HAVING AN IMAGINARY friend at the age of 28 may seem strange. Some people might even call it crazy. But what about an imaginary town,

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Hypatia Lake journey to the center of your mindand bring candy.

HAVING AN IMAGINARY friend at the age of 28 may seem strange. Some people might even call it crazy. But what about an imaginary town, populated with imaginary people? Even crazier, right? Hypatia Lake don't think so. With their debut album, Your Universe, Your Mind (Sad Robot), they hope to convince listeners to close their eyes and believe. The albumand the bandtaps into our residual childhood curiosities, falling somewhere between rock and roll, performance art, and a production of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on acid.

The group derives its name from a town that exists only in the minds of its band members: Lance Watkins, 28, singer- guitarist; Shane Browning, 31, bassist; and Randy Skrasek, 28, drummer-keyboardist. A utopia of sorts, the city's main export is candy, and the listener alone has the power to control the fate of the town's citizens. "A town is a large and constantly evolving thing," said Skrasek. "The whole idea with being a concept band is being able to relate the experiences of the characters in the town to the lives of our listeners. The songs are never going to be stuck in a band that just writes sad love songs. We can create as many characters as we want. Characters can die and show up again. The sky's the limit."

Watkins came up with the idea in 1999 while living in Oklahoma, where Skrasek also grew up. The band took shape after Watkins and Skrasek relocated to Seattle in 2000, where they met Browning and guitarist Jared Hill, who was recently asked to leave the band due to "musical differences." (The band declined to comment further.) Some critics have tagged Your Universe as a depressing shoe-gaze album, but the band insists its work is really meant to inspire hope. "'Hope' is an awareness of what's going on around you," said Watkins. "We want people to get angry and question the things that are happening around them. It doesn't make sense for us to write an album about how horrible things are and not offer a solution. If people can become aware of their circumstances, then maybe they can change [them]. The overwhelming theme of this album is to question what's going on. It's kind of up to [the listeners] to open their eyes and look aroundhence the title, Your Universe, Your Mind."

That theme is exemplified in the opening track, "Everyone Has a Jeremiah Freud," whose title character, according to Watkins, "[is] this 65-year-old, whiskey-drinking lonely cowboy archetype figure. He's heartbroken and lonely and drinks to forget. I came up with him because I could see a little of his character in everyone." In the song, one can imagine that Freud is depicted dueling with himself at a high-noon showdown, making the idea of being one's own worst enemy simultaneously more literal and more fantastical. Over slow, meditative guitar jangles, Watkins builds suspense, whispering into empty space until you can practically hear the wind blowing through Freud's ramshackle hut and see tumbleweeds rolling by. At one point, the song becomes so faint that you think Freud has given uponly for the music to kick back in, the drumbeat mounting and the guitars raging against the fates. In the end, Freud hastake your pickeither won or died trying to save himself.

SIMILAR STRUGGLES play out for other characters on Your Universe. In Hypatia Lake, life revolves around the town's candy factory, where most residents are employed. But the real stories of their lives take place before they punch in at 9 a.m. and after they punch out at 5 p.m.

"I started to think of what's the most harmless thing in the world, and I immediately thought of candy," said Watkins. "But imagine being someone who has to package it all day, every day. Eight-hour shifts working on a line. That's enough to make anyone crazy and rebel against whatever is forcing them to work this crappy job day in and day out."

The magic of this town is that fantasy can become reality, and the workers do rebel. With customized samples (the band members recorded themselves acting out parts for the songs) and sound effects, Your Universe's "The Goddamn Factory and Cog 'n' Wheel Day" begins with several men lamenting their situations. Machinery faintly churns in the background. The cheerful strumming of a guitar interjects. Slowly, Watkins' sweet, boyish voice drowns out all other sounds. As one of the album's more upbeat numbers, the song showcases the band's love for disorder, distortion pedals, and voice filters. The combination of effects adds authenticity to the story and body to their ideas.

Although relying heavily on gadgets and electronic equipment, the band is well known for its tight and inventive performances. "We work really hard to keep our live shows seamless," said Skrasek. "It's important that the crowd not be taken out of the mood. It would be like having a cell phone ring during the climax of a movie." After all, when faced with cowboys, candy, and good ole-fashioned make-believe, it's probably best to close your eyes and let your imagination run wild.

Hypatia Lake play with Nordic, Terror Sheets, and Deborah Bartley at Sunset Tavern, 9 p.m. Fri., Aug. 15. $7.

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