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We Talked to Larry King About Music

"Music is the key to our lives. It’s universal."
December 23, 2014, 5:50pm

Larry King, photos courtesy of Ora.tv

It’s the end of 2014, and we live in a golden age of artist/fan interaction. Every social media update is scrutinized and every absurd all-caps feud is reported on. We’re all being followed by Lil B. Hell if you’re lucky, you might even get a response on Twitter from Stitches or Harry Styles. So what are some good alternatives to wading through this infatuating river of detritus on our favorite artists?

Larry King—as we found out in his interview with DJ Khaled—has been doing God’s work. He’s been interviewing all your favorite trending artists in shockingly entertaining fashion, taking advantage of his new role for online channel Ora.tv. He has more leeway to talk to pop culture figures than he did on his show for CNN, and, as a result, he's interviewed a ton of rappers this year. You couldn’t imagine some of the shit he’s been getting out of these titans of entertainment. He’s done everything from interviewing Boyz II Men to having Nipsey Hussle on a panel debate about the use of “the N word”—a topic which Larry has been obsessed with this year. He brings it up with nearly every rapper. Yesterday, we chronicled the highlights of these momentous occasions. But we also talked to the radiant 81-year-old about the past, present and future of music—although not, unfortunately, what he would do if he were granted his dream superpower of invisibility.

Noisey: Was it a conscious choice on your part to have more hip-hop on this year?
Larry King: I leave it up to my producers. I’m fascinated with all forms of music. My musical tastes go back to [Frank] Sinatra and Ella [Fitzgerald], so most of these artists are new to me. But I’m fascinated, as I have young children, and they listen to these [musicians]. So sometimes I’ll go home and say, “I interviewed T.I. today,” and I didn’t know who that was going in, but they knew all about him. I’m learning on the run. But enjoying it a lot.

And when you’re going to interview someone like T.I. or Tyler, the Creator, do you listen to their music beforehand or just research them as a person? Can you get into it?
I listen to it a little before. Once I listen to a little, I like to learn everything about ‘em. Tyler, the Creator, was a great guest because we discussed his profanity, his interest in fashion, his creativity. I thought he was a great guest. I liked him a lot.

And when you have someone like Tyler, who curses a lot and puts his feet on the table during the interview, that doesn’t bother you?
Nope. I’ve been doing this for 57 years. I am fascinated with guests and their quirks. I’ve always seen myself as the conduit to the viewer. I try asking questions to bring out what the guest has to say and what makes the guest tick. I let the viewer decide whether they like them or not. My opinion is really irrelevant. I don’t use the word, “I” a lot. So if someone’s quirk is to have hair that’s colored green, red, and yellow, I wouldn’t wear that… but I would try to understand why they wear that color hair. And why is that part of their popularity? I’m not judgemental. I’ve never gone into an interview prejudging the guests.

Prejudice brings me to another subject. Another theme in a lot of these interviews is prejudice and the use of the N word. What made you decide to explore that in major depth this year?
Well it’s been a major topic in the world. The word is a terrible word when done by a white man. It’s a terrible word when said on the football field, especially by a white athlete to a black athlete. But in the black culture, it is not a terrible word when used to talk to each other. I make no judgements. I understand it. I understand that a black person might use the word in an often complimentary about another black person—while it is never complimentary for a white person to use it… just as it is never complimentary for someone to say, “kyke,” or “wop.” I don’t like the Washington Redskins name. I don’t like prejudice of any kind like that. But if a Native American wants to use terminology referring to another Native American, that’s their perogative.

On the music side of things, was there anyone you interviewed, in hip-hop or like EDM or anything, whose music you actually enjoyed?
I’m not a fan of the music. I respect that the music is appreciated by many. But it’s very hard for someone… I’m 81 years old… I’m curious about a lot of things. I’m accepting of a lot of things. To me, lyrics mean Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra singing them. I like to understand them. My kids understand them… I like Jack Antonoff a lot. I think he’s a musical genius. He writes with Taylor Swift, who I think is an incredible artist. I interviewed her a long time ago. So I’m open to everything. As to my own likes: It comes to my own background, which is the swinging era. I thought that was the great music of our times. For example: I like the Beatles, but a lot of the Stones’ music I don’t get. Though I like Mick Jagger. I like Bono as a guy but don’t understand the lyrics. I’ll be honest. I appreciate the artistry of Bruce Springsteen, but a lot of times I don’t know what he’s saying. Some people say that Darkness on the Edge of Town is the best record ever made. It’s kind of weird.

As someone who’s been around the industry for so long, are you confused when you see someone like DJ Khaled who isn’t necessarily making anything, creatively speaking?
He’s very smart. He came on, talked about the Middle East. I found him very intelligent, interesting, provocative. You can tell sometimes when you’re hosting the show if someone who rings a bell with the audience, and he does.

Everything new is old again, I guess. Yeah, sure. I think this is an age of an old Cole Porter song, called “Anything Goes.” For example, I have known Tony Bennett for 15 years. If you had told me that the biggest hit record of the year would be him and Lady Gaga, I would have laughed at that. I talked to Tony, talked to Lady Gaga, and now I understand how that pairing works. If it’s good, it will find its audience. I don’t appreciate hip-hop. But if it’s good hip-hop, and people like it, I understand it finding its audience.

When I listen to music with my dad, he allows four N-bombs before he shuts the music off. Do you let your kids play the music out?
I let them listen to what they want to listen to. I don’t think words can hurt you. I’m an atheist. My wife’s a devout Mormon. She very fervently objects to them listening to songs with curse words. I’m shocked by the amount of curse words played on the radio. That’s the old school in me. I can’t believe that songs with the F word or N word are played on the radio.

What’s your favorite album from 2014?
I have to think about that… probably Michael Buble’s latest album! He had “Cry Me a River.” I think his Christmas album was fantastic. He sells a lot of records, sells out concerts, and I fully appreciate that. I found my 15-year-old the other day was listening to an entire Sinatra album. He was really digging it…while at the same time listening to [making up fake rap names] Coco Dopo and Moppo Dipo and Creepo Crappo and Ice Cream Crap, but I found a joy in it. It’s so different when you relate different eras in music. Like lyrics Irving Berlin would write. You would look at that as corny. It’s not corny to me. McCartney and Lennon on, “Something in the Way She Moves,” I appreciate the lyric. That’s probably the best love song ever written. But I saw John Legend recently at the tribute to Marvin Gaye. I like him. I knew Marvin Gaye. I’ve interviewed a lot of these people over the years. That was a terrific, terrific concert.

You sang some Auto-Tune with T-Pain this year. Are there any plans for further collaboration?
If they asked me to do one, bring a little Jewish element to it. I would love to do something with Snoop. I dig all this. I’m youthful in my frame of mind. If you asked me to sing a rap song with them, I would go do it.

What would your point of view be?
I’ll tell you the truth. I wrote the first line of a country song. I think it could be a guaranteed hit. Wanna hear it?

I would love to.
“I’d rather be homeless than be home with you.”

I like that, it’s really good.
You have to think about it. [Starts singing] “I’d rather be homeless than home with you, you’ve been such a terrific bore. I’d rather be homeless than be home with you, this way I could hear myself snore.” See what I mean? I like country music because it’s about telling a story.

That was wonderful. I saw you were on Norm MacDonald’s show this year. Do you two share a love of country music?
I love Norm MacDonald. Norm does the best impression of me. It was on Saturday Night Live. He’s terrific. I like Annie Lennox a lot, though.

Oh yeah, I saw she was coming on the show. Where do you think music’s headed as an industry?
That’s what I’ve been asking a lot of guests this year. My father-in-law was the A&R man at Capitol Records years ago. And he was telling me how changed everything is. My wife’s recording this song that’s coming out next year… This is a great story. Paul McCartney was at my house playing piano. And he told her—she’s a terrific singer—to record, “I Will.” And she recorded another Beatles song with Glen Campbell, and David Foster produced it, and it’ll be out next year. It’s an incredible duet. I love the way music blends together. I asked Rivers Cuomo today where his favorite place to play is, and he said Osaka, Japan. He was saying how they don’t necessarily understand the lyrics but jump along with them. I’m amazed at how many of these rock or hip-hop artists are known around the world.

What do you use to listen to music?
I use SiriusXM. When my kids get in the car it’s FM 96.3 with a disc jockey that don’t make no sense. Now they've got a new station where you can hear Indian music. I’m talkin’ from India.

Do you like it?
No! There is no famous harpist in the world. You could not tell me a famous harpist. Indians love harpists.

I do know one. Joanna Newsom.
You’re kidding. Mark Twain, great American writer Mark Twain, once said: “People hate harps. There’s no famous harpist. No one goes to a harp recital. Yet people believe that when they die, they’re gonna go to heaven, where they get harps 24 hours a day. And they can’t wait to get there.”

I’m telling you, you should get Joanna Newsom on your show. She’s married to Andy Samberg.
She’s a great harpist?

I think she’s considered to be an excellent harpist. And she’s young!
Well… can you tell me one of her harp hits?

[I burst out laughing and can’t stop for some reason] No, I’m sorry. I can’t.
This interview isn’t what you expected, is it?

It’s certainly better.
I’m looking at pictures of Joanna Newsom now. She’s a lovely girl, very young. And in only one picture she has a harp.

You could ask her, ‘Why do you play the harp?’
I’d love to talk to a harpist. The only harpist I ever knew was Harpo Marx.

Who are some musicians you haven’t had on yet that you’d like to?
My staff picks a lot of them. We’re having Kid Ink on in January. It’d be fascinating to learn why he chose that name. Why would you call yourself Kid Ink?

Because he’s riddled with tattoos.
Well, they all are. [Producer jumps in to name some DJs they’ll be having on in the next year] It’s amazing to me that DJs become famous.

Have you ever seen an EDM show?
Only in Vegas. The guys play these records back and forth, and the crowd goes insane. But they get a lot of money. I guess they have a sense of taste and know what the audience likes. And they know how to keep an evening moving… This show, “Larry King Now,” is the most I’ve done with modern musical artists. We didn’t do it over at CNN. We’d do it over at CNN if they’d killed somebody [laughs]. I’d be on the lookout if they were wanted. “Mopey Joe Wink! Wanted for the murder of his parents! See it tonight. Listen to the whole grisly story.”

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
I’m very happy to meet these people. To learn about what young people are listening and dancing to. It makes me feel young. I don’t feel my age. Every time I interview someone younger I feel that. Music is the key to our lives. It’s universal, it is what it is, it goes through changes, and I do agree that today, anything goes.

What are you doing for New Year's Eve?
My family has a home in Utah that we’re going to. My 15-year-old son’s going to play in a baseball stadium in Australia. My kids are all flying up to Utah. I guess I’ll have a good time. I say I guess because I don’t ski. I go up to Robert Redford’s place. I usually have one evening with him. We search for the New York Times. Watch TV, go to movies, be bored a lot. Happy to be around the family. I host the annual Christmas party at my house. My wife invites about 300 Mormons over to watch an atheist Jew make a fool of himself.

Jonathan Peltz is Noisey's Chief Larry King Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.