July 07, 1997 12:00 PM

CHRISTOPHER SABEC WASN’T SEARCHING for the next pop phenomenon, just lunch. But as the music attorney munched barbecue at an Austin, Texas, music conference three years ago, he was interrupted by a youthful chorus: “Excuse me, sir, may we perform for you?” Looking up, he saw three pint-size boys, each as blond as Macaulay Culkin and ranging in age from 8 to 13. Not wanting to crush their young psyches, he grudgingly agreed. Then, he recalls, he was “blown away” by what he heard. “I need to speak to your parents,” Sabec told them, as the last note faded. “Where are they?”

He quickly signed the three Tulsa brothers, Zachary, now 11, Taylor, 14, and Isaac Hanson, 16, and sent a demo tape of their upbeat, bubblegum sound to hundreds of scouts. One landed on the desk of Mercury Records talent hunter Steve Greenberg. Given the boys’ ages and the quality of the demo, Greenberg says, “I assumed it was fake, that adults were playing the instruments [and] that the vocals had been electronically manipulated.” But just to be sure, he went to hear the Hansons at a county fair in Kansas. “There was not an adult in sight,” says Greenberg.

Today, with a fan base of prepubescent girls, Hanson, as the group is known, is doing handsomely. Their first album, Middle of Nowhere, is well ensconced in the Top 10, and the chart-busting single, “MMMBop” was No. 1 for three weeks in the U.S. and also topped the charts in three European countries. Greenberg notes that the tune’s catchy refrain—Mmmbop-ba-duba-dop—”means the same thing in every language. I’m sure that helps.”

What also undoubtedly helps is musical genes. Their father, Walker Hanson, 42, an oil-company CPA who plays guitar and piano as a hobby, and his wife, Diane, 42, a onetime professional singer, lullabied their young sons to sleep at night. Before long the youngsters were asking Mom and Dad for help writing tunes about the really important things in boys’ lives. “We wrote a lot of songs about frogs and ants,” says Walker, who, with his wife, home-schools their six children (the boys, plus Jessica, 8, Avery, 6, and Mackenzie, 3). For a time, when Walker’s work took the clan to Trinidad, Venezuela and Ecuador, the boys watered their musical roots with a tape of ’50s and ’60s hits such as “Splish Splash” and “Johnny B. Goode.” It was the only tape they had, says drummer Zac. But, he chirps, “that is the best music.”

For Zac, it has been nearly half a lifetime since the boys’ first gig, singing a cappella at a 1992 Tulsa street fair. And their two early vanity-label albums are also forgotten. These days, between cracking wise on the MTV Movie Awards and filming a video for their next single, “Where’s the Love,” the Hansons have been touring Europe and making cultural discoveries: “The nice thing about England,” notes guitarist Ike, “is that they actually speak English.” But the boys are baffled by the melancholy of such grunge gods as the late Kurt Cobain. “If music is what you do, and you love it,” asks singer-keyboardist Taylor, “why would you be sad?”

The boys’ take on fame sounds no less grown-up. “It can go,” warns Ike, “as fast as it can come.” “But,” adds Taylor, “for now, it’s great fun.”

KYLE SMITH

KEN BAKER in Los Angeles and London

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