With new album ‘Like Before,’ Non La brings fuzz, fun and filth

The Vancouver musician and comedian talks bathhouse culture, romance and the Spice Girls

Growing up as a Taiwanese-Vietnamese ’90s kid in Vancouver, DJ On didn’t have many musical heroes to look up to—until he discovered the Spice Girls’ campy biopic, Spice World. “It’s one of the funniest movies ever!” declares On, also known as indie rock artist Non La. “The Spice Girls looked like they were having a great time onstage, and that seemed like the best life ever. This wasn’t me thinking about a job or anything, but I wanted to do what they did—just singing and being silly with friends.” 

That dream planted the seed for his music as Non La, and has now come to fruition on his sophomore album, Like Before, out March 29 on Mint Records.

On picked up the guitar at 10, taking him on what he describes as “the typical teen journey through music.” Led Zeppelin led to Nirvana, before the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” taught him his first riff. “I felt like a quiet nerd in high school band class,” he admits. “The guitar is where I found my power.” Then, On discovered queer feminist punk band Sleater-Kinney and found himself in their music. “That was the first time I saw someone who wasn’t a cis hetero male shredding on guitar,” he says. “It inspired me to also want to shred.”

In his early 20s, On bounced around the Vancouver DIY music community, playing bass in various bands before building the confidence to perform solo. When his bandmates were busy with school, On began mining his personal experiences for punchlines in his simultaneous path as a stand-up comedian. “As a queer person of colour, I never saw myself reflected in anyone,” he says. “That really affected how I saw myself and where I fit, so I decided to stay in a supporting role.” 

Non La is a reclamation of his identity, named for the traditional Vietnamese conical hat. “I used to be embarrassed when my parents would go out in the sun and wear their non la,” he explains. “It’s this cultural item that I had a complicated relationship with when I was younger, but I love it now.” Pushing away negative thoughts about his self-worth as he began writing songs about himself, On says “it took me five years of being active in the local music scene to decide to start taking up space.”


On’s experience with self-discovery began closer to home, at a much younger age, when several of his 20 cousins started teasing him for being feminine. He recalls his family members telling him about the time he had an anger meltdown for not being allowed to wear dresses like his sister. “I wasn’t thinking about my sexuality or who I was attracted to at that time,” says On. “It was later when I started wondering why I wanted to kiss my best friend.”

This yearning for romance inspired the lyrics of Non La’s 2020 debut album, Not in Love, with vulnerable songs like “Wait 4 U” and “Light In My Loafers.” “A lot of what I’ve been trying to do is provide representation that my younger self wouldn’t have had, and to make younger me proud,” says On. “When I made that album, I hadn’t been in a relationship.” Meeting his romantic partner at a Steamworks bathhouse altered Non La’s lyrical direction and sparked the song “Dark Room,” the opener to his fuzzy, funny and filthy sophomore album, Like Before.

“When people ask how we met, I say we have a vintage gay love story,” he says. “It’s nice to think I’m part of something bigger than myself that has been passed down from generation to generation.” 

Though bathhouses or porn theatres are often considered unseemly, On deepened his understanding with these spaces while receiving his degree in gender studies from Simon Fraser University. Looking back at a course about the queering of spaces, he recommends Samuel R. Delany’s book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. “There’s a lot of contempt for gay saunas,” says On. “But they’re a safe place for young queer men to socialize and explore their sexuality.”

This frankness of his perspective matches the stark, lo-fi sound of Like Before, recorded over two nights with producer Gal Av-Gay, who also performs with On in the band Megamall. Besides the album’s dreamy backing vocals from Lindsay Stewart, On’s former band member in Maneater, he played every instrument. “I love collaborating, but I’m also a Leo who loves to have control without any compromises,” On says, laughing. 

Despite Like Before’s limited personnel, there’s plenty of variation within the album’s 12 songs, from skronky rockers like “Hold Me Down” to the epic sad boi anthem “Into the Water.” A massive synth hook punctuates the album’s blown-out title track, as On’s clever wordplay twists up the meanings of “having it in me” and “having you in me.” “I want my music to be serious,” he says, “but I can’t help saying ‘cum’ in my lyrics.”

In his ambitions as a musician and stand-up comic, On has surveyed the approaches of his contemporaries and boldly driven in the opposite direction. “When Non La started, a lot of queer artists were making music that was almost like torture porn about how sad their lives were,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that, so the first album was really crisp and shimmery.” 

The stripped-down sound of Like Before invites listeners in, brimming with the confidence of a singer asking audience members to step a few feet closer to the stage. “After falling in love, it made me more introspective about my life as a queer artist,” On says. “There’s this myth that being in a relationship will solve all your problems, but you just find new things to be depressed about. A lot of the album is reckoning with that.”

Jesse Locke

Jesse Locke (he/him) is a writer and musician based in the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, also known as Vancouver. He has contributed to outlets such as Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, SPIN, The Wire, CBC Music, Xtra, Musicworks and Aquarium Drunkard. Jesse is the co-founder of the We Are Time record label, and has played drums with the bands Tough Age, Big Rig and CHANDRA. Follow him on social media!

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Music, Culture, Profile, indie, music, Canada, rock, Vancouver

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