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A squirt and a song

With rare exceptions - singers and kick drums spring to mind - musicians create their art with their hands. The same is true with Shane Bertrand. There's just no instrument involved. "He carries a song, literally, with his two hands," says Pat Li...

Shane Bertrand

With rare exceptions - singers and kick drums spring to mind - musicians create their art with their hands.

The same is true with Shane Bertrand. There's just no instrument involved.

"He carries a song, literally, with his two hands," says Pat Lipsiea, a longtime friend.

Bertrand is Fargo's best-known, and most likely only, manualist. He can manipulate the air trapped between his cupped hands to create a splattering squeak that he calls squirts - a skill technically called manualism.

"With Shane, it's almost like background noise. When you're around Shane, there's always squirting," says his sister Stacy Johnson.

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After many years of private squirting, to his own surprise, Bertrand's hand music is making some noise. He's been interviewed by radio stations and performed on stage with area bands in recent months and even has a CD for sale at Cheapo and Mothers Records.

"People have always thought it was very odd," he says. "I never knew it would get this much attention."

Manualism is not new by any means.

A 1933 Universal Studios newsreel on archive.org shows an "aspiring radio artist" from Michigan performing a version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Numerous manualists have appeared on late-night talk shows dating back to the Johnny Carson days. It's never moved beyond novelty status, though.

Bertrand got interested in the technique when he was a 9-year-old after listening to a Weird Al Yankovic single for "Eat It," which featured squirts by Mike Kieffer.

"I tried and tried and tried to do it," he says. "It hurt my forearms really bad."

Once Bertrand had squirting down, which he says took about two years, he just kept at it: squirting to the radio, in class, anywhere he could. Johnson, who is four years younger than her brother, says she never remembers a time when Bertrand wasn't the squeaky wheel.

"It bugs some family members, but not me," she says.

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Bertrand admits the once-conscious efforts to improve have become a tic of sorts.

"I'll be sitting there bored, watching TV and my hands will just come together," he says.

Whether deliberate or not, manualism takes a lot of practice. It's rare in part because it's quite hard.

Lipsiea says the natural reaction upon seeing Bertrand in action is to give manualism a try. As Lipsiea has found out, it's not as easy as it looks.

"I'm in rookie-league ball. He's in the major leagues," he says. "How does he turn something so ludicrous into art? It's just insane."

The type of sound and its pitch is changed by the shape Bertrand cups his hands and the force with which he presses out the air. He does not have perfect pitch, so taking requests beyond holiday tunes is a challenge.

Bertrand describes the original music he began recording on a home computer two years ago as "squirt groove" - drum and bass lines with squirts interwoven.

It's not likely to find a large audience, but Lipsiea counsels against writing it off as a joke.

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"It's more than just silly little noises. He's legitimately passionate about it. It's cool to see somebody get into something that much," he says.

Bertrand has squirt-jammed with a handful of local bands, including Christopher Walken Overdrive - a metal band for which he plays lead guitar.

Half of his half-dozen live performances have been with Lipsiea's band, PLX.

The responses are often the same, Lipsiea says.

"They just get this look like, 'Is he really doing this?' It's hard not to be awe-struck the first time," he says.

Johnson, for one, is a fan.

"The CD he made stays in my car. My daughter really likes it. She's one and a half," she says.

As much as his hand music has been taking off in recent months, Bertrand has a new goal in mind: He'd love to convince Yankovic to let him squirt on stage when the parody artist plays the Red River Valley Fair in West Fargo in June.

No response yet from the Yankovic camp, but Bertrand's not giving up.

"I've been bugging him," he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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