
Well, the truth is that I simply work less than my colleagues in both fields.  That’s great because I’ll always have an excuse why I’m not the next Albert Einstein or why I can´t play like John Petrucci!  Of course, you’re right.  The PhD is my main job and it does pay my salary. Up to now the guitar has been my hobby.  But since we signed the contract with Frontiers Records it has become a job after the job.  To be honest, I couldn’t find the energy for the band if it wasn’t fun.  And of course there will always be the dream of a life where Beyond the Bridge can pay my salary.

How did the band form? Is the entire band from Germany?
Yes we’re all from Germany. At least we live in the same country but we almost all live in different cities.  That’s a huge undertaking for the band and in my opinion it’s the biggest problem we’ve got right now.  Our musical life started as a school band.  We finished school in 2004 -- everyone moved to different cities and the old school band Fallout broke apart.  Dominik (bassist Dominik Stotzem), Christopher (keyboardist Christopher Tarnow) and I stayed friends after school but it wasn’t until 2005 that I decided to get a band together and that’s when I came up with the conceptual idea of “The Old Man & The Spirit”.  One of the biggest motivations for me to re-form a band was that Christopher’s career is in recording music.  I knew in 2005 that he’d become a producer someday and we would have the chance to do professional recordings.  I convinced him to create a concept album together and in the next five years we finished our university studies, composed the music and wrote the lyrics.  I did my diploma in Physics in Munich and Christopher became a “Tonmeister”.  As it turned out in 2008 my plan has worked out quite well.  But it wasn’t Christopher who produced the album as he decided to go for engineering, mixing and producing classical music.  Our producer ended up being Simon Oberender who was and is one of Christopher’s best friends and colleagues.  After finishing his diploma Simon became a sound engineer and producer at the Gate Studios in Wolfsburg, Germany and all we had to do was ask him to record it for us there.  That turned out to be a great choice and a huge opportunity for Beyond the Bridge.  Simon also brought Fabian (drummer Fabian Maier) and Herbie (vocalist Herbie Langhans) into the band and I met Dilenya (vocalist Dilenya Mar) at a concert of hers in Munich.

How did you come up with the name “Beyond The Bridge?” Does the band name have any special meaning to you?
We were actually walking in Budapest at the Danube promenade forcing us to speak English in order to come up with a band name.  We were just planning the evening when we saw some nice spot on the other side of the river.  We were wondering what it was when Dominik just said “let’s go beyond the bridge”.  In that moment we just realized that was it!  “Beyond the Bridge” fits the music, the lyrics and progressive music in general as it always does try to go “Beyond the Bridge”.  It’s also a great marketing slogan: Always go beyond the bridge!

One of the things that struck me strongly about “The Old Man and The Spirit” is how much of a progressive rock album it is -- even more than a progressive metal album, at least to me.  For me that’s great because I was way into progressive rock before progressive metal even existed!  Are you pretty well versed in prog rock?  Who are some of yours and the other band members’ musical influences, metal or otherwise?
As I mentioned before my father raised me with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Yes, Rush, King Crimson and some more. But I really would not say that I am well versed in prog rock. Looking at the genres of metal and rock, I agree and say that our music has more attributes that fit the rock genre.  But it’s not important to me whether you call it rock or metal as long as it’s powerful and intense music.  In my opinion no sound is more powerful than the sound of a well-mixed and produced rock/metal band. In that sense: Metal rules!

Are there any current bands really knocking you out these days?
Actually, just today I thought what a great band Ark is.  “Burn The Sun“ is just an incredible album.  Just recently I discovered the new German newcomer Band, Flaming Row. Great as well!  And as always, I love Pain of Salvation.

I know that Germany has a very long and storied tradition of progressive music, especially with the style known as Krautrock (not sure if your countrymen like that term!). However, I’m not hearing a lot of that cultural influence in your music. Would you agree?
I agree. To my knowledge there is no Krautrock influence on our album.  I actually had to Google that term!  It took me to Wikipedia where they listed about 30 bands, but apart from Tangerine Dream I don’t know any of them.

Getting to your album, as I said, it’s very polished and works extremely well as a cohesive concept album. Was it always your intention to do an album as a story rather than a collection of disparate songs?
Actually yes.  We wanted to do an album as one big piece of music.  In fact, one of the very first things that came to our minds were the two characters together with the basic content of the story. We wrote a brief abstract and divided the whole thing into successive statements.  Basically, before a note was even written we knew what each song had to sound and feel like and what the lyrics had to say.  With these restrictions we started the song writing process. At the end writing songs under some restrictions turned out to be just great.  Although one might think that restrictions will limit creativity, it was actually the opposite in our case.

What has been your compositional process? Are you the main songwriter or is it a more collaborative process?
All the songs are written by Christopher and me. The two of us meet, buy a lot of chocolate or candy and start working. The working atmosphere is always great as we respect each other a lot.  But even more important is that we laugh, make jokes and relax while writing music.  It feels as if the creative process was something like a holiday from everyday life.  Dominik sometimes joins in as well.  He is very skeptical which helps us a lot to decide whether the music we wrote is good or not.  He’s also a great inspiration.

To be more specific, first we developed the concept for the album.  Then we wrote the music first and recorded it immediately. Even the vocal lines were recorded but mostly with some strange instrument to emphasize that the melodic line is supposed to be the vocal melody.  I remember that for the vocal lines of  “Spirit” we actually had a pan-flute as a guide track.  After the melody was fixed we wrote the lyrics.  Usually we use a very simple setup to do this.  Just a computer, Pro Tools LE, a guitar and a keyboard and at the end we create something like a pre-production.  Apart from the drum parts everything is fixed.  With this we go into the studio where everyone knows what needs to be played.  That worked extremely well for the band and I think we’ll do it the same way on the next album.

Can you talk a bit about the story line of the album and what it all represents?
First of all, I believe that if you dig deep into the story you will find that there are many possible interpretations or meanings behind it (you can find the official answer at our website -- here).  Basically we juxtapose humanity to overall awareness.  Of course there is a lot behind the words “humanity” and “awareness”.  To be a bit more accurate you could say that we juxtapose experience to knowledge, insignificance to sense, feeling to certainty, transience to infinity, love to indifference and so on. Or to put everything in a simple question: Would you like to understand life or would you rather just feel alive?  The human part is embodied by the “Old Man”, while the “Spirit” embodies the overall awareness. Both characters desire what they don’t have.  The album describes that having both humanity and overall awareness is not possible for any one of the characters.  However, the “Spirit” offers to trade her awareness for the “Old Man’s life. The album will tell you whether the “Old Man” accepts this tempting offer or refuses.  I had this idea at the age of 19 when I had to decide what to do with my life and I knew I had two possible choices.  Either become a musician or study physics.  I believed that physics could reveal the answers to the questions I’d been having as a teenager, basically questions about the universe, elementary particles, quantum mechanics and stuff like that.  On the other hand there was music.  I guess I don’t have to tell you that music can be the most intense experience sometimes.  At the end I decided to go for physics but now I’m back to music!

How would you describe the concept of the album to a 7 year old?
O.K. Let’s assume the name of the 10 year old is Leo.  I would say this: Once upon a time there was a young boy, Bob, just like you but very anxious to find out all the secrets about Santa Claus and his magical elves.  He got really desperate that no one in his family and none of his friends could help him with this issue.  Just right before he gave up, one of Santa Claus´ magical elves suddenly appeared and offered him a trade and said “Bob you can just become like me and fly around the North Pole as much as you like discovering everything you can imagine about Santa Claus and his magical elves. But you can’t do this as the boy you are.  You have to become an elf.  I know a great magic spell which will transform you to me and me to you.” You have to know Leo, that elves do not get presents on Christmas and they are not allowed to eat candy and chocolate.  The tale of little Bob tells you how Bob decides and whether he reveals the secrets of Santa Claus or remains a boy happy and thankful for every present and for all the candy he gets. What would you do, Leo?

That’s a great story!  One of the things that really sticks with me on the album is just how many great sections there are. To cite just one example, on the song “The Struggle” there is a an amazing a cappella vocal section with Herbie and Dilenya that just comes out of nowhere but is perfect for the song. What parts of the record are your favorite moments?
I really can’t tell.  All the songs are great to me and it just depends on my mood at any given moment.

I also love a lot of the ballads which I know are really hard to do well. “The Spring Of It All” especially has become one of my favorite recent songs and it’s mostly just piano and vocals.
I have to say, it’s mostly due to Christopher that the album contains three amazing ballads.  He has a very romantic side to his personality which of course is great for impressing lots of girls!

I really like how you have both male and female vocals on the record. It’s a great contrast to hear Herbie’s Jorn Lande-esque gruff vocals contrasted with Dilenya’s really beautiful and powerful voice.
Thank you very much.  One of Herbie’s biggest idols is Jorn Lande and I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that you’ve compared him to the great Jorn!  The outline of “The Old Man And The Spirit” made it necessary to have two lead vocals and gave us the chance to show a greater variety in our songs.  While the progressive in most progressive rock tends to refer mostly to the time flow of the music, we felt that having two lead vocals would create an almost-polyphonic structure that one usually doesn’t find in rock music.

It’s pretty rare for me to just totally love an album from start to finish from the first listen. The album actually reminds me of some of the great modern progressive epic albums like Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Part II -- Scenes From a Memory” and Spock’s Beard’s “Snow”. So again, congratulations on a pretty monumental achievement.
Thanks!  Comparing the album to “Metropolis Part II” is one of the best compliments you can make!  Spock’s Beard is also a great band and I’ll have to check out “Snow“ as I haven’t heard it yet.

How did you get signed to Frontiers Records?  Has being signed to a label helped the band with distribution?
Actually, it took us around half a year to find Frontiers.  We wanted to finish the whole album before we presented it to a label. We were done in April 2011 with the masters of the CD and with just the music only (no cover art or booklet) we applied to several labels.  Finally in September/October of 2011 we got an email from Frontiers and we’re very pleased how that’s worked out.  We’re totally satisfied in working with them and it’s helped us enormously with distribution.  We’re just a really lucky band and at in the end it was our producers Simon Oberender and Sascha Paeth that helped us get in touch with the labels.  Then it all just fell in place which is really incredible for a new band like ours.  It’s sad though, but I have to conclude the obvious after some of the experiences I had with my band.  Good music is not all that matters in the music business.  Your product has to be good and then you have to be lucky and then lucky and even luckier still.

As we’re an online music magazine, I’m also really glad to see that you guys have a very strong internet presence -- a great website, social media plus a YouTube channel with a lot of promo videos that you did before the album even came out.  Has having all that been helpful to get the word out?
For newcomers the internet is a great opportunity to spread the music over YouTube or Facebook.  We would be stupid not to use all the possibilities given by the World Wide Web. I’m sure it has been helpful, definitely!  Within the band we try to divide the tasks. Dominik is responsible for the Facebook page, Simon and Christopher designed our website and I did some of the things together with Simon that are on YouTube. For the future I was thinking that maybe I could do some guitar videos dealing with the licks on the album and my personal view of the guitar and so on. But as I am not a big superstar like Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci or Steve Vai I was not convinced whether guitarists over the world would care about my opinion.  But on the other hand my videos would have a personal touch and be related to the music of BtB.  We’ll just have to see what our fans want!

I know that you recently had your first gig in support of the great prog metal band Fates Warning.  That must have been an amazing experience.
Yeah it was great!  We had 45 minutes to play as a support band for one of the greatest prog bands of our time which was just unbelievable!  Our two singers were in great shape, the audience was great, our drummer did not lose a stick and so on. Everything went well on that night apart from me pulling out my in-ear monitoring cable by stepping on it!  I couldn’t hear my guitar for about 30 seconds until I managed to put the cable back in.

I also saw that you’re going to be playing ProgPower USA in September, 2012.   That’s awesome -- how did that gig come about?  Are you excited to be playing at the U.S.’s premier progressive metal festival?
Oh yeah, ProgPower USA.  I really don’t have to say much about it right now except that it’s just an amazing opportunity for us.  I mean it will only be our second show and we’re going to be on the same stage with amazing bands like Symphony X, Epica and Redemption!  Just recently Nightwish and Kamelot have been added to the Thursday night show so it’s going to be a fantastic festival.  We actually got the gig because Dominik added Jim Wilkinson (who’s on the ProgPower USA staff) to the friend list of BtB on Facebook.  Jim contacted me just to say  how much he liked the album and because I knew that Herbie was already playing the festival with Sinbreed I asked if we could perform as well (it never hurts to ask!).  Jim put us in touch with the festival promoter Glenn Harveston who told us that the festival’s line-up was already completed but then “Above Symmetry” cancelled and we jumped right in!  Thanks to the World Wide Web we’re playing ProgPower USA 2012! Unfortunately, the Web can’t fly a seven piece band from Germany to Atlanta so we’re still looking for sponsors.

So, what’s next for the band?  I know you personally are still a student and the other band members have varied careers.  But, as a fan, I’d love to see you continue making great music for many years to come.
Oh we’ll definitely be continuing with the band.  Whether it will be great is up to you to decide.  In May or June Christopher and I will begin the songwriting process for our second album. Fabian and Dominik are working every day on arranging upcoming live shows.  We’ll also be putting up an online shop soon on our website where people can order the first BtB T-shirt.  Overall we’ll mostly be focusing on more live shows and a new album.  As I mentioned earlier we really want to become a real studio and touring band with all the things a band like that has to do and I’m looking forward to my first smelly tour bus and first bad hangover after a great show!

Before we end our interview, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Well, thanks to everybody for reading the interview and thanks to you for giving us this great opportunity.  Keep on rocking and always try to go beyond the bridge…

Beyond The Bridge – Official Site

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2 Comments

  1. I’m absolutely floored. He’s a PhD in Physics and still finds time to write and perform music. Either he never sleeps or has inhuman capabilities…crazy. Awesome interview Jeff! I’m really excited about this band, so thanks for posting such great stuff about them.

    -Ashton

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