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On two new releases, fans can hear Mark Sandman’s ‘secret band’ in full

Mark Sandman (left) with bandmates Mike Rivard and Tom Halter (partially shown) at a Hypnosonics show at the Middle East in 1987 or 1988.
Mark Sandman (left) with bandmates Mike Rivard and Tom Halter (partially shown) at a Hypnosonics show at the Middle East in 1987 or 1988.Wayne Valdez

Mark Sandman had a “secret band.” Or at least, that’s how the man who made his mark in Boston and beyond with Treat Her Right and Morphine singled out Hypnosonics, one of the many bands the inveterate collaborator was involved in alongside those famous outfits.

Why Sandman thought it deserved that epithet is not entirely clear. Russ Gershon, long-time inhabitant of the Boston music landscape with jazz group Either/Orchestra, can only speculate. Gershon was a member of Hypnosonics pretty much from the get-go until the group was abruptly ended by Sandman’s untimely death in 1999, and he provides extensive liner notes for a pair of albums out Friday on Yep Roc Records’ Modern Harmonic imprint. “Someone Stole My Shoes: Beyond The Q Division Sessions” collects the songs from the band’s sole studio recording session, in 1989; “Drums Were Beating: Fort Apache Studios 1996” recovers a WFNX live radio broadcast.

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“He may have just have made it up one day, and it stuck,” Gershon says by phone. “Or maybe it’s because everybody was so busy with other bands that in his mind it was a harder band to get together. I’m not really sure.”

What Gershon is sure of is how much fun the band was, and how it developed what he terms a “small but intense” following during its 13-year run. “It was everybody’s favorite side project,” he recalls. “It was a great thing to come back to from our more intensely managed projects.”

Gershon puts the band’s advent at 1985 or 1986. He first became aware of Sandman a few years earlier and eventually got to know him through interactions in the local music world. One day Sandman surprised Gershon by saying that he wanted to do a guest vocal spot with the then-barely-off the ground Either/Orchestra. That led to recurring Sandman appearances, while Gershon started participating in Sandman’s biweekly multi-artist “Subsonic Revue” events at venerable Cambridge bar the Plough and Stars. A settled version of Hypnosonics, composed of Sandman, Gershon, and other members of Either/Orchestra, grew out of those seeds; Morphine’s formidable sax man Dana Colley joined Gershon and trumpet player Tom Halter in the horn section a few years later.

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The band mated horn-driven, bass-popping funk to Sandman’s inimitable, ever-present sonic sensibilities; Gershon’s shorthand for what resulted is the contradictory but entirely apt label “minimalist funk.”

“There was the quirkiness of Mark’s songwriting, and then the non-traditional approach to funk that Tom and I brought through the horn parts. Sometimes we were getting into the basics of the James Brown kind of thing, because certainly we’d played music like that before, but just the way Mark put his riffs together to suggest some different stuff, it pushed us in different directions.”

Sandman was one of those rare artists who have the ability to change the way everybody else plays around them, Gershon says, and that manifested itself in the sound of the band as well. He and Halter were doing a lot of very arranged, complicated music as well as group improvisation in Either/Orchestra, and they brought that to Hypnosonics. “But Mark was always about paring things down, keeping them simple, so Tom and I were constantly trying to figure out how to improvise and take it to different places while still respecting Mark’s minimalist aesthetic.”

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Other than a few tracks included on 2004′s “Sandbox,” an anthology of Sandman’s music, these are the first official releases of Hypnosonics material. Why now, more than 20 years after Sandman’s passing, and not earlier? The main reason was inertia, according to Gershon. “Mark was the leader, manager, business point man. Of course, he died, and none of the rest of us felt in charge enough to do anything. And everybody else had their other bands and moved on with their careers and so nobody really took the bull by the horns.”

But a couple of years ago, Hypnosonics bass player Mike Rivard sent some material to Yep Roc Records, and the label expressed interest in releasing it. “Mike and Dana Colley and I were sort of the executive committee, but everything was moving slowly until the pandemic hit. All three of us had a lot more time on our hands and we were able to concentrate on it. I was sitting around with nothing to do, and the label said, ‘Does somebody want to write some program notes?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’ve got nothing to do,’ which is why they’re practically as long as ‘War and Peace.’ ”

These may not be the only artifacts of that era to see the light of day; Gershon holds out the possibility of more. “Now that we’ve started looking, there are some pretty good high fidelity live recordings that would be worthy of release,” including one at the Knitting Factory in New York that he thinks captures the band at its finest.

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“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to save it. We feel like if people like these ones and they want to hear more, we have one where the fidelity might not be quite as good but the performance is even better.”

Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro@verizon.net.