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Monday, August 29, 2016

Géza Keller: The Precocious Troubador



Géza Keller picked up the guitar at 10, started composing his own songs at 16, and has since written more 50, styled after his primary influences: Steely Dan, Jackson Brown and Miles Davis.  


As the founder of half a dozen bands over the years, including breakingthecode, Géza has had a long love affair with writing and performing music. He also has always tried to bring a sense of community to groups of friends who share his love for the played note. 

Today, Géza plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals with breakingthecode, a four-person acoustic group he originally founded in 1997, which blends vocal harmonies with notes of jazz, blues, folk and rock. The current group performs a wide eclectic variety of singer-songwriter tunes, including Géza Keller originals, modern-day covers and catchy jazz tributes dating as far back as the 1920s.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Géza's colorful family history has influenced both his musical style and the political and cultural content of his songs. Géza was three years old when he and his Canadian-born mother Maggie Bujaki fled the Russian Communist regime and moved to WallaceburgCanadain February 1957. (Maggie’s parents were Hungarian, and took her back there during her school years, where she studied journalism and later became a Russian-Hungarian-English translator.) Géza’s father, Géza Ferenc (Francis or Frank) Keller, was a talented tailor, clothing designer and artist who was the nation’s junior diving champion. He once had aspirations to be an acrobat and to perform with his uncles in their world famous circus group, The Three Ajax. Instead, he ended up in prison and refugee camps for trying to flee from the Russians, finally making a water escape down the Danube to Austria in 1956. With the help of his great uncle, he reunited with his family six months later in Wallaceburg.

The Keller family relocated to Toronto for the next six years, where Maggie picked up various odd jobs available to political refugees until she landed a job at the Toronto Star. She later returned to newspapers as administrative assistant to the editor of The Sacramento Bee.

Géza F. played tunes by ear on the piano as he sang along with his favorite jazz records by the Mills Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald and the Four Freshmen. He also loved Big Band pianist Stan Kenton, trumpet player Maynard Ferguson, and marimba player Xavier Cugat. Growing up, little Géza often heard his father sing bossa nova songs with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, and Sergio Mendez & Brasil ’66.

When little Géza (Géza Laszlo) was eight, he saw the Disney movie “Almost Angels,” about the Vienna Boys Choir. Inspired by music at home, and recognizing now that young boys like him could perform, he immediately joined his elementary school choir as a soprano. He continued with choirs and ensembles until the family left for San Francisco two years later, in 1963. The family moved again six months later to Sacramento, when Géza was ten. Because he was academically gifted, he started school early and then was accelerated through several grades so he was two years younger than his classmates. 

Expanding his musical repertoire, Géza decided he wanted to be a drummer. His father rented him a snare drum for three months, which wasn't such a great idea in an apartment complex. But by then he’d also showed an interest in the saxophone, so he tried playing tenor sax in his school band. Unfortunately, the sax went the same way of the drums—still too loud for the neighbors—so Géza’s father bought him his first guitar, a Stella.

Shortly thereafter, Géza took guitar lessons from Danny Schmidt, the father of The Eagles’ bass player and singer Timothy B. Schmidt. However, he dropped the lessons a year later because they felt more like punishment than fun, and practiced on his own. He played guitar and sang in the school choir and ensemble in junior high, but when the family moved and he started a new high school, he was smaller and also two years younger than his peers, so he felt intimidated about playing publicly any longer. 

Graduating a year early, he was recruited to attend New Mexico Tech, a lower cost version of the California Institute of Technology, known as Caltech. Just sixteen when he left his close-knit family in Sacramento, Géza took off for the new desert frontier and the tiny rural town of Socorro with fervor, aiming to escape his provincial “white bread” life. There, he studied math, played soccer, and pursued the Yaqui way of knowledge.



It wasn’t until his junior year of college that he got hooked on guitar once again, honing his skills by listening to Steely Dan, the Grateful Dead, Traffic and singer-songwriters such as Jackson Brown and John Prine. He also practiced the guitar and sang like a fiend for at least six hours a day. He and some classmates formed a band called Creamy Goodness, which later changed its name to Island, after a book by Aldous Huxley about a Utopian place where everyone is happy. During that period, Géza wrote a number of complicated songs with challenging time signatures, inspired by jazz greats John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter and the Don Ellis Orchestra.

As a math major studying logic, Géza studied the work of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician and philosopher, which led to other great philosophers such as Rene Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) and Maurice Nicoll, who talked about achieving true self consciousness by developing and harmoniously integrating one’s physical, intellectual and emotional centers.

“It is like a guitar with many strings. To pluck one all the time is not to reach a harmony,” Nicoll said.

Thus inspired, Géza strived to integrate harmonies into his musical compositions as well, hoping that listeners would also experience joy from them. That is still true today.

“I want them to feel the loooooove,” he says.

After graduation, Géza worked on the first airborne laser at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, rode many hilly miles on his bicycle through the Land of Enchantment, and formed The Jazz Sparks with some other Techies, who played covers and also some of Géza’s original songs. He eventually ended up at the Los Alamos national lab, working in the Laser Fusion Program and forming another band there.

Even then, the young lad became known for bringing musicians together to jam. He took it on himself to encourage burgeoning talent, a community-building skill for which he is still known at the college’s annual “49ers” reunion and the annual SPIE optics trade shows he attends every year. And he takes immeasurable joy in organizing the slide-rule contest.

At the root, many of Géza’s original songs are about change. Many are also about love—its many forms and repercussions—a universal theme to which he believes everyone can relate.

Realizing that many people didn’t have the attention span for his longer, complicated jam songs, he set out to write his first commercial song, titled, “Let Me In,” in 1985. The song was inspired by the struggle that many young people experience, trying to find their own identities, their purposes in life, their search for love and their attempts to overcome their limitations amid the general chaos of life.

Girl, we’re all trying to live in a dream, life is not all that it seems, there’s so much for you so believe.

“People seek love and yet are troubled by love,” he says. “It’s both the answer and the problem.”

Géza’s hope has always been that this song would expand his audience beyond the musicians and artists who like music just for music’s sake; he wants his songs to appeal to listeners who enjoy being more actively engaged in music, and even want to get up and dance to it.

Finally tired of the rural mountain life, Géza decided to go full tilt in the other direction, and moved to Manhattan to take a new job. In his off time, Géza wrote a slew of songs about a range of topics, but focusing primarily on the search for the meaning of real love. One of them is “Big City Lights,” which is about a sexual tryst, against the backdrop of Manhattan.

During his two years in New York (and before he had children), he wrote “Baby Song,” which was about how he thought it would be when he did have kids. Today, he has two sons, who are 26 and 17. His older son, Cole, has joined the family business, runs an open mic night at the Stag & Lion Pub in Carlsbad, where he plays guitar and performs his own original songs. His younger son, Landon, is an autistic videogame savant and a talented but reluctant painter, which has prompted Géza to ponder forming a 501c3 nonprofit organization to help foster the creative and personal development of autistic adults.

“Baby Song” was the first song that Géza and his partner, Caitlin Rother, sang publicly together, because it is one of her favorite Géza Keller originals, and they have since recorded it as a duet. Its bossa nova beat and heartfelt lyrics make it a feel-good finger-snapping crowd pleaser as well.

‘Cause you’ve got a way of making me feel
It’s something special, doesn’t seem real
Now I know how it feels to be in love.

Géza moved to San Diego in 1988, where he worked at two optics companies before starting several of his own. His first company was QSP Optical Technology Inc., of which he was vice president. For the past 14 years, he has been the president and co-owner of Infinite Optics in Santa Ana, a company that develops and manufactures thin film coatings for parts of telescopes, medical instruments, and defense systems. On the same site, he started Cibola Glass, a boutique glass tile company that dovetails with Infinite Optics, by using similar technologies to create beautiful home furnishings. For a time he also ran Optics Masters, a sister company in Poway, which he recently sold.

More recently, Géza has been moved to write songs about tragic events that have struck him in the heart, such as the death of his college roommate, Victor J. Saracini, the pilot of Flight 175, whose hijacked plane was flown by terrorists into second tower at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That monumental tragedy inspired Géza to write “That Day,” a song about how our world view changed in those moments that Victor and 2,995 other Americans were killed, and 6,000 others were injured, and also fostered an annual fundraiser and scholarship fund at New Mexico Tech.

And I don’t think I’ll ever see, this life the way it used to be
While all the things around me change, I know that I still feel the same
And I won’t let your memory, fade into the history
Of all the things that you and I believed



Géza wrote another airplane-related song titled, “The Storm,” only this time, he eerily wrote it the day before the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which took the lives of 226 people and sparked a massive search-recovery effort in the Indian Ocean in 2014.

The Storm blew up from the south, that’s the day that she got lost.
Looking back, someone says that’s really how it all takes place.

Géza has enjoyed playing live in many bands, also including a now-defunct electric group called FakeBook, which had several of the same members as breakingthecode. But he also tries to get into the recording studio whenever he can. 

He started his own label and launched his first studio, 2656 State Street in Carlsbad, then moved it to Poway as Studio 2656, with his old friend and BTC bandmate Joe Rosignolo. Recording with other talented studio musicians, including drummer Jack Nathan, guitar player Bob Harkelroad, and pedal steel player Kirk Eipper, further reignited Géza’s passion to get back to playing his own original music. Today, he regularly jams with Jack and others local musicians at venues throughout North County.  
Nights and weekends, Géza plays many other roles besides lead singer and guitarist, including miniature golfer, bowler, video arcade monitor and homework tutor for Landon. He and Caitlin also enjoy long-distance swimming in the ocean, and go on quarterly creative personal development trips to the wine country in Sonoma and Napa, where they are working to develop their mad wine-tasting skills, to write and rehearse new songs. They are always on the lookout for good wineries or other venues where BTC can perform.

Story by Caitlin Rother, photo by Richard Malcolm. To support BTC, please "like" their Facebook page. To join their mailing list, please email Caitlin at crother@flash.net. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Caitlin Rother: Breaking out of the Musical Closet


Caitlin Rother had to become a New York Times bestselling author, public speaker and TV/radio commentator before she was ready to take on the new challenge of singing in public.  

Trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven, Caitlin had sung occasionally in choruses and other short-term performing groups, but was never able to play and sing at the same time. Most of her piano or vocal performances were conducted alone in the privacy of her shower, car or living room until she was encouraged to sing with Geza Keller, her partner and a longtime leader of many bands.    

After trial by fire and plenty of rehearsals, Caitlin is now doing what she never knew she could: playing the keyboard and singing vocals with the four-person acoustic group breakingthecode. 

It was a long time coming, but looking back it really isn't all that surprising. She had all the pieces in place, it just took some time for her to break out of the musical closet.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Caitlin is the daughter of two former McGill University students. Her Canadian father wrote a play in which her British mother acted, and both won national awards for their roles. 

Caitlin was one year and ten months old when her family moved to California in 1964, first to Santa Barbara, where her parents completed their PhDs in literature at UCSB, then to San Diego, where they got jobs at San Diego State University. In the early 1970s they moved to La Jolla, where her mother, Carole Scott, now lives with Caitlin’s step-father, Chris Scott. 

Caitlin’s parents gave her a rich arts education, exposing her to musical and theatrical performances in the US and Europe. In London, for example, her mother took her to see the musicals “Annie,” “Oliver” and “Cats,” a classical concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Chaucer’s play “Canterbury Tales” and Shakespeare’s “Midnight Summer Dream.” Caitlin also attended several plays and musicals in New York City. But for many years, Caitlin saw herself more as an arts enthusiast than a performer.

Like Geza, the founder of breakingthecode (BTC), Caitlin grew up with music playing constantly at home, where most every wall was lined with books and record albums. Her father, James Rother, taught himself to play clarinet, saxophone and piano by ear (he couldn’t read sheet music) along with his records, which also included classical music, opera and Broadway musicals. He often had stereo wars with the neighbors as well as his own family, who could not sleep with “Side by Side by Sondheim” blaring. Her mother often reminds her that one of her uncles led songs at temple as a cantor, and that her paternal grandmother’s maiden name actually was Canter.

Caitlin began piano lessons at seven. For seven more tedious years, she played Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, but hated practicing. She also had tremendous anxiety about playing in front of people, so she rarely participated in recitals. She was a skilled sight-reader, but couldn’t play without sheet music. She also tried acting in a couple of plays, but was too shy to pursue that any further.

As soon as she stopped taking piano lessons she found a new joy in playing. Finally practicing every day, she soon grew more comfortable playing for others, especially on a friend's grand piano. 

Meanwhile, Caitlin sung with the Muirlands Junior High School chorus as a soprano, and enjoyed singing along with pop, rock, jazz songs or musicals such as “West Side Story” or “A Star is Born.” 

During and after college at UC Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s in psychology and discovered her talent for journalism, she kept up her piano skills by seeking out pianos on local campuses, such as the concert grand in her dorm at Boalt Law School, where she lived and also taught aerobics classes.

While working in corporate communications for a cruise line in San Francisco, Caitlin was asked to audition for the UC Berkeley Glee Club. She was accepted, but never went back. She was, after all, a closet singer.

During grad school at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, she discovered a love for the blues (and adventure) at the Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s south side. After completing her master’s degree, she landed her first newspaper job—in rural Western Massachusetts. When her roommate invited her to join a community theater production of a Noel Coward musical, she wanted a singing part, but she was the only pianist in the group. She couldn’t do both.

Taking her next newspaper job in Northampton, she spent her first night in town at an open mic, where she met her future boyfriend, the lead singer-songwriter in a funk band. When he suggested she sing back-up on “Bust a Move,” she declined. She bought a Korg keyboard there, a digitally-sampled grand piano, which she brought back to California when she went to work for the Los Angeles Times.

After a year each at the Times and the Daily News in Los Angeles, she took a job at The San Diego Union-Tribune. She dedicated days to her news feature writing and investigative reporting skills and weekends to crafting a mystery novel.

After a short marriage that ended tragically, she treated herself to the 10-day Bread Loaf writing conference in Vermont, where she made a breakthrough discovery. Every lunch break she sung with an a capella group that performed several times during the conference. Asked again to play piano accompaniment, she insisted on just singing this time, blending harmonies in the small tenor section.

She looked for a group in San Diego to sing with, however her job and novel writing didn't allow time for another hobby. Thanks to a small miracle, however, Caitlin was finally able to afford her own Boston baby grand piano in 2000, and after practicing every day for four months she mastered Debussy’s “Passapied.” She tried singing with some girlfriends, but ended up at the piano again.

After publishing her first book, “Poisoned Love,” in 2005, Caitlin quit her full-time newspaper job in 2006 to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time author. Twelve years later she is now a New York Times bestselling author, has just finished book #12, and is working on #13, 14 and 15. 

Caitlin had to overcome her initial stage fright to give speeches and promote her books, and has since done more than 200 TV and radio interviews, many of which aired nationally. She has finally grown to enjoy being on stage or live on camera.

But her singing comes from the heart. In 2007-08, she experienced a prolonged flare-up of back, neck and arm pain from long hours at the computer, icing four times a day to deal with frequent muscle spasms. 

Singing was the only thing that brought her any relief. Belting out the songs on Linda Ronstadt’s album of standards, “Round Midnight,” Caitlin cried and smiled as she felt the pain and spasms let go. The more she sang, the stronger her voice grew, and the more her mood improved.

“It was better and more healing than any physical therapy—and it was free,” she recalls.

Once she felt better, she rediscovered her love for live music by attending shows by the retro dance band, FakeBook, with her longtime friend Daria, who was married to Tony de Paolo, a guitarist and singer in the band. Tony's friend, Geza, the lead singer and guitarist, was always friendly and winked at Caitlin every once in a while. Geza would ask the band to play “Old Love” by Eric Clapton when she requested it, even when his band-mates didn’t really want to do it anymore.

FakeBook played at Caitlin’s book launch party for “Naked Addiction” in 2007, and sometime later, Tony invited her, Geza, and some other friends over for a sing-along. It was fun, but she was still shy and intimidated by the notion of singing with two guys who played together in a band. In public. She, did, however, venture out a few times with friends to sing karaoke—“Crazy” or “You Took Advantage of Me.”

Fast forward to 2012. Geza and Caitlin started dating. He asked her to sing along with him at a few parties (he brings his guitar everywhere), and they also sang together at home or with family for fun, which also prompted Caitlin’s stepfather to encourage her to sing publicly. Geza suggested she pick a few songs where he would play guitar and she would sing alone, or where he would join her for the chorus.

As they kept adding to the list, they were practicing every weekend until Geza finally asked her to join his acoustic group, breakingthecode, comprised also of Tony and Tom Borg, who had all played together in FakeBook.

In recent months, Caitlin and her three engineer bandmates have been playing at private parties, recording audio and video in the studio, and play the occasional gig at a bar or the Del Mar Fair. In between their busy day-job schedules, they are always looking forward to the next upcoming gig. 

“I would have never even thought about singing like this if I hadn’t gotten over my shyness and fear of speaking in public first,” she says. “But just like with my speeches, the bigger the group the better I do, because there is more energy in the room. When I can see and feel that I am reaching and engaging people, there's no other feeling like that.”

It took a while for friends to get used to the idea of Caitlin joining a band. “You sing?” they asked in disbelief. “Why didn’t I know that?”

She is grateful to have found this new creative outlet, which also seems help her writing by providing a welcome distraction to looming deadlines and by bringing some light into the darkness of covering murder cases. She likens it to acupuncture, where the skin is pierced to let the energy flow in a different direction.

“Singing makes me feel more alive, invigorated by achieving a new accomplishment and developing a new skill,” she says. “It also makes me feel fresher when I come back to my writing. It’s really gratifying when friends tell me they’re inspired by my willingness to take a risk and try something new at my age, and that it makes them want to try something new too.”

Life is too short to live in fear and hide from new challenges, she says. She’s also already learned the hard way that striving for balance in work and play is crucial to her health and continued success.


Story by Caitlin Rother, photo by Richard Malcolm. To support BTC or join their mailing list, please "like" them on their Facebook page or email Caitlin at crother@flash.net.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Tom "The Rock" Borg: Steady As (S)he Goes




Tom Borg has been playing bass guitar in bands since he was a teenager. He has been adding his bass lines to Geza Keller's vocals and guitar in several bands for the past 21 years, and to Tony DePaolo's for the past 13.

“Tom is the rock, carrying the bottom, steady as she goes,” Geza says.

A true San Diego native, Tom was born in a hospital in North Park in 1956. As Tom grew up in the neighborhood, his father worked as a postman and his mother was a secretary at the North Park Community Church.

When he was 12, he tried playing the drums—first at a friend’s house down the street, and also on some that his father bought him. “I just thought it was cool,” he said of his first instrument of choice.

But he soon lost interest in playing drums, which didn't make his father too happy. Tom's dad vowed never to buy his son another instrument.

So Tom had to make it on his own. By the time he was 14, he was so inspired by the band Cream, and his hero—bass player Jack Bruce—that he saved up $35, just enough to buy his first electric bass guitar. Within a couple of years, he was playing in garage bands.

Other early influences came from the grooves on the 1974 band debut album “Kansas” and the jazz rock fusion sounds of Weather Report.

“Those were exciting times in music,” he says.

By the time he was 20, Tom was playing in underage nightclubs, mostly top 40s songs such as Bee Gees tunes from the movie “Saturday Night Fever.”

“I made more money playing in that band than I ever did in a band again,” he says, recalling the days before the demise of the musicians’ union, when he could make a whopping $40 or $50 a night--a virtual fortune when rent was only $110 a month and a tank of gas cost $5. “I was living like a king.”

Then the era of DJs began, which wiped out many previous performing opportunities and also slashed the fees that club owners were willing to pay musicians. 

That didn’t stop Tom. He continued to keep playing, while earning a living as an electronics technician and taking classes at Mesa and City Colleges, and UCSD Extension.

Ultimately, not earning a degree “didn’t hurt me any,” says Tom, a senior software engineer who has been writing programs for the financial industry for the past 17 years. “I was always interested in tech and that led to a career in engineering.”

But music is his passion. Tom has been in more bands than he can count over the years, estimating it’s been a “good 20,” some more short-lived than others.

A particular high point for him was playing with Claude Coma and the I.V.s, a hard-core local punk rock band, for a few years in the early 1980s. The band played mostly in San Diego and also a couple of times in the Bay Area, opening for the Surf Punks, Dead Kennedies and Suicidal Tendencies.

One of his most memorable gigs was opening for the Dead Kennedies in Tijuana.

“Kids were climbing off the speakers and jumping into the crowd,” he recalls. “It was an extreme punk event.” One kid hit the concrete while crowd surfing, hitting the thin layer of outdoor carpeting with a thud and staggering off to the sidelines to recover.

One day a band member excitedly declared, “Let’s go on the road! Everyone quit their jobs!” and almost everyone else chimed in. Tom, the only one who owned a car, felt he had to be the responsible adult and decline, which was a smart move as it turned out.

Another gig of note was opening for John Mayall with the an earlier iteration of breakingthecode (BTC) at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano in the early 2000s.

“John Mayall is a legend,” he says.

After BTC finished playing, Mayall’s bass player came over and eyed Tom’s bass guitar and amp, which were a definite cut above the rented gear the band had been given to use. “Please, can I use your rig?” he asked.

Tom gladly agreed. “I was going to stay anyway,” he recalls. “I thought it was cool. That’s one of the things about having a day job, you can buy cool gear.”

In 1986-87, he filled in for the bass player in an all-girl band called Luna. And along the way he played in a band with singer-songwriter-guitarist Audrey Marlene, with whom he played again in 2015 as part of her band Kitten With a Whip. He still plays with The Limited Jurisdiction Band, a group of prominent government legal officials that do mostly private gigs and can’t be paid for ethical reasons. Their names cannot be disclosed, because, well, it’s an undercover kind of thing.

While Kitten was still performing (Audrey recently passed away; RIP Audrey), Tom was playing in a total of four bands—including the electric retro dance band FakeBook, which played several consecutive years at the Del Mar Fair. BTC founder Geza Keller also founded FakeBook, which also included BTC guitarist/vocalist Tony de Paolo, and several other players. 

Now, the annual band gigs come during 49ers, Geza's college reunion at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, to which Tom and bandmate Tony de Paolo often drive their fragile acoustic equipment. BTC always performs two separate nights of music, with date-appropriate songs celebrating the 25th/50th NMT class anniversary and another set for the annual fundraiser for the Victor J. Saracini Memorial Fund. 


To contact or book breakingthecode, please email Caitlin Rother at crother@flash.net.