They were the hot band. The next Kings of Leon. The hipster indie-kids singing decadent blues-drenched rock that would soon headline a festival near you.

And then they weren't.

"We sort of lost people's attention for a little bit," sighs frontman Nathan Willet, on the phone ahead of the band's New Zealand debut this weekend.

He's remembering the chorus of disapproval that met Loyalty To Loyalty, the follow-up to Cold War Kids' acclaimed 2006 debut Robbers & Cowards that set the Californian five-piece back in a big way.


Criticised for lacking direction, it failed to capitalise on the enormous popularity of Robbers & Cowards, one reviewer summing it up as a "disappointing stumble".

Willet puts Loyalty To Loyalty's faults down to growing pains.

"We were like, 'All right, we did things our way, and it worked out this time, we'll do it our way again'," he says.

"In reality, I think a band always needs a little bit of guidance and help on the second record."

Criticism of unevenness across albums has stuck - perhaps unfairly - with the group ever since.

Several EPs experimented with different sounds but failed to fire, while third album Mine Is Yours tried to upsize their sound to stadium anthems, but was cut down for sounding too mainstream.

Willett himself calls it "the strangest period for the band".

By the time the excellently upbeat but underrated Dear Miss Lonelyhearts slipped under the radar in 2013, it seemed like Cold War Kids' time had come.

That was until last year's Hold My Home arrived, chock full of their best songs yet.

Across songs like Hot Coals and Go Quietly, they seemed to find the confidence they'd been missing since Robbers & Cowards.

Propelled by the success of hit single First, it's seen Cold War Kids hitting the comeback trail, returning to festivals and reigniting their fanbase.

That includes their first visit here with a free iHeartRadio and 2Degrees show in Christchurch on Friday and an evening slot at Auckland City Limits on Saturday.

Willett says First's success came as a total surprise - it wasn't even meant to be on the album.

"We were done with the record. We had other songs we wanted to finish as a potential B-sides and this was one of those songs."

Bass player Matt Maust persuaded him to finish it, and they rejigged the album at the last minute to fit it on. Willett says First still feels unfinished, but says it conveys the emotions he was trying to get across.

"If I thought it would become what it became I would have cleaned it up, made it more poignant. But I kind of love that it came out the way it did."

Love, as well as break-ups, divorce and broken homes, are a regular lyrical thread across Cold War Kids' five albums.

Willett says fans often want to know whether his words, which he painstakingly crafts on his own, refer to real life events.

"They're personal. Some of them are more vague, some are more specific, it's kind of all over.

"After the first record people wanted to talk about what's real and what's fiction. To me it's all in a blender."

He admits fans, and some critics, spend too much time overanalysing his words. But they are personal. He admits there are Cold War Kids songs we won't hear him sing at this weekend's performances.

"Part of what's strange about songwriting is that it's that snapshot effect, you take a picture and it really represents just one kind of moment. There are songs (I can't play live). That Mine is Yours record was definitely the strangest period for the band. It was hard to know where we were going. We were trying things to follow where they led.

"I'm just grateful we've been able to exist so long to put out five records and find our way on our own, to what we do best."

Who: Cold War Kids
Where and when: Auckland City Limits, March 19, Western Springs
Also: Playing free iHeartRadio and 2Degrees show at The Bedford in Christchurch on March 18
Latest album: Hold My Home, out now